(Above – every holiday with my family ends with people dancing in the kitchen. I don’t know why. This was a few years ago. Yes, there is box wine. And yes, my mother, at left, is a knock-out.)
It’s Christmas Eve, and I am at home. I can’t remember the last time this has been true. It’s been more than a decade, and probably closer to two. I’m usually down in California at this time of year, listening to the seasonal screams of my family while opening incomprehensible gifts from my mother. But nothing this year has been normal, and the holidays are no exception.
Recently, a dear friend told me that he was going to visit his family for the holidays. He’d been isolating, but they hadn’t been nearly as careful. They were planning an indoor dinner, and he was going to attend. There was an aging relative he wanted to see. Keeping my voice as steady as I could, I told him that it was his decision, but I didn’t think it was a wise one.
“It might be our last holiday together,” he said. I was only half-paying attention. Mostly, I was trying not to sputter like a coffee pot. The force of my own anger blindsided me. This holiday season has been the busiest stretch of travel since the pandemic began. Airports are packed with people.
What if this is my last holiday with them? I’ve heard this refrain countless times this season – every time someone flouts CDC recommendations in order to visit family members. It’s a hard sell for me. I never spent a single holiday with my father, nor a birthday that I know of (if they did happen, I was too small to remember them). The closest we ever came is that one year, around 2005, that I went to Oktoberfest with him and my mother. (I realize that this is a very niche piece of travel advice, especially given that my father has been dead for four years, but still I offer it to you: do not go to Oktoberfest with my parents.) I’ve written a lot about my dad – how I struggled to accept him within the confines of who he was, the scarcity of the time we spent together. I have memories of him, and I pull them out on occasion when I want to sit in that space, in the cold, efficient, reliable austerity of who he was. I know that memory is a malleable thing, so I try not to do this often. What I remember of him sits on periphery of my mind, because I know if I look at it head on, it’ll change, or worse still, vanish altogether.
The last time I saw him was years ago in a hospital room in Germany. It was not a holiday. It was not anyone’s birthday. I don’t even remember the exact date – I only know that I wondered if it would be the last time I saw him, because I wondered that every time I saw him. That was the nature of our relationship – so much time spanned between our visits that it was completely reasonable to assume that one of us might expire before we saw the other again. Despite this, I clearly didn’t say anything memorable or poignant. Those moments are impossible to engineer. Even when you try to make a goodbye meaningful, the last time you see someone is never, ever going to be enough. Even when you expect it or plan for it or know its coming, you’re never really ready to lose someone.
I remember the last words my dad said to me. They were wholly inconsequential.
All this is to say that when you tell me you need to have another holiday with your relative, when that act might actually be the thing that kills them or you or someone else, I am unpersuaded and honestly, a little hurt. When you say it is your decision, and that you are accepting the risk for yourself, I want to draw you a diagram of how diseases spread and then I want to roll up that diagram and smack you with it. When you argue it might be your last Christmas together, I wonder, truly, what makes you so goddamn special. For those of us who have already had our last Christmas with the people we love, or never had one at all, these words sting in a way I can’t describe.
I went a lifetime without seeing my father for the holidays, and I can tell you: you will survive it. But losing someone when they are far away, and being unable to go to their funeral is a far worse thing, and one that I don’t recommend. No one deserves that. Not you, not your loved ones, and not some random stranger who sat too close to you on a flight or a bus. I want you to do everything you can to avoid that.
I know you’re fed up. We’ve all given up so much of our “before” lives in this pandemic, already. To have this taken from us, too – knowing that we might not get another one with our families, is enough to make you rebel. No, no, fuck this. I’m hopping on a plane, I’m getting in the car, I’m seeing people, because that is, like, the fundamental thing that makes us human.
It feels so strange for me to tell you not to do this. Me, who clings to the people in my life like a bead of water on the hood of a car – the kind that you wipe away with your finger only to have it instantly reappear. I want the world to return to normal just as much as you do. When this pandemic ends, I promise we will celebrate every single holiday and celebration we missed – possibly all at once. We will run in the streets and scream and dance and hug strangers. It will be Christmas and New Year’s and Halloween and your birthday and mine. It will be every special day you ever missed. It will be every holiday I never had with my father.
I want us all to be there, together. And for that to happen, we have to stay home this year, and have a quiet, lonely Christmas. With any luck, it’ll be the last one.