Celebrating A Pandemic Birthday

Editor’s note: This essay is one in a series of first-person narratives by members of the Duke community reflecting on a year living with COVID-19.

Nearly everyone has had a pandemic birthday. So to celebrate mine this year, I had a few Zoom calls with friends and family. But it was my 50th birthday. It was supposed to be special.

I had envisioned a joyous, raucous celebration surrounded by love ones with food. Instead, we watched a movie about food — Chef — and ordered in burgers. I would be lying if I said that I was not disappointed. I am not alone. We have all missed something over the last year: dance recitals, graduations, funerals. We cannot reclaim them. They are lost.

Nevertheless, I have found a way forward. To be clear, I am overjoyed to be 50. I have my AARP membership and a few new grey hairs on my otherwise bald head. I count it all joy. Above all, I am here. I’m a black man in America, and I’m still here. My parents and in-laws are alive and well, and my wife and daughter are happy. Friends support me. I know love, and I’m am loved. What more could a man ask for?

Maybe just a little bit more. The last year has been draining. Like countless others, I have survived, but not thrived. Yet too many more have died; we have passed . COVID has ravaged my rural Georgia hometown of . The pandemic and the racial reckoning in America point to the existential and real threat against Black minds and bodies. While the list is too long, I will say at least three of their names: Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd. Depression is around us and within us. Sometimes it hurts a deep hurt. As a friend reminds me, we need to make space for these emotions and experiences, but we should not let them control us.

Despite this, I do not, and we should not, despair. I have my faith tradition as my home base. The central source that I can return to again. Though I can return to it, I have wondered if God is good all of the time. In the Black Church tradition, we have frequently said Jesus may not come when you want him, but he’s right on time. But for this party, fashionably late feels a little too late. Yet, I return. Of course, you may have a different faith tradition or are spiritual or . However, I am sure that if you are still here, like me, you have a place that you return to for centering, rest from the raging war around us.

I have never thought of myself as a creative person, but I have discovered that I have some “lockdown” skills. I’m not bragging, but I can make a mean Lava Cake — thank God for the New York Times. While following a recipe may not seem like creativity, I have found joy preparing meals for my family. Even being challenged to write this piece has allowed me moments of creative expression to know that I still have things to do and ways to produce. All of these reflect what my home base ultimately gives me — hope.

Next year, I will celebrate my 51st birthday! Fifty is gone. While a nice round number, why should it hold such a special place for us? I have let go of that birthday and will relish turning 51. Though odd, it’s a nice composite number (yes, I have been working on 4th-grade math). My hope is a recalibration of my expectations. The pandemic has changed us; we are different people. Why should we place our new lives in old shells? Let’s lean into it and hope for tomorrow.

Norbert Wilson is a professor of food, economics and community at Duke Divinity School.



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