Fabiola Santiago

This is one strange coronavirus birthday. The only living thing I’m hugging is a tree | Opinion

This is one strange birthday.

In the age of the novel coronavirus, the only living thing I’ll be hugging is a tree.

Emptiness rules our days.

Empty shelves, people-less workplaces, empty streets.

The person I most want to embrace is my mother, who turns 91 on Saturday. Our birthdays are four days apart. We used to celebrate them together. Now, we have little precious time left.

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But I’m not allowed to see her. An Alzheimer’s patient, she’s quarantined. Despite her aide’s best efforts to connect us via Facetime, mami won’t be singing for me “ Las mañanitas” today.

And that’s all I’m going to say about that or I won’t be able to write another word.

Before COVID-19, all I wanted for my Florida primary, St. Patrick’s Day birthday was for Joe Biden to win the state, and be on his way to the Democratic nomination and restoring civility in the White House. I voted early.

The kids were supposed to be coming to Miami on their spring break, their happy faces the sweet frosting on my homemade cake. Those school-acquired colds they usually bring with them be damned.

Now, the priority is to keep my health. All of yours, too.

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Social distancing

I’ve been practicing social distancing like a religion.

I Facetime with my daughters and the little ones, three minutes shy of two hours on Sunday. We exchange photos and videos on our chat, now with more urgency than ever.

Using special effects, the kids turn themselves into emoji heads or creatures of the wild. They give me video tours of their rooms and zoom in on their favorite toys and books.

I laugh on the outside. On the inside, I’m thanking God, the saints, the orishas and all the Asian deities that they’re safe, happy to have their mother working from home for a change. I miss them, but I’m good ... for now.

When I get mail, I run into neighbors and we talk even more far apart than the recommended six feet.

Who cares if everyone hears our political rants about how little faith we have in the president’s handling of the crisis? The two faithfully Republican families across from us have moved out.

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When I have no choice but to go buy something I need, I try to pay with exact change and leave behind the receipt. Or, I pay with a credit card I slide in for approval and remove without touching anything.

Until I forget for a moment about the coronavirus and quarantines and touch the screen. On the last move, of course.

Life does gets in the way of safety practices.

I have to call the air-conditioning repairman when I hear a leak.

Not shaking hands with a Cuban guy who has been coming to my house for almost two decades is so weird. It goes against all I know about our culture.

But I smile effusively.

He breaks the ice.

“I don’t have coronavirus, you know why?”

Before I can say anything, he answers himself: “Because I’m waiting for the COVID-20 edition.”

Now you can hear our laughter reverberating through my house.

This is the therapy session I sorely needed.

He doesn’t charge me a cent for cleaning up my neglect, which caused the leaking.

Felicidades,” he says, waving goodbye.

Those are the helpers, angels without wings in fraught times.

On the other hand, Facebook, a valuable connection in times like these, has been killing me by showing me years of birthday memories.

The birthday I spent in mystical Istanbul touring historic sites by day, being pampered by the friendly restaurant staff of the Four Seasons in the evening.

The birthday I spent in a cold New York City with family who took the train into town from Connecticut. And, later, as I returned to my East Village hotel, I delighted in the movie-like moment when, all of a sudden, snowflakes fell all around me.

Now, who knows when I’ll travel again. Or what traveling will be like in a post-pandemic world.

This week, I have to make a heartbreaking decision.

Do I pull the plug on the June cruise I was supposed to take with my entire family for my beloved nephew and his lovely bride’s destination wedding?

They asked me to marry them.

Before COVID-19, that was the only thing I was nervous about: Can a failure at love deliver a romantic, heartfelt ceremony?

The young are hoping the ban on cruising is lifted so they can carry on with the wedding on a cay, but the question remains: Can I, older, cruise and return with health? These times, the science says the answer to that is most likely, no. Cruising entails being in close quarters with way too many people.

Losing freedom to virus

As a writer, I’m most comfortable in the freedom of oneness.

But even for me, coronavirus self-quarantine is too much. Oppressive, limiting, anxiety-producing. Choosing to live alone is a lifestyle. Being forced to stay at home is the opposite of choice.

Still, I’m managing — and relishing the good moments.

Faithful to social distancing even during my 7 a.m. workouts in the park, as soon as I hear a sneeze behind me, I break away from the handful of walkers.

I make this practice now my routine.

I start to wander around the neighborhood when I come upon a green space between homes, and there, before me, a most gorgeous sun is rising above the lake.

No doubt, a gift from Mother Nature.

On my birthday, I return for an encore.

Then suddenly, a drizzle sweeps in, interrupting the revelry.

Alas, I had seen the clouds. I have an umbrella.

I look up at the heavens and smile.

That’s my father joining the birthday party.

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