Screenshot of 7 people participating in an online birthday party chat, several with funny expressions on their faces.
My All-day Birthday Zoom was just getting started. I’m the one in the top right. That’s what I looked like all day.

How I Had the Best Birthday Ever During a Pandemic

Kristin Laing

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I was ready to cancel my birthday this year. 2020 has had its wicked way with all of us — like a century of living packed into one tiny year. My birthday was 8 days after the election and I was sure that, no matter the outcome, everyone I loved was going to be too pooped to party.

By November 9, I wanted to see my people, but I am super COVID conscious, so the only way a party was happening was by video chat. My friends are scattered across the globe, so picking an hour or two wouldn’t work for most of them. I got an idea to create a Zoom virtual room that would be open for the entire day of my birthday. From about 10am till 11:59 that night, people in different time zones, with different work and family schedules would have a chance to pop in whenever they could. One of my friends agreed to let me use her paid Zoom account, I created an event on Facebook and invited about 250 of my friends. It was a nutty idea, but those who love me have come to expect nothing less.

On November 10, I created a poll in the Facebook event for what dinner I should have delivered (I definitely wasn’t cooking): Ethiopian, Ramen, Italian, or your own suggestion. Someone commented that the best Italian is homemade. I replied in 100% agreement, and that I haven’t had someone else’s home cooking in so long, I would be over the moon if someone made me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. By the end of the day, polls trended heavily toward Ethiopian. And flan. (Side note: If you live in DC and have never had Barcelona’s flan, stop reading and go NOW. Even if you’re lactose intolerant, it will be well worth the cramps later.)

By the morning of November 11, I had about 35 yeses, 10 who had misunderstood what day the party was or that it was an all-day affair, and about 200 had not replied. Not surprising. I showered, put on actual clothes AND makeup (is it me or does lipstick feel weird now?), and anxiously awaited 10am.

It started with the friend who let me borrow her Zoom account and two of our mutual friends. What happened next was something I never could have dreamed. For the next FOURTEEN HOURS, friends and family stopped in to say hello, wish me a happy birthday, have a laugh, catch up for a bit or stay for the whole day. Most hung around for an hour or two. There were ladies I used to kickbox with, guys I had dated, nuns and sangha members from my temple, my best friends, coworkers, former bosses.

At one point, several Long Island friends popped in separately, but at about the same time. The accent was thick in the virtual room for a little bit. A couple of them I grew up with, some were friends from another school who didn’t know each other in high school, but recognized each other. I never had an accent while I was growing up on Long Island, but it still amazes how quickly I develop one when in the presence of someone who has it… let alone 5 people. My Canadian friends giggled.

At another point, in a small group representing the spectrum of my universe, one friend informed me of a pending delivery that I should expect soon. I LOVE surprises, so as the anticipation grew, I became more and more distracted from the conversation, waiting for the doorbell. They were all chatting away with each other when a man wearing a mask designed to covered his nose, mouth and beard (clever!), appeared at my door with a bag. He handed it to me and said he was sent by our mutual friend to deliver my birthday wish — a home-cooked meal: Mongolian beef with broccoli and cauliflower fried rice, with some Nothing Bundt Cakes for dessert. My eyes, the size of saucers, quickly dissolved into tears of gratitude. He seemed just as excited to be the surprise provider as I was to be its recipient.

Living alone in a pandemic makes you feel REALLY ALONE when it comes to simple things like a meal prepared by someone else that you didn’t have to pay for. Everyone in the virtual room was as moved by the gesture as I was, and by my reaction. The surprise coordinator said she saw my peanut butter and jelly comment and knew she could do better. Being one of those people who knows everybody everywhere, her friend accepted the challenge and she was able to pull off one of the two greatest moments of the day. It was the best home-cooked meal I’ve had in a very long time. Such moments become memories to recall on for years to come with such affection.

The other greatest moment came when I received a text from a childhood friend I had invited, apologizing that she had missed the party. She was my best friend in grade school, until her family moved to Florida and we lost touch. A few years ago we reconnected on Facebook, but our lives have become so different, I felt like we might not have much to say to each other now. There were about 15 people on the call — temple friends, Scottish Games friends, Canadian friends, some family. I let her know it was still going on and moments later, a box appeared with her name in it and she started to speak.

The room quieted as my face lit up and I squealed. They watched and listened like it was a Netflix movie, as she and I marveled over hearing each other’s voices for the first time since 7th grade. Her presence blew me away. She shared some of her memories of our friendship, including that she was shy. I said I didn’t remember that, to which she replied, “YOU were NOT shy.” The video room erupted in laughter, not least of which by me.

Over the course of 14 hours, my day was filled with laughter, stories, shared memories, surprises. Several times, I was asked what I had chosen for my delivery dinner, and I took pleasure in the retell of the home-cooked meal story, and reliving the pure joy from that moment. My friends connected with other friends who they probably never would have spoken to at an actual party. It didn’t matter that some friends don’t drink, that some smoke pot, that others don’t eat meat, that some are politically conservative, and others live far away. No one had to worry about getting dressed up or being a designated driver, or about the social anxiety that I myself feel when invited to a big party.

Several friends commented about what a great idea it was and were amazed to hear how successful it had been. One friend, who stayed on for the entire day, reflected later at how amazing it was to watch the dynamics change as different groups formed with people who joined or left, and how in an actual party, he never would have gotten to experience such a cross-section of the people I love.

Every year on my birthday, I remember the best party I ever planned that never happened. On the night of my 39th birthday, I decided that my 40th was going to be the party to end all parties. I sent out a save the date to 300 people around the world, with my parents as the guests of honor. I was an event manager and knew a lot of people in the industry. I had a venue, a liquor sponsor, 4 bands who were committed to performing and a number of RSVPs. Four months into my plan, my father revealed a stage 4 prostate cancer diagnosis. Six months in, he was losing the battle, and party plans were abandoned. 3 weeks before my 40th birthday, the battle ended. I never got my party. Until 2020.

In all, about 100 people that I absolutely adore (seriously, I had no idea I adore that many people) showed up. A few faces were missed, but they were in my heart, which was pumped SO FULL of love, I had a buzz. Have you ever had a love buzz? No mind-altering products required? I never have. In the year everyone would rather forget, but I doubt they ever will, I got the online party to end all online parties, and the best birthday I’ve ever had.

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Kristin Laing

Student of life helping others feel connected through humor, compassion, and popsicles.