Last year when I started scribbling down notes for DorkySon’s birthday blog post, I thought it would be the trickiest one I would ever have to write. We had just spent a week in Auckland for his 10th birthday, and I was struggling to work out how I could fit in all the chat about our trip with my usual reflections on the year that had just ended. There was just too much to say.
How I wish that the hardest thing about this year’s blog post was how to fit birthday cake, a business class upgrade, and a busy weekend in another city into 1200 words.
Instead, I’m wondering how to write about turning 11 in the middle of a worldwide pandemic.
In this family – as in every family – we have spent the last few weeks trying to find a balance. How do we make all the necessary adjustments to our life while also trying to keep things as normal as possible? How do we stay informed about what’s going on without getting sucked into the 24-hour news cycle? How do we find ways to comfort and reassure each other, while also providing a space where it’s okay to admit when we feel scared or upset?
Throughout these strange days, DorkySon has been an absolute champ.
“This is a pretty intense time,” he said, at some point last week.
“It’s okay. But it’s a bit overwhelming sometimes. And very intense.”
DorkySon has never asked for a birthday party. Never. Every year we have offered, and every year he has said no. But earlier this year – during the long summer holidays that already feel like a lifetime ago – we took him go-karting for the first time. He enjoyed it so much that he said this would be the year for a party. Not a big one, but a few friends and a day at the race track.
Clearly that didn’t happen.
Nor did the visit from his Grandpa, who was due to arrive in Tasmania from Scotland the day before his birthday. Nor did the twilight harbour sail on the SV Rhona H, the apple pie at Willie Smith’s Apple Shed, or even the quick trip to Toy World to choose a new monster truck. Everything was cancelled.
DorkySon’s birthday plans last week were downgraded to a day of favourite foods at home: Coco Pops for breakfast, a tuna sandwich for lunch, and penne with pesto for dinner – followed by a generous slice of red velvet cake. The quick photo I snapped on my phone of him blowing out the candles reminds me that he didn’t get out of his pyjamas all day.
We know that we are lucky. We know that this slightly boring 11th birthday is a very minor consideration in the grand scheme of things. We know there are so many things to feel grateful for: the protection that Tasmania’s island status affords us, the availability of food and water, our easy access to high quality healthcare, the sense of community, and the technology that keeps us connected with friends overseas.
We are deeply grateful for the incredible holiday we managed to fit in just before the world started to fall apart. We talk so often about the week we spent in Hawaii in January – the chance to catch up with family, the sunshine, the poolside drinks and the rainbows. What an incredible experience, that now seems all the more precious because we don’t know when we’ll have the chance to do it again.
We are also so appreciative of the small things we often took for granted: the herbs we have growing under the kitchen window, the branches weighed down by ripening apples, and the sweet lemons that are just starting to appear on the tree.
Two pademelons have moved into the garden next door, and every evening at dusk when they come out to feed, DorkySon climbs out the window to watch them. There is an oval across the road, where on even the rainiest of days we head out for some muddy, speedy circuits on our bikes; and ten minutes away there’s a beach that has remained quiet enough for us to walk there a couple of times a week.
DorkySon’s chosen place to chat recently has been over Lego. During one of the public holiday long weekends in February – which also feels so very long ago – we dumped out several boxes of mixed bricks.
We started off with a farm. DorkySon built some cornfields and harvesting equipment. But it got boring waiting for the corn to ripen, so we started to diversify: first to a small plot of land with a duck pond, flowers, cherry orchard, and stalls for selling produce. We turned the farm cottage into an Airbnb, and added some beehives and apple trees. Then we planted a field of tulips, before adding some cows, sheep, pigs and chickens. A vineyard appeared (dog friendly), offering wine tastings and wood fired pizza. So too did a recreation area for cycling, kayaking and birdwatching.
Then – this is where we jumped the shark a bit! – we built some trails for dirt bikes and ATVs. Next came a country club with swimming pool, golf course, and resident alligator. By the end I think we’d also added a petrol station and mechanic’s workshop.
The farm has now been dismantled. We were starting to run out of floor space and ideas. But throughout term one we continued to have a Lego session every afternoon after school. DorkySon usually made some kind of vehicle. I found it more soothing just to sort – to pick out red bricks, or headlights, or coffee cups.
The building was irrelevant really – it was just a chance to catch up on the news of the day, and to talk about what was going on in the world. Sometimes it was small stuff: how the friendship groups were settling in at school, what subjects they were going to cover in HASS that week, what kind of dog had escaped from a nearby house and invaded the upper oval during PE.
Other times it was bigger stuff. As the weeks went by, the constant background buzz of news about Covid-19 became harder and harder to ignore.
I say this every year, and every year it is true. 10 is such an in-between age.
DorkySon has done so many things as a 10 year old that have genuinely blown me away. He has been to his first campaign protest – a paddle out for the Great Australian Bight at our local beach. He has helped out on countless Sea Shepherd stalls and clean-ups; has given talks about activism to the teachers at his own school, and to students at another school. He has joined the Student Council, and has written thoughtful assignments on huge topics like US-Iran relations, Australian bushfires, and the Murray-Darling River plan. He had his first fancy, late night out – a fundraising dinner for the Tasmanian F3 driver Alex Peroni – and continues to stay in touch with Alex and his family.
But for every action he takes that is a step closer to adulthood, we try and remind him that it’s not his job to fix every problem. We remind him that it is still important to play. For every dystopian novel on his shelf, there’s also a collection of Garfield comics. He likes to sit and watch the news with DorkyDad every evening – but he also likes to shuffle through to the kitchen every morning when I’m making breakfast and show me the latest puppy video on WeRateDogs. He might not be as keen on hugs and hair ruffles anymore, but we still read Harry Potter in bed at the weekend.
We can’t wait until we can get out again and do normal things. Family things. Kid things. Swimming lessons. An afternoon at the bowling alley. Mini-golf. An ice cream at the waterfront. We can’t wait to walk in Tasmania’s beautiful national parks again; to visit our friends; to dance and eat and laugh at a local festival.
In the meantime, we are adapting to the new normal. This time a week ago, DorkySon had never made a video call. Last week he had one with his teacher and classmates, and another with his fellow volunteers from Sea Shepherd Tasmania. I am sure there will be more to come.
We have said there is no pressure to be strict about schoolwork until after the Easter holidays, but he is still doing at least a couple of things each day without being nudged – Japanese lessons on Duolingo, speed typing, online maths. He is reading, drawing, and watching YouTube videos. We are playing endless games of hallway soccer and Uno. There are a few things that he is saving until he gets REALLY bored – a birthday Booktopia voucher to be spent, some downloaded movies, a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle.
None of us know yet when things will start to feel less strange – we are pretty sure it is going to be months rather than weeks – but if we have to be in lockdown with an eleven-year-old, I am glad it is DorkySon. He remains smart, resilient and engaged with the world. He is endlessly curious, kind, and compassionate. He makes us laugh every day, and we absolutely learn as much from him as he does from us.
Happy Birthday buddy. We are sorry it was a bit of a weird one, but it’ll definitely stay in the memory bank forever.
Maybe that party will finally happen next year…