When the Present Is the Present

How turning 16 in quarantine was the sweetest one of all.

JJ-stockstudio / Shutterstock
JJ-stockstudio / Shutterstock

I’ve spent most of my life planning for the future. Looking ahead. Booking that trip. Creating the party. Arranging the chairs.

Since the quarantine has other plans for us, how does one mark a milestone? Or more importantly, celebrate someone you love so dear and want to honor?

These were the questions that kept me up at night the past several weeks as my daughter’s Sweet Sixteen birthday was fast approaching. Sixteen in quarantine. Argh. Our original plan to take Sofia and a friend to Universal Studios was no longer happening. Nor would a birthday dinner at a restaurant with friends. Even sharing a piece of birthday cake with her grandmother was literally off the table. How was I going to fête my Sofia in a way that could lift us out of our current situation? She had a full day of classes on Zoom planned and the thought of more Zoom meetings — even with her favorite people wishing her “Happy Birthday” — felt lackluster, even depressing.

So, I asked for help. Sometimes, it takes a village — even if the village is masked, gloved or huddled in their huts. They sent video shoutouts. They sent presents. They mailed and emailed personal letters.

Sofia’s birthday came yesterday, and we kicked it off with a 16-minute movie comprised of all those wonderful personal recordings. “Pictures of You” by The Cure played as photos and video snippets of my kid through the years passed by on the screen. There were warm wishes from friends old and new, a sweet rendition of “Kashmir” on an acoustic guitar, and a family chorus of that ubiquitous birthday song. Her eyes widened as the shout-outs followed from one person to the next. I watched her marvel at all the faces, moved by their sincerity, surprised by those she never would have expected and the ones she didn’t know felt this way. It was a delicious overwhelming. Their hearts were touching hers, without gloves or masks. Gone even was the distance. Here, in her hands, she held dozens of people letting her know how important she was to them.

Sofia isn’t the sentimental type, but she teared up watching an old friend share the impact she had on her life. Or seeing her 89-year-old Mema, for only the second time since quarantine, tell her what a sweet person she is, while pictures of the two of them, in younger days, rolled by. Then came the laughs when a dear friend broke into a funky dance to “In Da Club.” There were surprise appearances by certain kids followed by cringing and a grilling of Oh God mom, please tell me you didn’t reach out to him? There was her dear uncle singing in front of a background collage of Sofia photos. And I’m not talking the quotidian background that you see on your Zoom meetings — I’m talking a handcrafted photo collage! Old school, baby. There was joy. There was so much joy. The movie ended with a montage of our blended families singing “Happy Birthday” and a cute little appearance by two special toddlers.

During her lunch hour, it was time for Gift No. 2. The book. With the help of Printique, I was able to create a beautiful bound album of all the letters and photos I’d collected. There was a note from her favorite English teacher. One from her current advisor. She flipped through the glossy book to a four-page letter from her cousin, better known as her “big sister.” It came complete with a bullet list of hard-worn advice from this wise college student, like It’s OK not to follow the crowd, and Never mix hard ale and Gatorade.

One friend wrote openly about what their friendship meant to her, echoing Sofia’s own feelings. Another recounted funny highlights and mishaps from grade school.

Later in the day came the drive-bys. For the first time in months, Sofia saw some loved ones, live, in person, masked and many, many feet apart. Her “big sister” and Auntie Jen drove all the way down from Boston with giant balloons and a bucket full of goodies. One friend paraded to her from a few neighborhoods away with freshly made cupcakes. Another arrived with a homemade Harry Potter layer cake complete with Potter’s signature eyeglasses. Yet another rode his bike from miles away to give her a virtual birthday hug in person, masked and appropriately distanced, of course. Her aunt and uncle and cousins arrived shouting from the sunroof of their car, overflowing with colorful balloons. There were calls and texts and Snaps and Instagram posts, and even a surprise Zoom call with a dozen close friends.

It was 10 o’clock by the time we sat down to cake and cards. After all the fanfare winded down, the three of us returned to the book I’d made for her. My husband and I read our own personal letters to her while misting over and laughing through the tears. Something felt full circle in that moment. Reminded me of all the times we read to Sofia as a kid. Wow. As a kid, now all grown up into a beautiful young woman. In one day, we somehow managed to capture all the years past up until this moment, in the pictures, videos and letters. In the silly-making and eyes brimming with joy. It was a look back, a relishing of all the fun times we’ve shared and the people we were lucky enough to share them with. And in looking at all the places we’ve been and with whom, it was clear that it was very much a celebration of the moment. This moment.

I’ve spent a lot of my life planning for the future. Looking ahead. But quarantine has pushed the pause button and stopped all the racing and rushing into tomorrow. This birthday, the present is the present. And it’s a gift that will keep on giving.

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