As I sat at my grandmother’s kitchen table in Methuen early last month, sipping tea and listening to stories in the house where she raised her three children, the conversation shifted seamlessly to her declining health.
She pointed to the refrigerator and asked me whether the piece of paper affixed to the side of her fridge with a magnet was pink, or a light orange.
“It’s pink, Grams,” I told her, staring at the “do not resuscitate” notice kept in plain sight, right where the paramedics might find it one day.
She was 94, and the words “social distancing” weren’t part of our daily vocabulary. The state had just a few early cases of COVID-19. It was before colleges and businesses closed, before I’d come to realize I might never have tea with her face-to-face again.
In a few weeks’ time, the grip of the coronavirus would tighten, rapidly and drastically upending nearly every facet of daily life. Due to my grandmother’s age and preexisting health conditions, it meant we would be forced to celebrate her 95th birthday in late March in a very different way: from the safety of her front lawn, clutching balloons and eating cake as she peered out from behind the shimmering plexiglass of her storm door, waving.
We can’t stand close, we can’t embrace, and the distance can feel punishing. But we are still here for each other. And in some strange way, the inventive solutions people have cobbled together to celebrate the birthdays, the graduations, and the weddings of their loved ones are proving to be more touching than the conventional gatherings once held during normal times. They’re revealing how remarkably far we’re willing to go to stay close to each other.
“It would be easy, I guess, in the face of all of this for us to give up on all of the things that are important to us," said Rebecca Stone, who recently held a Zoom birthday party for her 4-year-old son, Cameron. “But instead, we’re going to these extraordinary lengths to still celebrate things for each other, even if we can’t be together."
Stone, an assistant professor of sociology at Suffolk University, said she had never imagined sitting her son down in front of a computer screen to blow out candles and open presents with family from all over the world. But she and her husband, Jason, made do. And it was memorable in its own right.
“We knew we needed to do something,” she said. “It’s still so human to celebrate, and we are making it happen even in the face of this historic event.”
Dr. Renée Moran found herself in a predicament last month when the Warrior Ice Arena told her it was closing due to the threat of the coronavirus, and they could no longer host her child’s birthday party, which was supposed to take place in early April.
So Moran and her husband got creative. They called the parents of all of their daughter’s friends and organized a “birthday parade” to drive by their house in Newton.
On April 2, the vehicles — trucks from the Newton Fire Department included — cruised by as 6-year-old Stella, wearing a pink crown and frilly long skirt, looked on. A giant inflatable birthday cake stood behind her on the front lawn as her friends held up signs from car windows and their parents honked their horns and blared music.
Moran had worried that being shut in would sour Stella’s big day. But in the end, it was the opposite.
“She said to me, ‘Mom, this is the best birthday ever,’ ” Moran said. “I think [these moments] will be memorable. She will always remember this year that she had a birthday party that all these kids drove by her house, and honked their horns, and made signs for her, and had balloons hanging out of their car."
There is a certain bittersweet joy in seeing that our old customs are enduring in our new world.
In recent weeks, images and videos of other milestones have emerged online, familiar celebrations in unfamiliar formats: a virtual commencement ceremony for 135 newly minted doctors; a makeshift exchange of nuptials — the couple surrounded by strangers standing more than six feet away in the Public Garden — and two grandparents holding a sign to welcome their grandchild into the world from 10 stories below a hospital room window.
My family decided the best way to celebrate my grandmother’s 95th birthday was a surprise party from a distance, something I’d seen happening online. I’ve spent the bulk of my career scraping the Internet for uplifting or unusual stories in our communities. This time I was inspired by the actions of the people I often interview.
I picked up balloons from a nearby supermarket and packed my brother, fiancee, and daughter into the car. We drove 30 miles north of Boston and met my parents (at a safe distance) at the end of the pathway that leads to my grandmother’s front door.
My mother walked to the top of the steps, wearing a mask and gloves, and opened the door just a crack to invite my grandmother to look outside. We awkwardly sang two rounds of “Happy Birthday” before dividing up a cake and eating it on the grass.
There were no hugs. No kissing her on the top of her head. No sitting down at the table where I had eaten meals next to her for decades, teasing her about all the tea that she drinks.
We yelled what we could: “We love you, Grams.”
Somehow, it felt like enough.