My birthday present this year? Stories.

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By Dana Gerber, Deputy News Editor

Almost nothing about my 21st birthday will be how I imagined. It won’t take place in a crowded bar. My friends won’t buy me frozen margaritas and toast to another year in the books. I won’t celebrate in a nice restaurant with my family. No waiter will bring me a slice of chocolate cake as the other patrons awkwardly clap along to “Happy Birthday” (which, for the record, was not a moment I was particularly looking forward to anyway).

In all likelihood, my Nov. 28 birthday festivities will consist of a homemade cocktail with my mom and a nice meal from DoorDash. And that’s okay—COVID-19 has wrought unimaginable suffering on individuals and families around the world, and I am very cognizant that more than 200,000 people in the United States alone will never have another birthday at all. 

But, to commemorate my special day, I racked my brain to try to think of gift ideas. What I really wanted—what everyone, it seems, wants—is some semblance of normalcy back. Hugging. Gathering. Celebrating. The best birthday present I could think of is a vaccine. But in lieu of that, I came up with the next best thing: Stories. 

I’ve always been a voracious consumer of stories. Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary were among the prized jewels of my childhood bookshelf, but my favorite stories were, and continue to be, the ones my family shared with me. My mom, remembering when her dad took her to see “Mary Poppins” in the theatre, the peanuts she filled up on during the pre-show dinner, and the cinder in her eye after the movie. My dad, living through famous Buffalo winters when he couldn’t be bothered to stop reading a book when his baby sister arrived home from the hospital. My brother, who I pestered for years to retell the tales of how he slept through classes but woke up knowing the answers when teachers called on him. 

For my birthday, I asked my family to each write down one story from their childhoods. It could be any one they chose. Perhaps for my mother it will be her college years, dancing to “Rich Girl” by Hall and Oates down the hallways of her Duke University dorm. Maybe my father will recount how he stole a desk chair from the Columbia University library, walking right past security guards. If I’m lucky, my brother will put pen to paper on how he used to do impersonations of Pokémon characters to entertain me as a toddler, as I clapped and screamed for more. 

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I treasure these stories, each of them a gospel of unshakeable wisdom, humor, or guidance. I silently tracked the edits made during each retelling, a quote changed or a detail omitted. These stories offered a coherency that only narratives can bring, giving me the hope that someday, stories of my life would present themselves confidently in my mind, too. A roadmap of my most mortifying and glorious waystations, a collection of mementos proving, “I was here.” Folklore, passed down, proving what can be survivable and what, against all odds, can be memorable. 

If there is one thing this year has robbed us of, it’s a stable sense of time, and how we orient ourselves in it. The days and weeks and months blend together, a disorienting blur of tragedy. Narratives are precious things, and they require a certain amount of retrospect to develop naturally. As we continue to be thrown this way and that by this year’s turmoil with no chance to reflect, I’ve craved nothing more than to know what my character arc is right now. To know whether this moment is exposition, conflict, or resolution. To know how this story ends. 

The most valuable present I can be given right now is the safety of secondhand memory, set in ink for perpetuity. Nothing about this year is certain or stable, and I want to be reminded of times that were. Of moments of intimacy, of maskless celebrations. I will live vicariously through these stories until it’s safe to make more of my own. 

And maybe someday, I will write down my own stories of living through the past six months. The days that seemed to stretch on forever; the friends I saw from six feet away; the birthday that came and went unceremoniously. The anxiety. The joy. The relief. Someday, it will all just be a story we tell—and that will be the best gift of all.