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Despite COVID, birthdays still worth celebrating

Colette Komm celebrates her second pandemic birthday in Central Park on March 13 with friends and a coronavirus piñata. She calls her last birthday, when she turned 38, “the birthday that was lost to history.”

COLETTE KOMM

By TRAVIS M. ANDREWS | The Washington Post | Published: March 25, 2021

Colette Komm and her friends walked up Central Park West on March 13, carrying what looked like an enormous coronavirus particle hanging from PVC pipe, “like a giant pig we were going to roast.”

New Yorkers enjoying the gorgeous day kept stopping the crew to request a photo and the answer to the natural question: What the heck is that? Komm explained it was a seven-pound piñata that they were taking to the park to destroy with a wooden stick.

The group of 10 tied it to a tree branch, and each took a swing or two. One swung underhand, imagining smacking the virus “in its balls.” The death blow went to the respiratory therapist in the group because, Komm said, “if anyone deserves to smash this thing to smithereens, it’s him.”

He put quite the hole in it, candy and hand sanitizer flying everywhere. But the bottom still clung on. Like the actual virus these days, it found itself on its last protein spikes. So Komm took one more big swing to finish it off.

“Everyone was like, ‘This is the most fun we’ve had in a year,’” she said.

The cause for occasion: celebrating her second pandemic birthday.

Remember those birthdays last March, when COVID-19 still felt new? Zoom was still a novelty. Friends drove by and honked their horns. They were decent enough substitutes. Maybe even charming ones.

Some didn’t get to have celebrations at all. Plans were ruined, trips canceled. Even still, it all had the feeling of a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing — a story to tell.

But now these unfortunate Pisces and Aries have to do it all again. Some still feel too burned by last year’s disappointment to muster any effort, while others have decided on some sort of safe celebration, pandemic be damned. There’s no right answer here. Maybe you can turn these lemons into lemon cake. But for some, it’ll still taste sour.

D.C.’s Sarah Rutherford, who just turned 31, is one of the few whose celebration improved with her second coronavirus birthday, which she spent hiking in Big Bend National Park in West Texas after two months as a “digital nomad” in Austin. A far cry from her first, when her co-workers were packing up the office and couldn’t buy her a pie from her favorite local shop — so they handed her a photograph of one instead.

Nikki Miller-Ka takes her birthday seriously: It’s “the only day that is yours, that belongs to you.” She usually likes to celebrate with a “grand affair” involving great numbers of friends and family members at a Greensboro, N.C., restaurant. One year, she took herself to Paris. And she always does some volunteer work.

Last year, though, she couldn’t do any of that. Instead, she picked up crab legs from the grocery store, made a cake and shared both at home with her boyfriend. Some friends stopped by to drop off gifts while keeping their distance.

“Not that it wasn’t special,” she said. “But, it really was kind of lackluster.”

This April, she’ll turn 40, and she doesn’t want to give the pandemic another victory. She’s considering an all-day Zoom, in which friends can drop by whenever they would like throughout the day to share a digital drink or two. She’ll invite guests to donate to their favorite local charity in an increment of four.

Then there’s Komm and her piñata. The cathartic Central Park festivities were a far cry from her 38th, which she calls “the birthday that was lost to history.” She returned to New York City from a trip minutes into her birthday, a little after midnight March 13, 2020. The dinner she had planned with her friends was quickly replaced with trips to five stores to stock up for shutdown.

“It was really the worst pandemic birthday, because it wasn’t really a birthday,” she said. It was the day the United States declared a national emergency, when everything shut down. “It wasn’t before it happened, when people could still celebrate, and it wasn’t after, when people could commiserate.”

The second one had to be special. So, she made the coronavirus piñata. She had considered filling it with a smaller coronavirus piñata. But her apartment already housed a coronavirus disco ball she made earlier in the year.

“I was just like, ‘How many coronaviruses does one girl need?’ “ Her friends were grateful for the decision.

For some, the occasion of a second pandemic birthday can conjure wistful memories of a first.

Nicole Shanique had what promised to be a life-altering 35th birthday. She was headed from her home in New York to London on her first solo trip.

Her flight would have been March 13.

“I was very, very sad on the day of. I was ready to push myself out of my comfort zone,” Shanique said. The idea of traveling to a foreign country by herself as a woman originally gave her pause, but she planned to push through her fear. She never got the chance.

This year, she doesn’t want her hopes dashed again. She’s going to wait until things normalize and finally take her trip. She is grateful that nothing like this ruined her childhood birthdays.

“We’re adults. We can say, ‘OK, fine. This happened. We’ll do something else,’” Shanique said. “But if you’re a kid and this happens to you, I can’t even imagine.”

Parker Boynton can. Her first pandemic birthday in April originally promised to be a true barnburner, by a 4-year-old’s standards. She’d been talking about it nonstop for months, said her mom, Kelly Boynton. It was going to be her first big birthday party.

Instead, Kelly was forced to improvise. She used the video service VidDay to compile birthday messages from Parker’s preschool teachers, classmates and extended family.

“We sat her down on her birthday and played it for her,” Kelly said. “She replayed it another five times.”

“She spent the next year talking about ‘When COVID is over, I’m going to have a party,’” Kelly added. They live in California, where cases remain high. Maybe they’ll have a small outside gathering of Parker’s preschool friends. Maybe she’ll see her grandparents, who are vaccinated. “I just don’t know yet what to do.”

Some families have seen multiple pandemic birthdays. Jade Brooks-Bartlett turned 26 a few weeks after shutdown began, trading a night out for a couple of glasses of wine in her parent’s neighbor’s yard. Even more dispiriting to the self-described workaholic who freelances in theater was that work was drying up as venues shut down.

“I was in a state of work withdrawal,” Brooks-Bartlett, who lives in Silver Spring, Md., said. “I was not doing well emotionally at all.”

Perhaps the best part of her looming 27th is that she might get to spend it working, since many theaters have transitioned to staging shows on Zoom.

When lockdown began, her mother, Heather Brooks,was just about to celebrate her 50th with a 1970s-themed party replete with a vintage breakfast cereal bar, the drawing game Spirograph and candy cigarettes. She had a rainbow-striped sequined jumpsuit picked out. Instead, she opened gifts on Facebook Live.

This year will be another quiet one — just her, her husband and her mother-in-law. She joked she’s “holding on to 49 until we can have a party.”

Brooks now sees birthdays in a slightly different light. Sure, the pared-down events feel unsatisfactory. But the ability to have one offers ample cause for gratitude. Having a second pandemic birthday is actually a blessing. After all, more than 500,000 can’t, her father-in-law among them.

“It is an accomplishment to make it another year,” she said. “I don’t care if you’re turning 25 or turning 75. The pandemic makes you understand how fragile and precious life is, to a degree we didn’t have to look at before. So, I think I will give my birthdays a little more honor than I used to.”