I clicked “submit” and a confirmation appeared on the screen. “Your appointment has been scheduled.” I realized I’d been holding my breath, and released a deep exhale. “Guys, I did it!” I called to my kids. “I booked your vaccine appointments for a week from today!” Clara, 10 years old, looked at me incredulously. “Will we be able to touch our friends soon?” she asked. “What if I want to keep wearing my face mask?” said Atty, age 7.

I burst into tears. This was just another reminder that our definition of normal has changed so much.

Is it really possible that my kids haven’t touched their friends in a year and a half?! It is. They call each other using FaceTime, playing video games from their respective couches. It’s better than nothing — I notice social learning as they take turns deciding what game to play; I see collaborative innovation as they co-create Minecraft worlds the way they’d be working together with blocks or natural materials in any other year. At school, they’ve been playing “pool noodle tag” so they can keep a safe distance while still being kids. Their friends have gone through their toothless stages, grinning their ephemeral gap-toothed grins, entirely unnoticed behind their face masks. What else is hiding behind those face masks? I can’t help but wonder.

“My kids have made friends at school who have never seen their faces, toothless or otherwise, much less the inside of their now-fatherless home.”

Stephanie Bruneau

This morning, another mom and I compared our vaccination appointments. “I can’t wait to get back to normal,” she said. “I’ve never even been inside your house before!” It’s true — my son became friends with hers at the beginning of the last school year, during pandemic times. We’ve been hiking together in the Wissahickon, gone to an outdoor play and on bike rides around the neighborhood, and spent time in each other’s backyards — but we’ve never been INSIDE each other’s homes. I had a small moment of panic imagining inviting her inside. The inside of our Mount Airy home suddenly feels intensely private — like my face behind my face mask.

The pandemic struck just at the time my husband’s brain cancer found a way around the drug that was keeping it at bay. The disasters unfolded together for our family.

As the pandemic got worse and the gravity of the situation started becoming clear, my husband got weaker, less able, and more confused. He died in September 2020. My kids and I were on an island of grief, on an island of pandemic isolation. The winter was incredibly snowy. We sat inside by the wood stove, clinging to each other on the fireside rug as if it were a life raft.

On Dia de los Muertos, my husband’s family — some of them in Mexico — sent us photos of their altars, laden with marigolds, and ripe persimmon, mango, and candles and pictures and sweets. “Are you building an altar too?” They asked. “Our whole house is a shrine,” I answered. It’s true: Family photos are everywhere, his favorite foods still in our cupboards, the dining-room table set with beeswax candles that we made together, next to a little bowl with a collection of acorn caps from the oak tree that stands over his burial site.

His coat is still hanging by the front door. I’ve been using the “vomit test” for determining the right time for certain tasks like moving his clothes or cleaning out his drawers. If any given task makes me feel sick when I think about doing it, then I’m not ready yet. “It’s OK,” I tell myself, “there’s no rush at all.” This is easy to say when we’re the only ones with eyes in our house. But what about when we have others inside our home? How will it feel for me to see them seeing his jacket, when it’s been more than a year since he died?

» READ MORE: We have to go back into the world again. Here are steps for how to deal with that

“I can’t wait to get back to normal,” my friend said. What’s normal? In our family, the future will look nothing like our past. My kids have made friends at school who have never seen their faces, toothless or otherwise, much less the inside of their now-fatherless home. Do my kids’ friends even know about their loss? I don’t know the answer to this question.

This is all to say: Let’s all be gentle with each other as we move forward into this next phase of the pandemic. How has your face changed under your face mask? How does it feel for you to open up the doors of your home (and your heart) and let people, new and old, see inside? Let’s remember that, for many of us, leaving the shores of our island into the warmer waters of community might feel different than a simple return to what was.

Stephanie Bruneau is the director of community outreach at Mount Airy Learning Tree and the author of two books about bees and beekeeping, “The Benevolent Bee” (Quarry Books, 2017) and, with coauthor Kim Flottum, “Common Sense Natural Beekeeping” (Quarry Books, 2021).