A Day to Remember

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Matt Geiger

We had to cancel our daughter’s sixth birthday party the other day. It felt villainous, but global pandemics do have a way of ruining plans.

I used to worry that we were making our daughter’s life too easy. That she always got what she wanted and never had to worry about anything, lose anything, or miss out on anything. That the easy nature of her existence would make her weak and soft. That was, in retrospect, a very silly thing about which to fret. Life will take care of us, in its strange way, and give us all the hardships, strife and opportunities we require.

Today is her birthday, and we will spend it alone, together. We will make cake and open carefully disinfected presents and chat with friends and family through a blurry screen and a laggy connection. It is a birthday celebration that I could not have fathomed when I was six years old, when COVID-19 didn’t exist, quarantines were only in movies, and the idea of Skype or Facetime or Video Messenger seemed like something out of Star Trek and not the sleepy suburban Midwest.  

I worry about how this will be taken, but I have loved these recent weeks, as I watch ourselves and others shed the invisible chains that bound us to an emotionally over-encumbered existence. I have seen kind and inspirational messages taped to windows and scribbled on sidewalks with chalk, right before a rainstorm, like a Tibetan Sand Mandala built to be swept away. 

Early on, I offhandedly referred to COVID-19 as “the sickness” in conversation. My daughter picked it up, and now adds a sweet, ominous note to any conversation about our time in isolation. “Is my birthday party cancelled because of the sickness?” she asked. “Does the sickness mean I can’t get any presents?”

I am 40 years old. I remember very few of my birthdays, even the big, presumably happy parties of my youth. They all meld together into a vague recollection of baubles, sugar highs and songs. Very few stand out. 

But not so for our daughter this year. Hadley’s sixth birthday will certainly be one she remembers. And when we are dead and gone, and when Hadley has lived her own life and made decisions and done things we could never possibly imagine, she will probably tell her own children, or grandchildren, all about her sixth birthday, the day she spent with a family that loves her immensely and secretly couldn’t be happier to cancel the noisy, chaotic melee that was initially scheduled to happen. 

And I, who frequently have trouble remembering in what year my daughter was born, won’t forget it either. I won’t forget any of this. Any of these quiet conversations held with society and its silly needs and politics finally held at bay, at least for a bit. 

We were walking on a path through the woods two days ago when her dog, Frida, scrambled up from the creek bed, covered in mud and water and burs, and fell in stride beside us. 

“Daddy, for my birthday, can Frida sit at the table with us?” Hadley asked.

“Sure,” I replied.

“That way I can pretend she’s my friend,” she continued. 

“Honey, she is your friend,” I interrupted. 

Hadley, who was holding my hand as we walked through the woods, our rubber boots following soft deer tracks, looked up at me as if I were stupid, but did so kindly. 

“No,” she said. “She’s not.”

It made me sad, to think she didn’t feel a certain kinship with her dog. It’s something I always felt when I was her age, and it’s something I still feel now. What better companion to have as you wander the post-apocalyptic wasteland or a lush paradise than a dog? 

“She’s not my friend,” Hadley said. “She’s family.”

On the eve of her birthday, we were talking again, this time on the couch, where Hadley tossed some kind of sizeable off-white sack into the air over and over again. 

“What is that?” I asked. 

“It’s a beanbag,” she said. “It’s called a beanbag. I found it in the drawer over there. It came out of a llama that was supposed to be a pillow.”

Such strange words make for a perfect harmony with such strange times. 

A few minutes later, I tapped her on the shoulder. 

“Hey,” I said. “You’re a good friend.”

“You aren’t my friend,” she corrected me, with a roll of her eyes that she has been working hard to perfect. 

It stung a bit, until she continued and lifted my spirits in the way she usually does: “You are my dad!”

Because friends come and go. They are interchangeable. Dads, not so much. 

It’s now a few hours since I wrote the beginning of this column. Today, we spent the day baking a cake, playing games, telling jokes, blasting music and chatting with friends and family, digitally, through laggy connections, just as I predicted. We made a special type of Russian meat dumpling called pelmeni, and we were forced by circumstances not to seek meaning or happiness outside ourselves. This evening, as I held back my daughter’s wild hair and she blew out the candles on her homemade Frozen 2 cake, I thought again of the fact that I don’t remember any of my 40 birthdays. Not one. They were, for all the funny hats and bags of presents and lengthy guest lists, basically the same. Fun days full of short-lived happiness, which is certainly not a bad thing. 

But this birthday will be different, I suspect. I think this will be one she really will never forget. 

Not a day spent with friends. Rather, a day spent with family, which is something that was here long before civilization emerged and will be here long after it slowly falls apart. Part of a story to remember, and to tell, as she grows up, and the years pass, and we all do what we have always done, searching for meaning in a world where we do not know exactly what will happen next, or how many more birthdays we will have. 

Alone, together, as we have always really been.

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