We agreed to meet them in the parking area outside the terminal. Diving into a sea of people after living all that time with what the Tribune columnist Dahleen Glanton called a “cave mentality” was a bridge too far. And what to do about hugs? All week we had been reading contradictory recommendations about the safety issues around this most human of gestures. We decided we would have to see where the moment took us.
We were awaiting the arrival of our daughter Elana, son-in-law Ben and ten-year-old granddaughter Dalia, whom we hadn’t seen since the previous February when we celebrated a big number birthday for Elana. About a month earlier we realized that there might be a chance to venture out of the cave for the Passover holidays because Elana was already fully vaccinated, Ben would have had his second shot several days before the trip and Dalia had been learning remotely all year and had limited contact with anyone outside her family. We realized that there was heightened risk because Ben’s immunity was not yet at full strength and wouldn’t be till after they left us. Then there was the exposure from the trip itself, the kind of travel we’re not ready to undertake yet ourselves. Fortunately, because they are three, they wouldn’t have to share a row with strangers. The risk calculus came down to this: How many more times will we be able to celebrate the Passover holiday together, given that the calendar is about to flip to 82 for both of us? We’re risk-averse people to a fault but this time the odds seemed strongly in our favor and we decided tomove ahead.
And there they were, passing through the doors that separate the terminal from the parking garage, Dalia rolling her familiar unicorn suitcase behind her. (When does the unicorn obsession fade away?) We were in each other’s arms in an instant. It was simply inhuman to withhold the hugs. I wasn’t prepared for the tears, though I should have been, given a year’s worth of pent up emotion. Elana’s were wordless and remained so until the end of the week when we deposited them at the entrance to the airport departure gates. There were times, she said then, early in the pandemic, when she wasn’t sure she would ever see us again.
I feel my own tears welling up as I write this because it called forth similar fears I had in the early months about things I might never be able to do again. Would I, for example, ever feel safe visiting a classroom again? As the months passed and the new reality became normalized those dark thoughts didn’t disappear, but they did recede into the background. I know that for many people this was not the case. For them the fog of despair thickened with time as wave followed wave until it seemed as if there was no exit. I’m not sure why I didn’t go down that rabbit hole. I had work to engage me and somehow that managed to keep the despair at bay.
Before our beloved visitors arrived, I wondered how we would look to each other. For people Elana and Ben’s age the changes over a year would be slight, probably undiscernible, but at Dalia’s end of the spectrum 13 months is a long time in the life of a pre-teen and lots of changes are brewing. Of course, we were regularly on Zoom with each other so there were not likely to be any huge surprises. Dalia had grown several inches but like her mother and grandmother, she had added some pounds from the combination of too much time in the kitchen and at the dinner table on the one hand and the largely sedentary life that we’ve all been forced into on the other.
At the other end of the spectrum I wondered how much of a year’s inevitable decline was inscribed on the grandparental faces and bodies. I had lost some weight for reasons unknown and Elana acknowledged that my face looked thinner. It was evident that Rosellen’s mobility was more labored than it was a year ago, but either our guests were not shocked by what they saw or they were too polite to telegraph their reactions.
From the moment we were all in the car time collapsed in on itself. The lost year fell away as we drove the usual route home. The sights were familiar and the routines well-rehearsed. There was the cot we borrowed for Dalia from neighbors, made up with the sheets decorated with ice cream cones that she had been looking forward to sleeping on. And there in the same room was the trundle bed which we had assembled for Dalia’s parents which when opened occupied most of the space that was their home for the week.
Then it was like checking the familiar boxes – preparing for the Seder nights; an excursion to the Botanic Garden, a little too early in the season for maximum pleasure but still welcome; a trip to the Art Institute where the free admission day crowd was a shock to these recent cave dwellers; as the days warmed, to the beach we’re blessed to have within walking distance of our apartment where Dalia built a mud drip castle and we skipped stones in the lake.
At home there were the endless table settings and table clearings, art projects, puzzles and games requiring dexterity that make Dalia shine even in competition with her parents. Ben planted pansies on our porch and gave our houseplants a much-needed haircut. It was all so normal when we knew that things aren’t normal at all yet, but the mental gymnastics of erasing the trials of a lost year were in full evidence.
Truth to tell, this was our second excursion outside the “cave.” A week earlier Rosellen’s brother Ralph and his wife Rona invited us to dinner at their apartmen., It was all kosher by the latest CDC guidelines – two fully vaccinated couples dining together while still observing appropriate social distance. This was as much of a bold coming out for them as it was for us. Sitting across the table from someone other than our regular cellmates required considerable adjustments, but the deep grooves cut by doing just what we were doing guided us into familiar patterns of conversation, telling family stories and trading television reviews.
Is this how it’s going to be as more and more parts of our lives return to “normal?” Did the survivors of 1918 bury their year of terror and isolation and slip effortlessly into an abnormal normal? Adaptability is an admirable and essential survival skill, but if it comes at the cost of forgetting, hitting minimize on our brain’s computer screen, that is frightening to contemplate. Emerging whole from this bizarre year means keeping the scars visible to show each other and the world that despite appearances we are not the same people we were before we entered the cave.