How Isla’s sixth birthday became a day few Aussies will ever forget

Each day this month, we will publish Tales of 2020, the stories of ordinary Queenslanders enduring an extraordinary year. Today, Brisbane GP Dr Philippa Charters writes a birthday wish for her six-year-old daughter Isla about a celebration that will never be forgotten.

Dec 09, 2020, updated Dec 09, 2020
In 2020, when Anzac Day commemorations were restricted due to COVID-19 concerns, Mikaela Gonzalez played the Last Post on her trumpet from her family's driveway in Brisbane. (AAP/Dan Peled)

In 2020, when Anzac Day commemorations were restricted due to COVID-19 concerns, Mikaela Gonzalez played the Last Post on her trumpet from her family's driveway in Brisbane. (AAP/Dan Peled)

April 25, 2020

Dearest Isla,

It is still dark. Another hour at least before the sun starts to filter through the curtains.
Everything is quiet. The world is asleep (the world is in lockdown). No need to set an alarm this morning.

I hear your feet first. A thud as they hit the wooden floorboards, then quickening down the hall. The door flies open. You hurry to my side of the bed. Always my side of the bed. “Mum is it my birthday today?”

April 25, 2020. Your sixth birthday. ANZAC Day. But very different from the last five.
We tiptoe down the stairs, careful not to wake the baby. Dad is up. So is Jack. In the moonlit darkness we pass shadows of balloons and birthday gifts. There’s even a banner. You squeal with delight. But you keep walking past.

First we will pay our tributes to the ANZACS. This year there will be no street parades, public services, or mass gatherings. As a nation, we have been asked to mark the occasion by a simple gesture. To stand on our driveway. The extent of participation is unknown.

We collect a candle each as we walk past the kitchen. Dad flicks a match. The smell of sulphur dioxide sparks excitement. But these are no birthday candles.

We step out the front door. The autumn air is cool, even for Queensland. There is dew on the grass. The sky is still dark. The candles flicker and make moving shadows of tropical plants.

I see our neighbours. A young family of five. They stand quietly. Solemnly. They have candles too. I have a lump in my throat, and I clench your hand tightly. In that moment, my heart swells with love.

I see your bony little legs and wish that I had put some tracksuit pants on you. You must be freezing. But you don’t complain. I feel like the occasion has captured you, in the same way it has me.

You hold your brother’s hand, and you stand in silence. In the distance, a bugle plays the Last Post. Candles emerge along the street. Neighbours. Friends. Never has that distinction been so irrelevant.

We couldn’t go to the ANZAC Day service today. We’re in the middle of a Pandemic. A Pandemic that keeps us physically apart. Social distancing. Isolation. Quarantine. Runs on toilet paper. Fights in grocery stores. Suspicion. Fear. Anxiety.

And yet, here we are Isla. COVID-19 has not divided people.
We could easily have been alone on our street this morning. Like so much of life now, no-one really knows what happens next. But there we all are. Still scared, of course. Still anxious, no doubt.

But there is something bigger at play. Community. Compassion. A desire to do the right thing. Comradery. Respect.

The final note of the last post disappears and gives way to silence. It is so still. But soon, there are warm nods from across the street. Smiles even. The sound of lorikeet and minor bird starts to pierce the stillness.

They are oblivious to what has transpired on our street. Oblivious to what is transpiring in our world.

A warm orange glow appears on the distant horizon. Blue slowly replaces the black.
The light starts to reveal wreaths. Poems attached to letterboxes. Dedications to lost loved ones.

Newspaper clippings on fences. Chalked names on footpaths and driveways. Black and white photos of young men in military dress.

I keep tight hold of your hand and my heart fills with unimaginable love. I have you. I have my family. We slip back inside. Solemnity quickly gives way again to excitement. You are literally bursting. Let the birthday celebrations begin!

The day is a blur of phone calls and facetime messaging. The long-forgotten art of card writing has been reborn in this lockdown. You delight in opening each one.

We are constantly interrupted by family, friends. All wanting to make your day special.
Sadly, the disco invitations never got sent. Your special sequin dress stays in the cupboard. The lolly bags and food platters will have to wait another year.

Instead, we do what we have been doing for weeks now. We play in the yard. We jump on the trampoline. We splash in the pool. You are unbridled joy personified.

Your brothers are all the company you need today. But sooner than I care to think about, they won’t be.

We make fairy bread. Honey joys. Lolly bags for drive-by guests. It is SO much fun. Our neighbours have sprawled “Happy Birthday Isla” across the road.

Chalk has become the newest form of communication. Hope. Positivity. Our neighbours throw a present over the back fence. We yell out our “Thank-yous”. Apart, but not alone.

We break fairy bread over the fence. Afternoon conversations. Drinks in hand. It all felt so strangely normal. How lucky are we, Isla?

A car pulls up. Your friend jumps on the roof. Homemade posters. Crazy dancing while singing you Happy Birthday. You beam with happiness.

Another friend arrives. We play your favourite song and you both dance, separated by the front fence. It is almost the disco party you so desperately wanted. But it is so much more, Isla.

And now you’re in bed. You will never, ever, have a birthday quite as special as this one. I will always remember this time for its generosity of spirit. Discovering the pleasure of not being busy. Not being in a constant hurry. The comfort of family. The joy of family.

We have spent so much time together lately. It makes me realise how much I love being your Mum. Thank you for coming into my world six years ago kiddo.
Happy Birthday!

Love, Mum. XX

Dr Philippa Charters is grew up on the Gold Coast and married her childhood sweetheart. She has three young children and works as a GP in Brisbane.

This article was first published in Stories from the Heart, an e-book edited by Dr Johanna Skinner and editor Jane Connolly, and is republished with their permission.  

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