Charlotte Bitner had the flu for her 6th birthday, a devastating blow when you’re finally old enough to appreciate that the annual party with cake and candles is actually for you.
Charlotte, though, is an easygoing kid. She understood that when you’re sick, you stay home, stay away from friends and postpone the party.
She was fine with postponing the party until her next birthday, she told her mother.
Last week, her next birthday came. She turned 7 on Wednesday.
But this year, the world is sick, or at risk of becoming sick, with COVID-19. This year, everybody is staying home, staying away from friends. This year, everything is postponed indefinitely.
For the second year in a row, there will be no birthday party for Charlotte.
That broke her mother’s heart.
“Things are so unusual for kids, and all their routines, the usual parts of their lives, the benchmarks,” Sarah Bitner said. “They can’t play with their friends, can’t have parties or play dates. Charlotte loves school. She misses school so much, and she can’t go to school.”
Neither can Bitner, a teacher at Charlotte’s school. Husband Ludie Bitner, who works at Sandia National Laboratories, is home for the duration, too, along with Charlotte and her sisters Eowyn, 11, and Mara, 3.
So Sarah Bitner and her friend Heather Greene started thinking of something they could do to make Charlotte’s birthday happy in the time of coronavirus.
And then it came to them: They couldn’t throw a party, but they could throw a parade.
Bitner put out the call on Facebook: Looking for people with cars willing to join in a small socially distanced birthday convoy for a few minutes to give a wave and a little joy to a girl turning 7 in self-isolation.
The response was overwhelming.
“I was just flooded with people willing to do this,” Bitner said. “There were people from my old job, teachers and parents from school, friends of Charlotte’s, old classmates of mine, some who I haven’t seen in ages, some who have never met Charlotte.”
Bitner said her family even checked with the city, calling 311 to make sure that a little parade wasn’t breaking any rules.
“I mean, what is ‘essential’? How do you deem what is essential?” she said. “The city told us it was OK, absolutely.”
Parade participants, most of whom did not know each other, arrived at Cutler Park, not far from the Bitner home in the Inez neighborhood, around 6 p.m. Wednesday. They lined up in their vehicles, many adorned with balloons and banners and crepe paper, until their colorful cavalcade nearly ringed the entire park.
To keep everything a secret, Bitner lured Charlotte and her sisters out in front of their house with the suggestion that they draw on the sidewalk with the colored chalk she supplied.
And then with a few light beeps of a car horn and a froth of pink balloons bobbing from a rear window, they came.
For six minutes, the parade rolled along before the Bitners – 27 vehicles in all.
Leading the parade were two cars carrying Charlotte’s maternal and paternal grandparents.
It was a joyous procession of waving hands, smiling faces, gifts passed gingerly from rolled-down windows. There was laughter and cheers and good wishes and, yes, a few happy tears, all for a little girl who gleefully took it all in.
For those few moments, the worries of the day and the disease melted away.
“For these minutes of our lives, it wasn’t about the coronavirus,” Bitner said.
Charlotte is busy now writing thank you cards to those who participated in her parade. Bitner is thankful, too, so proud that her community, scattered and disjointed as it is at the moment, came together to make her daughter smile.
She knows the people who showed up were smiling, too.
“I think people just wanted to be a part of society again,” she said. “This is such a scary, lonely time, and for a few minutes people got to do something together again.”
In this strange new world that seems less familiar, more frightening, it’s good to remember that even now we’re still marching in the same grand parade.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.