My mom and I sat in our car as I stuck birthday balloons through the rolled-down window.
We parked alongside our family near the end of a residential street, part of a celebratory cavalry of cars armed with birthday signs and a bullhorn while we waited for our cue.
My cousin, Rikki, was turning 38 years old and was frustrated that her birthday was during the pandemic.
A week ago, I felt the same mix of disappointment and resignment when I celebrated my 21st birthday. I envisioned a night bar-hopping with friends and family in Downtown Los Angeles. After places began to close as a result of COVID-19, I knew this was not going to be a reality.
Turned out my birthday ended up being far better.
The moment my family led me out the front porch, phones in hand, I knew that something was up.
There, in our quiet cul-de-sac, were all of my close friends perched on their cars with birthday decorations taped to their cars.
In a time without stability, when I knew some of them were without jobs and concerned about what the coming months would look like, there was something powerful knowing they took time to coordinate a surprise to brighten my day.
Though private conversations were sacrificed due to six-feet of social distance, waves of hello in lieu of hugs had to suffice. I wondered at multiple points if I stood too close. It did not change the fact that we were all together, even if it was brief.
Normally, I would have invited them back into my house. The best I could offer then
was to pull up a chair and spend time with them while they sat safely in their cars.
Before my friends left, they drove around in circles, honking and screaming nonsense that had me laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. Even my most subdued friend gave it her all, smiling and waving frantically through the rolled-down window.
I wanted to bring that same energy to my cousin. Without it, a car celebration was nothing more than a traffic jam of honking cars.
On cue, we drove behind my cousin down the street, blaring our horns and cheering wildly while a recording of a police siren played.
When Rikki stepped out, a hand quickly covering her open mouth, I thought about how moved I had been when my friends surprised me. After, we parked our cars and sang “Happy Birthday” from afar.
Later that day on Instagram, Rikki posted photos from the event and thanked my family in a caption:
“I was very depressed about having a lonely birthday and I miss my family. I love you all and you all made my day so special.”
During Rikki’s car parade, I glanced around at my family and thought about how, for the first time in my life, we had not greeted each other with hugs and kisses on the cheek.
We stuck to hellos and goodbyes muffled behind masks. The pandemic made that decision for us.
Yet the decision my family and friends made was to celebrate despite it.