COVID Confessions: My brother’s birthday dinner reminded me of the little things we’re missing

It was my brother’s 15th birthday on Wednesday, and we got him an Oreo ice cream cake from Dairy Queen (his favorite). After dinner, my mom played “Happy Birthday to You” on her cellphone while we sang along. He sat behind the cake and leaned in, ready to blow out the candles. But then he stopped himself.

A. Colleen DeGuzman

“I don’t think I should,” he said.

It took us a second to realize why he held back, then we all were planted back into reality. It may have been considered over-protective, but he’s right: He shouldn’t have.

Since the start of April, we have been celebrating my brother. We asked him what he wanted to eat on that day, and what gifts he wanted. The only question we didn’t ask this year is what he wanted to do.

We spent all day trying to turn a blind eye to the new reality this pandemic has brought us to. In a normal year, we would have eaten dinner with our cousins; so instead, we dropped off food to them (at my brother’s request, Wing Stop). His classmates and other family friends called to greet him, saying the usual things: “You are so grown now,” “We hope you have a good day.” In the morning, his friend from school dropped off candies and snacks, probably something she would have given him at school.

He got to talk to his loved ones, eat dinner with our cousins, and be celebrated by his friends. But he couldn’t blow out the candles on his cake.

I picked the candles off and held them out. He blew them, making sure not to blow at my direction. He didn’t pause to make a wish, I don’t think it was on his mind at the time.

While eating a slice of cake alongside my brother, I thought about how I really wished this wasn’t his memory of his 15th birthday. I wished he spent the day with his friends at school, being greeted by teachers in every class. He’s a part of the basketball team, so I am sure they would have kept him in good company.

I also thought about all the other spring babies who will also have the memory of one bizarre birthday: the one spent in isolation due to the pandemic. I wondered how many birthday celebrants video-chatted their grandparents instead of visiting them, how many quinceañeras have been canceled, how many others were also scared to blow out their own birthday cakes, and if there were people who spent the day alone in a hospital room.

In my brother’s case, he missed out on a little moment. Others may have been robbed of other kinds of little moments. Maybe it was being able to tell loved ones the gender of their baby at a reveal party, or to celebrate an anniversary at a restaurant.

In the grand scheme, these moments don’t seem significant. My brother is blessed to be able to celebrate another year and spend it surrounded by family. However, I think these little moments deserve more credit.

These moments of joy carry us through the tough ones. It’s in times like these when we take memories — the giggles of young nieces and nephews, the hugs with friends — out of our pockets to remember the worth of persevering. Seconds-long memories that play like a slideshow in our minds are there when we are seeking comfort.

In my trove of little moments, I keep my cousin’s 1-year-old’s smile. I also think of the laughs I’ve shared with friends while driving over the causeway to South Padre Island, and my sister’s excitement for chocolate chip cookies. More recently, it’s the call I received Sunday from an 87-year-old woman I recently featured, just to tell me: “I am so glad to have met you.”

As a family of five, we only ate a little more than a third of the cake that evening. There’s still a large chunk left (I would bring it to the newsroom to share, but in a different year). It should have been shared with many others, as many other different memories should have been made.

I don’t know when we will be able to have birthday parties again, or go to restaurants with friends, or get haircuts. But looking forward to them helps us with the wait.