An unconventional 21st

Sunday, October 4, 2020 - 12:44pm

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Illustration by Eileen Kelly

Every year, the days leading up to my birthday are filled with dread. The idea of spending an entire day celebrating myself feels like a lot of pressure. Though I have always loved a good party, a celebration revolving around myself has never seemed like the best way to spend an evening. How am I supposed to commemorate my birth when I don’t even like myself most of the time? 

My birthday this year was a bit more dreadful than ever before. The pandemic started in March and hadn’t stopped for anyone else’s birthday, and I knew it wouldn’t stop for my own. I had thought that a 21st birthday would be an exception to my past hatred of the “special day,” merely because this birthday was one of the last monumental occasions worth celebrating. Yet my past idealizations of the oh-so-anticipated 21st birthday made me realize all the more how mundane this celebration would truly be. If you had told me last year that on my 21st birthday I wouldn’t be at a club, dressed up and dancing to my favorite songs with my best friends beside me, I would be certain that it’d have to be one of my worst birthdays yet.

I had watched all of my friends have their “Quarantine Birthdays,” and truthfully, none of them seemed to go over very well. No matter how hard anyone had tried to make their day special, it was instead riddled with disappointment. It was almost automatic for me to expect the same for my 21st. 

I thought that the entire day I’d be bummed that I couldn’t be at a bar or a club, exercising my legality and ordering oodles of alcoholic beverages. I wanted to be dancing in a crowd full of strangers, my friends nearby and drunk, the feeling of the world’s expanse reflected in the mass of bodies surrounding us — not at home with the six housemates I see daily. Though they were my closest friends, I couldn’t help but think: What could be so special about normalcy?

This year, as the clock struck midnight and Sept. 30 became Oct. 1, my birthday, my mom sent me a text: “Be safe and drink lots of water.” Amused by her implication that I’d be partying, I sent her back a photo of my computer screen: “Lol Mom … I’m not going out. I’ve got an essay due next week.”

My phone started to ring seconds after the text was sent. “Why aren’t you going out!?” She asked.

“Well, Mom … I’m not really trying to get COVID,” I answered begrudgingly. 

“God, this is so lame!” She lamented. I couldn’t help but agree — it was pretty lame. I’d always been one to love a good party, yet I hadn’t been to one in six months, and I barely even remembered what it felt like: stumbling into a crowded basement with my best friends by my side, wearing outfits we’d picked out at the pregame before and having drunken conversations with people I “knew of” but didn’t know personally. I was beginning to spiral into vicious thoughts of annoyance and disappointment when my six housemates — my closest friends — toppled down the stairs. 

“Happy Birthday!” they cheered. I couldn’t help but smile in delight. 

“Let’s go to 7/11! You can buy yourself your first legal drink.” 

It may not have been the 12 a.m. obligatory shot complemented by fake eyelashes and stilettos that I had hoped for, but going to the convenience store could at least lift my mood. 

I bought a six-pack of Oberon, excitedly handing the cashier my ID. The people in the line behind me overheard that it was my birthday and erupted in offering well-wishes for my 21st. I smiled bashfully and thanked them. I’d usually be pretty embarrassed by this attention but any human interaction beyond my pod of people felt good. 

This kind of unanticipated, authentic gesture was what my birthday was full of. That morning, on the day of my 21st, the celebration continued: I logged on to one of my Zoom classes to find the professor and other students singing me Happy Birthday. And I can confidently now say that if you’ve never heard a group of 12 people try to cohesively sing Happy Birthday on Zoom, you’re missing out. The production a hodge-podge of lagged connections and laughter — I couldn’t have asked for anything better. 

After class, my housemates drove with me to Dunkin’ Donuts to buy pastries and coffee while blaring birthday tunes on the aux cord. The upbeat soundtrack was juxtaposed with a deep conversation surrounding the nature of birthdays. 

“It’s really such a personal thing,” my housemate Emmerson said. “You spend the day reflecting on the past year. How you’ve changed and how you haven’t. Day by day, not much seems to be different but in the grand scheme of the entire year, you usually find that you've really changed.”

It was an interesting point, yet in reality, I hadn’t thought to reflect on the last year of life at all. Quite frankly, reflecting on this year seemed like it’d be painful. A pandemic, political uncertainty, a social recession — the common year-defining events felt all too agonizing. But as we drove all the way to Ypsilanti solely for Dunkin’ Donuts, I tuned out the song “Birthday Sex” by Jeremih that my friend had put on the queue, and began to look back. 

I had spent the majority of my 20th year existing in a state of uncertainty. I’d moved to London, a new city that I was forced to leave before I could fully integrate myself into it. I’d lived in four different houses in the span of two months due to job prospects that would later be canceled. I’d entered my final year of college with no tangible idea of what the future held for me after graduation. I’d stressed about finances and paying bills. I’d worked several different jobs. I’d lost friends, gained friends and entered a new relationship. Everything was up in the air. Upon reflection, I was shocked and even a bit proud that I was handling it so well.

As the day turned into evening and more birthday celebrations began, I started to realize exactly how I was able to handle what felt like a relentless year: I wasn’t alone. I had loads of people there to bear through it with me. When I was sent home from London, my best friend offered up her home for me to stay in. We’d spent the beginning of quarantine watching movies, cooking food and making the most of the hard situation. I’d Zoom with my friends from England daily, and without their friendship, I’m not sure the transition home would have gone as smoothly as it did. Most of the past six months have been spent relying on my loved ones for little joys to help overlook the tumultuous state of our world. 

The evening of my birthday was spent with presents, homemade food and hours of long, meaningful conversations similar to the one on our drive to Dunkin’. We ate. We laughed. We enjoyed each other’s company. And as the night was coming to a close, I realized my 21st birthday didn’t meet any of the expectations I had for it a year ago. In fact, it had not only exceeded but completely altered my expectations of what it means to celebrate and appreciate the years we’re given. For most of my life, I relied on fleeting moments of partying, dancing with strangers and exploration of various drugs for fulfillment — no wonder I was so unhappy. Now, I instead was offered the opportunity to seek it in the people who matter most to me, and the small moments I share with them. 

It only took a pandemic for me to realize that true happiness does not come easily. The kind of happiness that I am experiencing mid-pandemic is unlike anything I have had in my life before. The people I choose to surround myself with now are genuine individuals with similar interests to my own. The kinds of conversations I have with the people I love are far better than any drunken night out I could wish for. Though my 21st birthday wasn’t the wild night out I had previously anticipated, it was exactly what it needed to be: imperfectly perfect, much like the rest of this year.


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