We had just hung up on our weekly FaceTime call with my parents when my 9-year old daughter said, hopefully, “We’ll see them at Thanksgiving, right?”
Across the room, my 7-year old son looked up at me from his puzzle and his eyes lit up. “They have to come! I want to show Pop my Legos, and I bet he can help me build a wood swing with my new toolbox.” You could just see his little wheels turning — imagining all the fun things he would do with his grandpa during their next visit.
It had been a long time since we last saw them — Thanksgiving 2019, to be exact. We had never gone this long without seeing each other, not even when I lived abroad.
I felt tears pricking at my eyes. “I’m not sure, guys…” I trailed off. They turned to me, crestfallen.
The truth was, I knew the answer, deep down: We wouldn’t be having Thanksgiving with my parents. I just wasn’t prepared to throw up the white “surrender” flag and admit the sad truth to myself or my kids. We’d all sacrificed so much already; the hope of “next time” and “soon” was all we had left. The approaching holiday season — coupled with my kids’ obvious disappointment — was only making the pit in my stomach feel even hollower.
In pre-Covid times, with my sister and parents on the East Coast, my brother and his family on the West Coast, and us smack in the middle in Texas, my close-knit family typically saw each a couple times a year. While we’d often do our own things, we’d also all save up our money and bank vacation time in order to plan trips together — not because we “had” to but because we wanted to.
Most years, we’d meet up at my parents’ house in New Jersey in the summer; everyone would come to us for Thanksgiving; and we typically spent spring break somewhere warm, like Mexico, Puerto Rico, or Jamaica. This past spring, we had skipped our usual spring trip in favor of an upcoming extended-family reunion in Italy in June … but Covid-19 had other plans. We were left with a blank calendar and no viable option for us to all see one another IRL.
True, these semi-annual gatherings don’t make up for how we’ve never had a random Sunday dinner together, or joined the same book club, or have the grandparents do some last-minute babysitting. But we have always focused on quality over quantity, instilling in our kids to have a grateful heart for what time we do get together because it’s so special and focused.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has only heightened the reality of our physical distance. Like millions of families around the U.S. who have been separated from one another since March, we had all been hoping things would be better by this point. We were really looking forward to Thanksgiving. And because, in recent years, at least, Thanksgiving has been close to Hanukkah and my daughter’s birthday, we usually celebrate this trifecta of simchas during this special time when we’re all under the same roof.
This year, however, bringing four disparate groups of people together seems reckless.
Over the summer, perhaps naively, I kept thinking: If we do as Dr. Fauci says — if we social distance and wear masks and wash our hands and stay out of crowded indoor places — the Covid-19 pandemic would maybe begin to fade into the background. I thought that Thanksgiving as we know it would actually happen. After all, our kids are back in school and on the soccer field, and we’ve been OK thus far (ptu ptu ptu).
But now, I realize in my desire to see the world as the eternal optimist I am, I fooled myself into thinking things could be different. And here we are, in the middle of a contentious election cycle, in which coronavirus has taken a front-row seat and with flu season just around the corner (PSA: get your flu shot!), that ember of hope has been all but extinguished.
Of course, I’m grateful we are alive, healthy, and employed — but I’m also angry and sad. I’m angry and sad that because of the pandemic, I haven’t seen my parents or siblings for nearly a year. I’m angry and sad that my kids haven’t been able to hug their grandparents, aunts, uncle, or cousin. I’m angry and sad that we are still nowhere near a finish line. And I’m angry and sad that the number of cases that drove our governors to issue stay-at-home orders in the spring now pale in comparison to the daily infection rates that we are seeing now in states like mine.
As a country, we are acting like we’re “over” this pandemic — but the pandemic isn’t “over” us. In fact, as of this writing, more than 220,000 Americans have lost their lives and 8.2 million have been infected. Cases and hospitalizations are rising in more than 40 states. We’re not out of the woods yet, no matter what the president tells you. In fact, some epidemiologists argue we may not have gotten through the first wave yet.
As a result, Thanksgiving will be painful for many. Some have lost loved ones to Covid-19 and are still mourning. Those “firsts” without their family members won’t be easy. Some are struggling with job losses and financial strain. And some — like my family — are not going to gather even though we desperately want to because, as Fauci says, it’s simply not the right thing to do right now.
The harsh reality is, we are probably going to be in this state of limbo, with no definitive “next time” on the calendar to look forward to, for quite a long time yet. And, in order to cope, I’m trying to simply “sit” with these feelings, and I’m encouraging my kids to do the same. Right now, I’m feeling sad and mad — and that’s OK.
It’s OK to feel this way. It’s OK to feel like FaceTime and reading The Invisible String (our family’s favorite book about how we are all connected, even when apart) simply aren’t enough. They’re a nice substitute, but they aren’t the same thing as a hug.
None of us have lived through a global pandemic before. And in this unprecedented and uncertain moment, I believe that one of the most important lessons we can teach our kids right now is it’s OK to not be OK. Of course, we want them to learn to talk about uncomfortable things, and cope with unpleasant emotions in healthy ways, like our long bike rides and Yahtzee nights. But I also want them to know that even mommies and daddies miss their parents, too, and, just like our children, we have sad days and we have bad days.
Thanksgiving may not look the same this year for our family, or for yours, but I have to have faith that the pandemic won’t last forever. I’ll continue to believe that, someday soon, if everyone masks up and does their part — God willing, next year — we’ll be passing the cranberry sauce, spinning the dreidel, blowing out my daughter’s birthday candles, and catching up on all the lost time we have missed.
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