Phantom Birthdays

To this day, my mom keeps a calendar crammed with details of every anniversary, birthday, vacation, doctor visit, and celebration to be observed, all kept up with the upmost accuracy.

Many years ago, however, she participated in a practice that only spread widely with the creation of Facebook. She continued to list birthdays even after the people celebrating them had died. This in itself wasn’t a problem, except that she kept adding to their years. Someone who had died at 83 would find themselves miraculously turning another year older the following year, despite being dead the entire time.

One day, my dad noticed that the dead were aging and stopped it with much humor and incredulity. Facebook doesn’t have the benefit of my dad, so unless one of the living has access to the account and takes it down, these phantom birthdays will continue, and like with my mom, you can see how old someone would have been had they not died years ago.

The first person I discovered this phenomenon with was Roger Ebert. His wife Chaz chose to keep both his Twitter and Facebook accounts active, and so every year on what would’ve been his birthday, she celebrates his life.

At least in his case, most people know he’s dead. With people who aren’t famous, it’s easy to wish someone a happy birthday without looking at their page, and so not see the large post announcing that person’s passing — particularly if they weren’t that active on Facebook.

When my friend Shigemi passed away, I didn’t find out until a year later, and so became the person who tried to tell her other Facebook friends that she was no longer alive. It was a shock when she died, as she wasn’t that old. More recently, another person I knew died, and while one hopes the number of tributes that line her page will alert anyone wishing to post birthday messages that she is no longer around to receive them, that’s only if you go to the page itself. She also sold her artwork through her own website. One wonders if people, even now, are attempting to place orders that will never be fufilled.

So that got me thinking about COVID. How many people have passed away who still have active Facebook accounts? How many birthday wishes are celebrating phantom birthdays? Unless the living have access to the accounts, there’s no way to close them. Depending on the permanence of Facebook, these accounts could survive long enough for their grandchildren to come across — a chilling reminder of a year like few others in history.

Nowadays, my mom only celebrates the living on her calendars. And I don’t have to worry about her becoming a phantom birthday on Facebook.

She doesn’t have an account.

One Year Ago Today…

One year ago today, I lost my job to the COVID-19 pandemic. I woke up that Friday the 13th to an email that the theaters were closing and all cinema staff were being let go. Over the ensuing weekend I witnessed how strong and giving our film community and my friends could be.Y’know that scene at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, where the townspeople only have to hear “George is in trouble,” to come running to help? It was like that.

I cannot possibly detail, in one blog post (or a hundred), what life has been like since then. Mostly I’ve been staying at home, only venturing out for food or other essentials, occasionally meeting with one or two people at a time (when it was allowed), and quarantining completely when it wasn’t. With the new variants appearing over the winter, I even limited my trips to the stores and got my food and other essentials online.

For mental health purposes, I’m lucky that I live with my girlfriend and our cat. Even so, it has suffered. Since the weather has gotten better, I’ve tried to go outside at least once a day, and on especially nice days, I’ve gone for 20-minute walks. Luckily, I don’t have major issues with depression or anxiety, and since Cheetos Jesus is no longer in the White House, my minor to moderate issues have gotten better, particularly since early January, where –due to world events and the weather — my anxiety was at its zenith.

I’ve also had to grapple with the false narrative that more free time = more productivity. If the US had a working safety net, then I would’ve had a more productive year, but worrying about if your money is going to run out and when a vaccine will be ready doesn’t help with concentration. Now, things look more stable, but I’m still not working, movie theaters are still closed, and I haven’t seen the majority of my friends in person for over a year. Even with Zoom calls and FaceTime chats, I miss meeting people in person, or going out to a show and sitting amongst strangers. At least I know I’m not gonna catch COVID if I walk the streets of my neighborhood (especially if I’m masked), but I’m still not riding the bus.

Just as the nation and the world has grappled with truths revealed during these COVID times, so have I. Before we know it, the world will be whole again. It cannot be the same world we left, unless we want present-day injustices and suffering to last several more generations. And I cannot be the same person I was, but must become the person I wish to be.

On March 22, Washington State will go to Phase 3 for the first time since the pandemic started. And with everyone eligible for the vaccine by May 1, combined with a ramp-up in vaccine production, the future is looking brighter than it did a year ago, when the lights went dark in the theaters.

