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I Don’t Know What to Say When Reuniting With Family After COVID-19 Vaccination

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Last week, the doorbell rang while my siblings and I were watching a movie. Had somebody forgotten their key? I did a mental head count. Dad in the kitchen, Mom napping upstairs. My three siblings, recently reunited for the first time in a year and a half, sitting against the glow of the screen. “Who is that?” my sister asked. I burrowed deeper into my bean bag, straining to hear the front door open.

I don’t know when I became afraid of doorbells. Over the COVID-19 pandemic, I have preferred our door closed. I have carefully scheduled every person to enter, noting the arrival of the HVAC repair person in my calendar. In isolation with COVID-19, my husband and I tried to explain through the wood to the grocery delivery person that we couldn’t open the door. Now my feet tense against the carpet, and I look at my siblings’ faces around the TV, the doorbell’s ring carrying down the stairs, asking them silently if it’s OK.

I got vaccinated in a converted hospital atrium. Waited in one of the dozens of chairs spread out in familiar 6-foot intervals. Got up with my group when our time slot was called, shifting slightly in line when told to distance. Somebody pointed at a cubicle, I sat down and got the shot. One of hundreds that day. And I liked this feeling, the efficiency and namelessness. I liked being one of a crowd of strangers, our lives changed. Soon I could see my family again.

We heard the front door open, and somebody was laughing. My sister paused the movie.

“I think it’s Tita Elena,” I said. We went upstairs.

I’ve had a couple of these meetings now, with more peripheral family and friends that I saw at baptisms and graduations before the pandemic. People are reentering my life. I’m happy to see them, happy to compare vaccination dates, hear updates on the heights of kids, the graduations and baptisms I missed. Eventually, we say, “What a year, awful year. Terrible.” We frown at each other, we wave our hands for emphasis.

And that’s where it ends. I try to communicate, with a raise of my eyebrows, shaking my head — that I know what they mean. I tell myself I’ll come up with better adjectives next time. “Horrifying,” maybe. “This year was like a nightmare,” I’ll say. I’ll wave my hand for emphasis. “Do you know, I woke up one morning and I thought to myself, ‘We’re surrounded by death.’ And I couldn’t get that out of my head, sometimes I felt like I was choking!” Then they’ll nod, ask about our new apartment, and I’ll exclaim that their kid can’t be taller than me now.

But I can’t say all that. It would take too long, for one thing. These are the kinds of interactions where we’re standing up, passing each other in the driveway while my uncle heads back to his car. I’m not going to roll out my tales of two new anti-anxiety meds and nine days’ COVID isolation, Zoom Christmas and sirens, while the movie is paused downstairs. A lot of people lived through more terrible losses.

Even if I had time, cleared out an hour and sat down with everybody one-on-one, do people want to talk about the worst of our lives? Isn’t it nicer to hear about birthdays and summer camp?

I could ask. What people lost, how people survived the last year. Sometimes I catch the question forming, but I can’t figure out how to fit it in, between the laughter and delayed half-hugs. And I don’t know how I’d answer if a more distant relative or friend asked me. I want to forget what I can. But sometimes I do check my memories, of counting my breaths in isolation or stuffing our grocery cart with canned beans when the pandemic was first declared. To make sure I still have them. So maybe I want to be asked.

I want to believe I could listen, if people started answering. I want to believe I wouldn’t turn away or fall into a script of “I’m so sorry.” That somehow I’d learn how to hold their losses. Maybe that’s why I don’t ask — because I don’t trust myself in that moment, waving and exclaiming in the driveway, to receive other people’s pain.

I wish I would ask. Or I wish I would find something better to say. Something to say that shows that where they’ve been matters to me. That the last year isn’t a secret. I stand in the driveway smiling, overwhelmed with faces I’ve missed.

But we’ll talk more next time. They’re in my life again.

“What a year, awful year,” I’ll say for now. “It’s so good to see you again. I’m so glad to see you again.”

Getty Images photo via Hector Pertuz

Originally published: June 25, 2021
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