Water welled up in Ella’s eyes, but it had not yet formed tears. The water-works came soon after I slid in next to her in the van. She had gone outside to take refuge from a conversation about why she wouldn’t try out for the volleyball team at her new school. At 13, Ella was unprepared to defend herself against her uncle’s persistent advice. However, it wasn’t he who had triggered the tears; rather, it was some past argument with her mother when she had quit the team at her former school the previous year.
It was Saturday football extravaganza at my niece’s house where I’ve been staying temporarily. Everyone had gathered for wings and pizza and hours of non-stop college games in a relatively virus-free environment. When only a rerun of Disney’s animated Mulan could cheer Ella up, I gladly retreated to a football-free zone to watch a movie with my granddaughter.
Ella and I cuddled up on the couch while I got constant texts from my grandnephew about how my team was faring—we had a bet and I lost. Then, the happy birthday messages began to arrive via Messenger and WhatsApp from Cambodia and China. The conclusion of my 78th year had already begun halfway around the world, 12 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time. I eyed the box containing my birthday present from my eldest daughter and wondered if I could open it on Cambodian time rather than wait until morning. In the meantime, Ella went home. She would be back with her parents on Sunday to celebrate my birthday over steaks and Champagne.
I pulled open the box and took out a familiar Amazon gift bag. My hands hovered over the bow, but I did not untie the ribbon. Instead, knowing how limited my birthday options would be during the pandemic, I decided I needed every COVID-safe sweet surprise that I could garner on the big day.
Friends on Facebook, where I have an account that I seldom use, were notified, and so there were lots of posted greetings; my email inbox, too, was beginning to fill up with virtual cards and wishes. European friends were checking in. My siblings promised to sing to me via Zoom later in the day.
I brought the morning coffee down to my bedroom to enjoy in the darkness and quiet of the new day. After my morning ritual meditation, I opened my iPhone to read the day’s New York Times headlines, but they were as depressing as ever. So I decided that it would be a news-free day, and I opened a YouTube video sent from my Swiss friend instead. It was the happiest version of “Happy Birthday” that I have ever heard. I played it several times.
I had been despondent over the lack of things I could do and the people I could see on my special day…but in the end, just being lucky enough to start a new year at my age fortified with lots of virtual wishes from friends and family around the world was pretty darn good. Life has changed with the pandemic, but love has not.