Important Dates

When I first met my girlfriend, it wasn’t love at first sight, and it took almost a year after we started dating before I realized we were 1.) dating and 2.) in a relationship (she was a lot quicker to this realization than I was). Unlike what one sees in movies, most love stories don’t begin with a meet-cute between incredibly attractive individuals who have equally beautiful personalities. It often takes many people and many years. Sometimes, decades.

Because our relationship doesn’t have a clear start date, we’re missing some of the dates that other couples know instinctively. After much research, we discovered that the first day we met was July 3, 2014. My current girlfriend came in that day to interview for a volunteer usher position at the movie theater where I used to work. While that was on a Thursday, her volunteer day was Friday — a day I usually had off (or left early) because I had to wake up hella early on Saturday to either run the TOEFL test or invigilate the IELTS test. On the Friday before a TOEFL test, I also had to set up everything in the computer lab. So, while the next Friday I worked was a couple weeks after her training, I most likely left before she arrived. In fact, it wasn’t till October that I worked there again on a Friday, floating between two locations (so again, it’s possible I wasn’t there when she arrived). I asked her out the following Valentine’s Day (along with another volunteer — didn’t want to make it look like a date, after all), but she was in a relationship at the time, and neither I nor the other volunteer ended up going to the event.

The next opportunity to hang out was at my birthday (she was single by this point). My first photo with her is from that party. I’d gotten over my initial attraction to her, though, which is why, when she was hired to work during the film festival that year, she pursued me for much of it, while I rebuffed her. In most cases, that would’ve been the end of it.

Except that it wasn’t.

After festival, she was hired year-round at the movie theater. On nights when she worked the same hours I did, she offered to drive me home, which I gladly accepted (she did this with other coworkers, too). Parked in front of my shared house, we often found ourselves talking about many deep and personal things — things I had no one to talk to about. One of my housemates at the time saw right away that she was pursuing me, but I thought nothing of it because I wasn’t interested, obviously.

And then the shared house was sold and we all had to find different lodgings. At the same time, my current girlfriend was looking to move. At this point we were good friends, so I asked her if she wanted to look for apartments with me, since I didn’t want to move into a place with a bunch of strangers again. She agreed, and we ended up finding a place a week or two later.

So yes, fanfic readers, we were roommates.

Before we started looking for apartments together, though, we had what was, in retrospect, our first official date: June 24, 2015. Never mind the fact that her mom was there, too.

We moved in together on August 15, 2015 (we signed the lease on August 12). But when did we actually became a couple? It could be as early as when I went home for Christmas in 2015 and realized how much I missed her. Or it could be Valentine’s Day 2016, when I took her to see Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet at the ballet, despite my telling her it wasn’t a date afterwards (one of many moments in our early relationship where I wish I could travel back in time and smack some sense into my former self). Or later in 2016, when I went on a trip by myself for my birthday in order to be alone and write, and ended up doing most of my writing to her.

The latest it could possibly be, however, is June 2016. That is when we took a road trip to California to see her best friend get married. After that trip, I could no longer pretend we were just friends. The feelings ran too deep, but even then they weren’t a raging fire, more like a solitary flame that continues to grow larger and burn brighter. And yet what warmth it gives off! Unlike relationships which burn bright and fast, our feelings for each other have evolved — mine evolving much more slowly than hers (see comment above about smacking my former self).

One other date I can’t tell you is when we passed the honeymoon period of our relationship. I’m more in love with her now than I was back on that June day when I told her how I felt. I’m more in love with her than the first time I told her, “I love you” (she thought I said “Olivia,” which was the name of one of our pet rats). I’m more in love with her than I was in those first few years of the relationship, when I still wasn’t sure about us. At that point, neither of us — especially me — had much experience with romantic relationships, particularly ones that lasted longer than a few months. But we were living together and were both on the lease, which forced us to work out our problems where living apart might’ve made it easier to break up over stupid shit.

Not that we had many fights. Most of our early ones were about finances, which led to a rule about not discussing finances after midnight. Other fights had to do with us adjusting to each other’s quirks and lifestyles. Even with how stressful quarantine has been, we haven’t fought that much, and every time one of us has lashed out in anger, it’s been followed by an apology.

This year marks five years that we’ve been together, officially or unofficially. And while we don’t have an official date to commemorate the beginning of our relationship, at least we know how long it’s been since we first lay eyes on each other, only realizing in the intervening years how significant that day would be.