The Not-So-Distanced Past
I spent a recent Saturday in tears. The tears were of both varieties, the happy kind and the sad. I sat in front of my laptop, as my brother and sister-in-law shot me photos and videos from Nashville of the wedding of my only niece.
Alyssa was as beautiful as a lily, in her lacy white dress, whirling in the arms of her dad, of her new husband.
We all pored over the photos. We all longed to be there.
But every one of us also noticed something. There were far fewer guests than originally planned. And not a single one wore a mask.
Now, the winter holidays are here and COVID is back, bigger and badder than ever. And we keep learning more than we ever wanted to know about people and disease, people and dishonesty, people and denial. Some of these things are difficult to reconcile with what we thought we understood about ourselves and those close to us.
Back in the spring, even as increasing numbers of Americans were stricken and died, leaders were urging everyone back to church for Easter, then sounding the summer all-clear to head for favorite watering holes and beaches. Some people were just fine. Some were savaged by the virus.
The headlines rolled out:
Maine wedding “superspreader” event linked to seven deaths. None of those people attended.
We made the right decision for our family.
But making the so-called “right” decision is no protection against regret.
Our Alyssa’s wedding was truly a once-in-a-lifetime event. As I watched all those people laughing, dancing, toasting, it seemed a scene from an innocent, long-ago time. If we were there, we’d have been the ones wearing protective gear. We’d have seemed like outliers, who didn’t trust the good karma in the air.
But what else was in the air?
A friend’s son wasn’t going to risk coming home for Thanksgiving; he promised. Then he decided to surprise her and called her from the car. He was driving straight through, with a thermos of coffee and two peanut-butter sandwiches, nine hours of stopping to pee in the woods. His car is old; what if it breaks down, she asked? It would not be the first time. “What, do you think a serial killer is going to get me?” he laughed.
No, she thought, but didn’t say, a kindly tow-truck driver who gets you with a breath.
There are many kinds of regret linked to this crisis of health, of culture, or faith in institutions. As I watch news reports of people jamming the airports to head into the arms of their families for the holidays, I know I’m watching a triumph of hope over reason. In the recent past, when people disdained the evidence, folks such as I could sniff and shake our disapproving heads. They were “those” types, the deny-ers. But now, they’re all types. They’re people we respect, not motivated by greed or ambition, but by love and loneliness. To paraphrase Anais Nin, they want so badly to believe that it’s okay that they do. Just as we sometimes seem to think that people who are good-looking must also be smart and kind, we can make the error of thinking that people who are happy are also safe.
Still, it is an error, objectively. No amount of sweet intention can contravene that. And still, who can blame them? We’re taught all our lives, never make decisions out of fear. Now that is all we’re supposed to do.
This is the purest irony given that we know so much more than we did six months ago about this super-contagious virus. Most of those close to me follow the dictates of science over emotion. But that is getting more difficult as this tale of pain adds chapter after grim chapter. Dread is our familiar companion now. Surely we can cheat a little? Most people seem to be fine, except when they aren’t.
Five of Twenty Reunion Group Die of COVID
One of the things I hope is that we are not vindicated in our caution by—god-forbid—someone falling ill from an occasion we passed by.
I comfort myself that missing my family at my table and my niece on her wedding day might mean I’ll be around longer, for later occasions. But this is only another kind of wishing in the fickle wind that blows now … who knows which way it whist? What if we stay healthier, but the people who cheat a little stay healthy and are happier too? How do we mourn for the memories we now will never have? Even if we’re fortunate enough to be part of a family in which there have been no virus deaths, COVID itself is a death in the family, of the best of us, of optimism, trust and hope. The silly lack of regard some of us had—and some still have—for the gravity of this pandemic is chilling in retrospect.
But I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t love to feel that way, too.
Copyright © 2020 Jacquelyn Mitchard
Jacquelyn Mitchard is the author of 22 novels for adults and teenagers, including My Only, which will be out in May, 2021, from Mira/HarperCollins. A New York Times bestselling author, her stories have won or been short-listed for the Shirley Jackson Award, the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Bram Stoker Award and others. A member of the fiction jury for the 2003 National Book Awards, and a longtime journalist, she lives on Cape Cod with her family