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There’s no ‘home for the holidays’ this year that isn’t fraught | Opinion

Even treasured moments of joy during this pandemic have come at a steep price.

Rachel Kramer Bussel at her home where she writes and edits in Egg Harbor Township, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020.
Rachel Kramer Bussel at her home where she writes and edits in Egg Harbor Township, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020.Read moreVERNON OGRODNEK / For The Inquirer

At the end of December, I’ll drive from New Jersey to Virginia with my boyfriend to spend Christmas with his parents, as I’ve done every year since 2012. We’re able to do this only because we know we aren’t risking their health or ours — and we’re keeping the group small.

Some aspects of our gathering will remain the same as usual: We’ll eat and drink from Santa plates and mugs and gorge ourselves on home-cooked meals and the 20 kinds of cookies his mom bakes. I’ll open presents from my personalized Hello Kitty stocking on Christmas morning, and they’ll make fun of me for falling asleep in their cozy purple recliner.

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But unlike in past years, we won’t go out to dinner at the fancy restaurant where they normally make reservations months in advance. Instead, we’ll dress up, and my boyfriend and his mom will recreate a version of the restaurant’s menu at home. We won’t go to the movies the day after Christmas. During our six-hour drive, we won’t stop for bathroom breaks; to do so would mar our festive celebration with worry. Instead, we’ll simply expand our now months-long bubble of two to a bubble of four for a week.

By contrast, my family celebrated Hanukkah not with a giant latke-making party, but over Zoom. With over 30 people in different states attending schools, jobs, and extracurricular activities, it would have been irresponsible and dangerous to meet in person.

The only reason my boyfriend and I are keeping our travel plans is that all four of us have followed strict quarantine guidelines during the pandemic. We all have health issues that put us in high-risk categories if we were to contract COVID. We’re also all privileged enough to spend almost the entirety of our time in our homes.

I’ve been as careful as possible, keeping trips out of the house to a handful, and I’ve also learned from my pandemic mistakes. I recall the fear I felt in the spring when I accepted a home-cooked meal from my nursing school attendee neighbor, both of us maskless. I took the plastic bag from her hand, rather than having her place it on the chair outside my door.

In the following hours, every hint of a sneeze or cough convinced me I was on my way to testing positive for COVID-19. I felt deeply guilty, terrified of what the virus could do to me, and even more terrified of what it could do to my boyfriend. After a day, I realized our seconds-long outdoor interaction, while problematic, was unlikely to have passed on the virus. After that, I vowed to be more vigilant.

I’m not writing this to gloat about my holiday good fortune. I’m deeply aware that many people, in my family and outside of it, cannot completely isolate themselves from the outside world the way we can. I’m writing this because it’s a reminder that even treasured moments of joy during this pandemic — the ability to safely see family — have come at a steep price.

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Choosing to see people, even those you love, during this deeply scary and dangerous time requires radical honesty about how big your bubble is and the risks you’re exposing family, community, and strangers to.

I’ve given up visiting other family members in the name of protecting my health and preventing community spread. The person I most wish I were spending time with right now is my father, whose wife recently passed away after a decade-long illness. Never did I imagine I would have to help him grieve from afar. When he told me the news, I immediately offered to visit him in Florida, COVID-19 be damned. As his only child, I long to do everything I can to mitigate his pain.

He told me not to come. I know that’s the right decision, even if it feels like I’m abandoning him. What wouldn’t help him is worrying about me getting on a plane or train, potentially bringing illness into his already troubled household. It’s breaking my heart to have to only connect with him virtually, but it’s the best I can do while being responsible during this pandemic.

I understand the very human desire to see family beyond a screen. I look forward to a time when all of us can visit our loved ones, and get back to the inconsequential things — like whether cookies count as a breakfast option.

Rachel Kramer Bussel is a freelance writer based in South Jersey. @raquelita.