What It’s Like To Celebrate Your Birthday Amidst COVID-19? Author Manjula Padmanabhan Reveals
How does one celebrate a birthday in the middle of a pandemic without feeling guilty, especially when a gift arrives a week in advance, as also a friend’s voicemail conveying the news of the death of her beloved friend? Writer, artist, playwright and creator of the popular comic strip character Suki, Manjula Padmanabhan, who believes in “getting it right” chose to be grateful for being alive and surrounded by love.
The week before my birthday, in the middle of the afternoon, there’s a knock on my door. I live in the US, in an elderly building in Newport, Rhode Island. My sister, two hours away in Hartford, Connecticut, tells me that the first of my presents will arrive well in advance. “It has to be refrigerated right away,” she says. She won’t tell me what’s in the parcel, but when I hear the knock, I know that must be it.
Before I go on, I need to explain a few things. Rhode Island is the smallest of the fifty United States. “Blink and you’ll miss it,” people say, when they talk about driving through. The rowdy North Atlantic Ocean pounds its beaches. At one time, Newport used to be the summer home of New York millionaires. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was set here. It used to be an important naval base. But at the end of the war, jobs faded away and so did the money and glamour.
For the past ten years, this quiet sea-side city has been my home. Even before the pandemic, despite having a family that includes two older sisters and a husband, I spend most of my life alone in a wood-floored apartment with two small rooms, a kitchen, a bathroom and antique plumbing. There are only five other residents. Washing machines, pets and children are not permitted. I’m on the ground floor. The view on one side is a wooden fence and a strip of grass. On the other side, there’s a parking lot and a low-slung glass-fronted building that used to be a busy, lively Dunkin Donuts.
A coven of unsmiling grey-haired old men with watery blue eyes would spend whole days there, hunched over their coffees. But they, along with all the other customers who flitted in and out like brightly-coloured donut-seeking butterflies are gone now. Casualties, along with the eatery’s cheery pink and orange logo, of COVID-19.
Yes, I know: luxury casualties.
In towns and villages around the world, as I write this, the invisible, implacable enemy is stalking through small towns and big cities, poor countries and rich, picking off anyone who does not or cannot practise social distancing. As I write this, I receive voice-mail from a friend in South America. She can’t bear to talk on the phone. Her tears bridge time and space as she tells me that today, even as callous politicians sneer at face-masks and witless students party in the streets, she lost a beloved friend to the disease.
A month ago, on that week before my birthday, it was already very clear that the pandemic was raging out of control. That’s why, of course, I was alone in my apartment and not in my sister’s home. Our Mum brought us up to anticipate our birthdays as if they were feast days, like Christmas or New Year’s. We travelled all through my childhood, living in Europe and Southeast Asia, and sometimes it wasn’t practical to have a full-on birthday party. But our Mum always made sure there was a celebration.
She would never reveal that there would be gifts. That knowledge was kept out of sight until the morning of The Day. Then she would enter the still-darkened bedroom in which the Birthday Girl slept, singing the birthday song very softly, while placing the gifts, wrapped and mysterious, at the foot of the bed. She was always very particular that cards and wishes must only be delivered, including for her own birthday, on the day or just before. As she said, “You have a whole year in which to get it right!” She was a great stickler, our Mum, for observing many levels of “getting it right”.
She was born in 1918, just before the end of the First World War. She was convent-educated, earned a BA in English Literature, was a keen tennis-player and dreamed of being a doctor. Her ambition was thwarted but I believe that, instead of being crushed, she turned her formidable intelligence towards bringing up her daughters to be independent thinkers who also believed in “getting it right”. Which includes celebrating the day of our birth with appropriate fanfare, every year.
Which is why, during this year of separation and isolation, one sister sends me a very generous Amazon gift card and the other sister sends me a huge white ice-box shipped directly from a company that specialises in frozen goodies! I stash the treats (chocolate croissants, mushroom tartlets) in the freezer then forget about them for the rest of the week. As it happens, two books by me have just been published in India, with a third one on its way. Because of the virus, I can’t be present for the book-launches. In lieu of readings, my publisher Hachette India has been organising Zoom-chats and virtual interviews. As a result, for several nights in a row, I’m up till two and three a.m., meeting deadlines in India, nine-and-a-half hours ahead.
The birthday dawns with WhatsApp calls from Delhi, from Chennai and from Hartford, as each of the separate members of my family check-in. Later that morning, I go out with my best buddy Muriel, on our weekly grocery shopping expedition. She wishes me for my birthday but it’s only after the shopping’s done that she springs her surprise: our favourite ice cream parlour has finally opened for business after weeks of lockdown!
I love surprises and this is a very pleasurable one. Once I’m home however I plunge back into my deadlines. Another three days pass before I clear all the hurdles. Even though I’ve been alone in a physical sense, in every other way, I’ve been surrounded with a warm, deep and many-peopled gladness.
Maybe I should feel guilty? To be celebrating my microscopic presence on this planet, during a period of such misery and catastrophic loss? But, hey: I’m 67 years old. Still breathing. Still grateful. Lit from within. Happy, despite everything, to be alive.
Image Credit: Unsplash/ Manjula Padmanabhan
Manjula Padmanabhan is a writer, artist and playwright. She is the author of several critically acclaimed books, including Hot Death, Cold Soup, Kleptomania, Three Virgins and Other Stories, Escape and Island of Lost Girls. The views expressed are the author’s own and not that of SheThePeople.TV.