In the first week of living together during the pandemic, my family went around in a circle and each shared our end-of-life wishes. I wrote them on a Post-it note and stashed it under our emergency bean supply.
In the second week, after a screaming fight that ended in tears, we implemented a strict democratic protocol for movie night selections.
And in the winter of 2020, after months of living together, my family — three adult children in their 20s and two parents — conference-called a doctor and held a lively debate about whether or not I should be allowed to kiss the guy I was dating.
Three years since the pandemic was declared, I feel a deep gratitude that something as simple as exchanging a kiss no longer feels like a potentially life threatening event. But I also feel some nostalgia — not for the neuroses and fear, but for the time when so many people prioritized saving each other, again and again.
I feel some nostalgia — not for the neuroses and fear, but for the time when so many people prioritized saving each other, again and again.
the author on three years of covid-19
Every day before vaccines were made widely available, I worried about myself and everyone I knew dying. That fear was not unfounded: Over 1,100,000 Americans have died so far from COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization. That’s more than twice the estimated number of Americans who died in World War II. I don’t understand the desire to minimize this — as if it were a bad dream or an unsubstantiated rumor, instead of a magnificent loss.
My family is Jewish. We are culturally conditioned to live in the shadow of death. For us, the pandemic was in some ways affirming. Finally, a large chunk of the world saw things the way we do — how a single wrong move could bring an end to the precious project of being alive. Detractors say that social distancing was no way to live. I don’t see it that way — it takes a true love of life to sacrifice some of it in the hopes of surviving to see much more.
The vaccine has made life safer and more joyful. But I miss the way the early days of the pandemic motivated people to reach out and help one another.
My family had an objectively easier time than most, privileged with good health and work-from-home jobs. And so my parents saw no reason why the search for a life partner should be stopped by a tiny thing like a global pandemic. “Why don’t you try some of those dating apps!” my dad suggested, as if I was a romantic comedy heroine and he was my devoted friend and sidekick. Dating during a national emergency while living in a bedroom with a Mickey Mouse poster did not immediately appeal to me. But as the boredom set in, I began to guiltily swipe on apps. I looked at each face and thought, “Could I like you enough to risk my parents’ lives?”
I met a man for a date in a park, and we sat in chalk circles six feet apart, shouting, “Do you have siblings?” at each other. Twice, my parents drove me to my dates, stopping to let me out a block away. I would check behind me to make sure my mom wasn’t watching me greet my date, the way she once might have lingered to watch an after-school dance practice. Except now I was 27.
One fall day, I walked down a beach, searching for my date in the fog. We sat on far ends of a giant piece of driftwood and watched the sun sink into the ocean.
“I wanted to kiss you as we were saying goodbye, but felt that would negate all of our social distancing efforts,” he texted me afterward.
“I wanted you to kiss me, but I was also afraid of the public health implications,” I wrote back.
Under normal circumstances I would not make my romantic decisions subject to family committee approval. But sharing the same airspace during a pandemic caused by a respiratory virus felt almost like sharing a single set of lungs. And if I wanted to be able to insist that my parents avoid going physically into work or lingering at the grocery store, I had to make my personal decisions part of our democracy, too.
So I pitched them my idea: I would kiss this guy, and then commit to wearing a mask indoors for a week. My family responded with uproar.
“That’s so unfair!” my brother complained, as if we were fighting over the TV remote, rather than my dating life.
I had been ruthlessly enforcing our family safety protocol for months. Trying to bend them now was obviously hypocritical. We argued late into the night. Eventually, we agreed to phone a doctor, a family friend. Before we dialed, we agreed on some ground rules: Everyone would get to make their case, and have a chance to air their grievances. We would abide by the doctor’s ruling.
Dr. Neil, who had been about to go to sleep, listened with some confusion.
“So let me get this straight — you wanna French someone?” he said, groggily.
Like a pathologist with a cadaver, Dr. Neil neatly took apart my plan. Kissing is a wildly risky activity during a respiratory virus, he explained. It would make no sense to take so many precautions and then suddenly start kissing people.
“No Frenching while you live with your parents,” he said. And that was final.
Time passed, kiss-less, dull. Finally, my parents made a plan to go on a socially distanced road trip. Once again, I brought my case to the table — I could kiss the guy I was dating, and when my parents came back a few days later, we would plan to wear masks and stay physically distant in the house anyway, in case they were infected on their trip. We were all taking our own thoughtful risks. I was even ready to get Dr. Neil back on the phone. But they agreed: permission to kiss, granted. I texted my date the good news.
“I’ll look forward to kissing you next week!” he wrote. “Covid man, lol.”
At the outdoor bar I was transported back to the feeling of being 15, the sublime sense that my first kiss was moments away, wondering where my teeth would go. This time felt just as surreal, just as far past the border of my imagination. After our drinks, my date drove me home. Simply being in a car with another person felt outrageously intimate. He idled on my street corner, and we turned to each other and kissed. I didn’t obsess over invisible particles, over air flow and data, over the terrifying reality that life includes death.
Afterward, I alerted the family.
“Mazal tov on your kiss!” my mom texted.
My parents came back from their trip, and the days got colder and darker, and cases spiked in our city. I didn’t need a family discussion to know that kissing was out of the question. Death numbers in our state exploded. Extended family and friends got sick and were hospitalized. Desperate with fear, my siblings and I unleashed lectures on our parents that almost trumped the safety talks they had delivered to us as children.
During the height of the pandemic, we felt connected by every molecule of every breath of air. We still are. I know how lucky I am that my family is intact, that I am not living through the hell of losing a friend or family member to COVID. In the memories of the people who did die, we can continue to practice our better impulses from the worst days of the pandemic — donating generously, protecting each other with masks, factoring family and strangers into our decisions.
There is so much we wish to forget about that time. But I don’t want to forget the feeling that every moment is precious: a family squabble, an evening stroll, even the delicate thrill of a first kiss.
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