COVID-19 takes the cake, again: Spring babies face second birthday in a pandemic

·4 min read

TORONTO — Bubbly and flamboyant Eve Fischer is known among her friends for throwing unforgettable birthday celebrations, but the COVID-19 pandemic is really cramping her party spirit.

Before the world ground to a halt, the Toronto resident had a reputation for holding birthday soirees at her favourite restaurants that were more than just cakes and candles. Bottles of prosecco would be flowing, laughter almost endless, and between a couple dozen of her closest friends there were hugs aplenty.

"(My) birthdays are Beverly Hills-style, you know, like the Real Housewives," the 57-year-old explained.

"It means a lot because it’s getting together to celebrate another year that we're alive."

Except on last year’s birthday – Friday, March 13, 2020 – a sinister energy was looming over her usual boisterous gathering.

Two days earlier, the World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, raising anxiety among her friends. Nearly half of her guests pulled out of their reservations and the ones who showed up couldn’t shake their fears.

“It obviously took away from the evening,” Fischer remembers.

“We had masks, Lysol wipes and we were in a private room, but every conversation was: ‘What is this disease?’ ‘What is going on?’ ‘Should we even be using their utensils?’”

Late winter and early spring babies were the first group whose 2020 birthday gatherings were overshadowed, or suddenly called off, as physical distancing measures came into effect. And they are at the front of the line to be reminded that the party is still cancelled in 2021.

For some, losing a birthday party or two is trivial, but for others, these social events are about making memories with the people closest to them.

A year later, Fischer still mourns how the party stalled.

She marked her second pandemic birthday earlier this month without the usual room of familiar faces. A small gathering of three people within her bubble was nice, but hardly the usual revelry that made these events special.

“It's just another disappointment," Fischer said.

"And the thing is, the older you get, you don't know how many of those birthdays you have left.”

New mom Wendy Cacilhas had big plans for her son’s first birthday last year that included packing 60 people into a rented space. But when it became clear that wouldn't be possible, the Burlington, Ont. resident started thinking of other ways to mark the occasion.

Jumping online, her husband dug up a recipe for cake fondant while she ordered her son a bow tie and suspenders to dress him for a substitute Zoom party.

The compromise was fitting for the early days of the pandemic, but after spending much of the past year on Zoom calls, Cacilhas had no interest in replicating the experience for another birthday.

“I have zero desire to spend additional time online,” she said.

“I’d rather have no events than a virtual event.”

Not long ago, Cacilhas started considering ways to safely mark her son's second birthday in person.

With spring weather peeking through, she planned three small weekend meet-ups with close friends and family to maintain a feeling of community.

"I know it's not important in the grand scheme of what people have lost — like kids' birthday parties are not a thing," Cacilhas said.

"I feel grateful that he's not four, five or six where he feels a loss of something. He doesn't know any better, he doesn't know any different, and I guess I already mourned not having a big party last year."

"What I’ve learned is expect nothing, or very little, and you won’t be disappointed," she added.

Tell that to Noah Sexsmith, who watched his 18th birthday come and go last March without much fanfare.

Instead of hanging out at the local bar with friends to toast reaching Alberta's legal drinking age, he was locked down with his family and a stack of pizzas at home.

And while that was fine for one year, the pandemic trampled over a bunch of other adolescent milestones on the way to putting the damper on his 19th birthday earlier this month.

First went his traditional high school graduation, which became a physically distanced drive-in ceremony, and then his first day of university, which he lived out through his webcam.

Occasionally an older sibling or friend will chime in with fond memories of their late teen birthdays.

“All of them have these fun stories and you're just left there blank,” he said.

“It's a little sad knowing we'll never be able to have the same experience.”

Sexsmith tries not to dwell much on missing out. He’s already thinking about what comes next, including a livelier 20th birthday with his friends.

“I'm very much hoping it won't be in the house again,” he said.

"After not having two of the most significant birthdays, I'll definitely have a bigger appreciation for all birthdays."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 25, 2021.

David Friend, The Canadian Press