It was Jeremy’s birthday last week. A significant one, 50, the kind you might make big plans for even if you’re not typically the type of person to make big birthday plans.
On his birthday last year we talked about what he might want to do for his birthday this year. He hadn’t decided on anything specific, but we’d thrown some ideas around. A party here in Brighton? A trip somewhere? A big Irish session? A blow-out meal at a magnificent restaurant? All of the above?
None of the above, obviously. I really didn’t mind celebrating my own birthday at home last year, even though we weren’t under lockdown and could technically have gone out somewhere had we chosen to. But in the run-up to Jeremy’s birthday, I felt so, so sad for him. He didn’t seem bothered being stuck at home for the milestone, but I was bothered on his behalf. I wanted him to have something special, something appropriate to mark half a century on this planet. We don’t “do” presents, as such, so the one thing that would have been worthy of the situation—a unique experience—is the one thing he couldn’t really have.
The one thing we could have was nice food, so that’s what we went with. My initial plan had been to take a culinary “trip” through all of Jeremy’s favorite food destinations: Italy, Spain, Thailand, Japan. In the end I wasn’t that organized, so we just had a mishmash of gastronomical delights over the course of several days: spaghetti and meatballs, a porterhouse steak with homemade frites, a rack of lamb with the most expensive Bordelaise sauce ever (because we’d bought a super-fancy bottle of wine to go with the steak but didn’t really enjoy drinking it—so into the cooking pot it went), and homemade Buffalo wings, which were way more delicious than they had any right to be. We enjoyed some fine British cheeses and some Basque tapas with vermouth, and I made tiramisu for the first time in decades. And though it was all consumed at the same table we’ve been sitting at for a year, it felt special.
I’m a firm believer in having not just a birthday day but a full birthday week, so we spun out the fun as long as we could. I spun out the planning for as long as I could, too; I started asking Jeremy months ago what he wanted for his birthday, and I spent lots of time online researching where to order the best ingredients and coming up with potential menus. I think I was just as excited about the birthday as he was, and I felt strangely bereft when the celebrations wound down this week and we went back to our usual everyday life without having “it’s Jeremy’s birthday!” as an excuse to do whatever we wanted.
The birthday was something concrete to look forward to. It was not an “eventually”—like “eventually we’ll get vaccinated” or “eventually we’ll be able to visit people again”. It was on a specific date, and we could specifically plan for it and count down the days until it arrived and enjoy the anticipation until it did. It was a point of stability in the sea of uncertainty that continues to buffet us (though maybe somewhat less fiercely than before).
I obviously look forward to getting vaccinated and traveling again and all the rest of it, and I know it will happen sooner rather than later. But it’s still a moving target, a vague “sometime soon” that hangs tantalizingly on the horizon like a shimmery mirage but refuses to take solid shape just yet. I also know there will never really be a distinct end point to all of this. The virus will be with us forever, along with mutations and new vaccines needed to cope with them. There’s never going to be a dividing line between everything we’ve experienced in the past year and everything we’ll experience in the years to come. There will be firsts—the first trip, the first time seeing friends and family again, the first time I get back in the dance studio, the first session we have at pub—but they’ll be couched in a situation that will remain fuzzy for a long time to come.
I liked having Jeremy’s birthday marked on the calendar because it gave me something to aim for. I looked at my calendar just now and it is literally blank (with the exception of our bi-weekly recycling collection dates and a few online talks I’ve signed up for). I have work deadlines and other things that need to be done by certain times, but there’s not really anything fun in there. So I’m scrambling for some specific new fun thing. St. Patrick’s Day should tide me over, I think. Corned beef and cabbage? Ale and Irish tunes? If it’s the best I can get right now, I’ll take it.