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The Earnheardts | Celebrating a friend’s 50th birthday

It wasn’t until Mary Beth and I were back at home that it hit me: I didn’t just have a good time. I was nourished by the celebration. It felt like having a large drink of water after working in the yard all day. It was satisfying to feel alive again.
The Earnheardts: Clockwise from top: Mary Beth, Katie, Sadie, Adam, Ozzie, and Ella.

Last week, my good friend and colleague, Jaietta Jackson, turned 50. 

Now, I am a gentleman who would not normally out the age of a woman in the local news. But these are special circumstances. In the case of Jai, I’m sharing because she basically celebrated her birthday for an entire month. In doing so, she took her friends on an uplifting journey in the middle of a really crappy time.

When I got the “save the date” in late May, it struck me that there was something more than a little taboo about it. A birthday party? Like a real, honest-to-goodness, drinks and food and other goodies? For adults? 

After all, we’ve been living under lockdown for nearly 18 months now. Businesses closed. Weddings and graduations were postponed. No retirement celebrations. Loved ones who passed were buried without proper funerals. Up until a few months ago, I’d grown accustomed to living in a COVID world where parties were a strict no-no. Now, here’s my buddy Jai offering the forbidden fruit (for what it’s worth, Jai had candy-covered apples for goodies). 

As I thought about it, I started to sense what others were feeling: that under the right circumstances, celebrations are a must for our sense of psychological well-being, for cultivating connections with friends and for letting loose. 

We are allowed to do things like this again. For now, anyway. 

But then I started to worry that I just wouldn’t remember how. How to act like (a fun) adult. How to tell fun stories and connect with old friends and make new ones. How to dance (yes, “dance”).

Don’t get me wrong. I spent a good deal of my youth partying. I was in college for many (many) years. The 1990s were a good time to be a young man. I’m an extrovert who gains energy from being around people, and so I was very, umm, “energetic” in my 20s. As a matter of fact, one of the biggest problems for me during the pandemic was finding a way to cope with a lack of social interaction. Now I had a chance to socialize and celebrate the life of a good friend, and I was a little intimidated by the opportunity.

The party was a lot of fun. There was dancing and amazing food and a signature drink called “Jai’s Fabulous 50 Rum Punch”  (I have no idea what all was in it, but it came via a bartender who poured it from a magical jug). I saw friends from work and people from the community and we all laughed and talked and enjoyed each other. We also enjoyed the long-forgotten taste of freedom. We enjoyed feeling like unencumbered adults at play.

It wasn’t until Mary Beth and I were back at home that it hit me: I didn’t just have a good time. I was nourished by the celebration. It felt like having a large drink of water after working in the yard all day. It was satisfying to feel alive again.

I get that many people don’t often enjoy social situations the same way I do. Many have commented to me how freeing it felt to be locked down during COVID and the comfort they get from isolation. 

But I think that’s exactly what Jaietta’s party did for me. In my case, however, I found comfort in being freed from the lockdown. And I think her party came just at the right time.

Now we’re seeing new lockdowns and mandates because of the delta variant. While vaccines appear to do a good job of preventing serious illness from this more contagious strain, I’m worried this could be a setback. 

I haven’t given up on Fall, but it’s hard to not lose a bit of hope when our march “back to normal” takes a left turn down a dead end alley. When the vaccines first came out, I pushed aside any doubts and got it as quickly as I could register. I got the shot for many reasons, but perhaps the most compelling one was my kids.

Just like Jai, I turned 50 during the pandemic. By comparison, my 50th birthday in October 2020 was much quieter than Jai’s. And like many of you, I’ve struggled since March 2020 with navigating the do's and don'ts of COVID.

Still, for the most part I don’t feel like I’m missing out on much. This is but a brief blip in my life. 

I’ve made a lot of memories and gained a lot of youthful experience, but it’s a different story for my kids and their friends. My 8-year-old has spent about 50% of his life wearing a mask in public (his calculations, not mine; we’re working on his math skills). My 11-year-old gets to hang out with her friends on Google hangouts and not sleepovers. My 14-year-old is transitioning into her high school years with trepidation about quarantines. And my newly minted sweet 16-year-old hung out with her family on her milestone birthday this past weekend instead of having a big party with her classmates. 

We got closer to normal, but we’re not there yet.

If part of growing up is learning to manage expectations and delay gratifications, I predict that the pandemic kids will be especially good at this. I’m a heel for promising them that things are going to be better soon. Maybe I should have said, “sooner than later.” My tone is still always upbeat and hopeful when I remind them to pull up their masks and maintain a little extra distance when around other people.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my hope is starting to wane. I keep telling them that we’re going to have a mask-burning party. I no longer give a “Save the Date” for that party. 

It’s my own fault for feeling this way. I allow myself to hope that we’re close to the end. When my YSU students are feeling down because they’ve been spending “the best years of their lives” in Zoom meetings instead of Penguin tailgates and house parties, I’m the one who tells them that we’ll be back to being happy on campus “sooner than later.” 

In my lifetime, I’ve used hope to bring me through a lot of dark moments. It’s a powerful psychological force that humans need to survive tough times. 

As Dale Archer puts it in his Psychology Today article, “Hope is the belief that circumstances will get better. It's not a wish for things to get better — it's the actual belief, the knowledge that things will get better, no matter how big or small. It's the belief that at age 55, after a disaster where you've lost your home, car, and possessions — everything material, that you still have your health and family, and that you can and you will start over.”

Seeing Jaietta celebrate with the full force of her 50 years gave me hope when I needed it the most. Now I’m trying to share that hope with others. COVID isn’t sticking to a timeline, but with every celebration, I’m reminded that someday I’ll be partying with even more friends on a regular basis. 

Partying will be sweeter this time around because I’ll remember how hard life is without it.

Adam Earnheardt is professor of communication at YSU and member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists executive board. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn. 

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