Planning a birthday party in the middle of a worldwide pandemic must be done with great care and love. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)

Planning a birthday party in the middle of a worldwide pandemic must be done with great care and love. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)

Sarah Simpson Column: Birthdays in the time of COVID-19

It was a couple of weekends ago, now, that I had the opportunity to join a small but important gathering of a family that was not my own. I had been invited into their inner circle to photograph the milestone birthday of the family’s patriarch. I was happy to attend the event, as it was the family of a good friend of mine, but I’ll admit that it was unlike any other family get-together I’ve ever been to.

It wasn’t anyone’s fault, it’s just a sign of the times and let me tell you, these COVID-19 times are wild.

The organizers of the party planned every detail with the safety of their guests in mind, from the large open space in which the party was held, to the hand sanitizer and custom-made masks required before entering it, and even to the disinfectant wipes on hand to wipe things down should anyone need to go inside to use the washroom. They didn’t do this out of fear, they did it out of love for the 90-year-old guest of honour who was their dad, husband, grandpa and great-grandpa and overall guiding light.

It was a small group, but spread out over four tables that were set far enough apart from each other to maintain each family’s separate bubble. Each table was self sufficient with everything needed to have a lovely lunch together, but apart. No detail was spared when planning to safely celebrate a man that was so clearly this family’s anchor.

This isn’t how it should have been. But it’s 2020. There should have been big hugs and kisses and handshakes and pats on the back. I have no doubt there would have been loads of them if not for the pandemic. Because that’s what you think of when you think of love, right? Hugs, kisses, and whatnot?

Or is it just me?

To be fair, I never had the opportunity to celebrate a grandparent’s milestone birthday. I’m not so sure of the dates but I think all four of mine died before I was a teen. Sadly, my memories of my family’s elders are sparse. This type of party was foreign to me.

I’m not sure if it was because of that, or because of COVID-19, but I learned something as I photographed the event. I learned it maybe wasn’t so much about the physical affection after all. Nobody at the party really had the opportunity to get near each other but it didn’t seem to matter. You could feel the love bouncing around between everyone at their separate tables, and building up exponentially before landing squarely on the Birthday Boy. You could feel the smiles behind the masks when the somewhat quick and awkward socially distanced group photos were taken. You could feel why this family had done everything they could to protect this man and themselves from COVID-19 while still gathering in celebration of his birthday.

It turns out there are a lot more ways to show love than with hugs and kisses. In this day and age it takes a little more planning, and a lot more cleaning, but for this special family, showing that love was all worth the effort.

After lunch, the honouree was treated to a video full of messages and well wishes from a bunch of people I’d never met, which is not at all surprising given it wasn’t my family.

It’s weird to be a fly on the wall, watching somebody else’s special family moments. As a photographer it’s my job to stay out of the way and just capture the moments, but during the video there weren’t too many photos to take so I found myself participating in its viewing. It was tribute after tribute, story after story, about this man from a great many of the people he’d clearly so positively impacted over the course of his life. It must have gone on for 20 minutes, if not close to half an hour.

Much like the effort it took to create the COVID-friendly party, it took a lot of effort to make the movie, too. The video featured a lot of seniors not too comfortable talking directly into their devices but none of the speakers seemed to mind working through that because they all wanted to share in their friend, employee, extended family member’s special day. Together, but apart. That viewing taught me that love can travel through iMovie if you need it to. It’s not the same kind of love, but it can be just as powerful.

There was no candle on the cake but no one seemed to mind. There was, instead, an individual cupcake sporting a lone candle and a pair of sparklers. I can only imagine what the wish was when the old chap, surrounded by his loving family, blew it out.

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