The new year has ushered in, and with it, the most recent Covid strain has continued to take hold, infiltrating our daily, relentless news updates: Omicron. The word has (at least) temporarily crushed my hopes for a return to some sense of normality, and the collective sense of fatigue is almost palpable everywhere. It seems we were just starting to make plans again – ditching masks and check-ins here in New South Wales – and now everything is omicron-tinged. As a recovering American who has been living in Australia for the last 14 years, the pandemic – now extending into its third (and hopefully final) act – has brought with it the continued callousness of long-term separation from family.
The year just finished was, in many ways, harder than 2020. At the start of the pandemic, we all just collectively worried, then hunkered down and baked and binged (on Netflix, hobbies, food and booze), from the looks of people’s social media reels. Sure, there was the lack of toilet paper to deal with, but there was this shared sense of camaraderie and interdependence, the likes of which I hadn’t experienced since the days and months in the wake of 9/11. Despite 2020’s rising case numbers, the desperation of medical professionals, and the lives claimed, there were also countless feel-good stories that began to emerge. New life was breathed into social media platforms as they filled a variety of communication, entertainment and practical needs (all those wham-bam recipe Tik Tok reels, and even online learning). Work from home and FaceTiming quickly became the expected norm for many. Yes, it was shitty. But it was also accompanied by a wartime sense of stoicism and support; we were united by experience, that this was monumental, and, perhaps most importantly, that we were all in it together. There was almost a sense of nostalgia even while it was happening.
While the start of 2021 brought hope (and in America, a new president) with the imminent roll-out of the vaccines, this quickly became politicised. And polarising. Especially in the U.S. People who were sharing benign memes and apolitical jokes in 2020 via social media platforms soon felt the need to make their stance: Profile pics were replaced with bald eagles and American flags, while the opposing side chose profile picture frames with slogans like ‘Fully Vaccinated!’ and ‘I Trust Science’. The ugly wedge-driving we openly witnessed during the Trump administration, which culminated the storming of the U.S. Capitol building in January 2021, resumed with alarming zeal on social media around vaccine stances. Oof. Bring back the Carol Baskin and margaritas-for-breakfast memes.
For me, all of this – combined with the helplessness I continued to feel on other fronts – left me with a permeating sense of Meh. I found it hard to stay positive, motivated or even to socialise. Even when I wanted to FaceTime, knew I should, I found there was little to say. Everything was too pandemicky. Having things to look forward to? Nah. Because plans could be just taken away, literally overnight. It was like having that unreliable friend you can’t ever count on until they actually show up running the entire world. The only thing you could count on (besides death and taxes) was going to work. And that’s if you were lucky enough to have a job to go to. This, and collective ennui, has defined 2021. We were burned out, but felt like we didn’t deserve to be. Languishing as ‘the dominant emotion of 2021,’ is how one New York Times article by organisational psychologist Adam Grant described it.
For two years in which nothing has happened, a lot sure has changed.
Some change has been for the better, some perhaps for the worse. But either way, I think the pandemic (aside: aren’t you just sick to death of even hearing that word?) has given us a lot to think about, especially those who picked careers as front-line workers, those who have lost their jobs, income or businesses, those who have been forced to work at home (while also home-schooling), but especially those who have lost loved ones. Especially them.
For me, one of the biggest losses has been the ability to travel – and not in the sense of ‘Hey! Let’s to go a Fijian resort to recharge!’ While travel might seem like a fairly insignificant loss when people are dying from a virus, we also shouldn’t underestimate its importance: it allows you to hit the reset button, to step away from the monotony of the daily To-Do list, to reconnect and recharge, and also, to appreciate home and routine when you return to it. In my case, having my travel stymied has also upended my one of the core parts of my value system – making my overseas family a high priority. Covid has impacted – halted – my ability to see my parents, and visit to reconnect with friends and extended family, people who provide critical nourishment for my soul, my identity, my mental health – whatever label you want to give it. While many Australians experienced similar barriers even within the same country, they quickly became surmountable once the border restrictions eased. Not the case once you start dealing with airlines and passports.
When we last visited the U.S., my children still had a foothold in the world of their childhood: they were 12, 13 and 14 years old, respectively. Alongside each other – while definitely muddling through the transition to adulthood that adolescence provides – I still felt they were closer to the childhood side of that bridge, in a way that is appropriate and healthy. I feel now, looking at how they have changed, that their childhood – at least from my overseas family’s perspective – has been entirely snuffed out. Like when they throw the lights on at the end of long night in the pub, and the unexpected shock of it all just hits you. This has been reinforced by revisiting pictures of our last trip home: While this should be something that provides a source of happy memories, it is simultaneously painful. Bittersweet is too soft and nostalgic a label to use here. And this was definitely another consequence I didn’t anticipate – that my children would emerge from it as near-adults – even as the pandemic dragged on, changed variants, and lockdowns resumed.
During the time I have been living overseas, we have always made it a priority to get back for an annual visit. Yes, it’s a big expense. Overseas holidays for many people are possibly a twice-in-a-lifetime (if at all) occurrence. But ours wasn’t a holiday in the traditional sense – we were there to foster relationships. There’s a difference.
As an only child with a large extended family, my cousin relationships were among my most important, and still are. (I have a stepbrother who I have a good relationship with, but he didn’t live with us until the teen years.) If you get good ones – which I did, on all sides, including my stepfamily cousins – they are the best. They just know you. Your history and your primary relationships require no explanation. It’s almost intrinsic – as if they just swallowed a pill with the complete knowledge of all of your prior history, like something out of a sci-fi film.
From my time with my cousins and so many shared memories and laughs during my formative years, I learned – consciously or not – that those relationships need to be fostered from an early age. For that to happen organically, it needs to start as early as possible. Because once that window closes and the self-awareness and awkwardness kicks in, it’s really hard to reopen it; extended family relationships can easily become stilted or contrived, full of idle chit-chat rather than intimate conversations. Or worse – having nothing in common at all, except shared genetics.
It’s like the saying you can’t make old friends. Ideally, these cousin relationships unfold as naturally as a flower, through repeated and frequent contact. When you don’t live significant distances apart, this happens in most families at set intervals throughout the calendar year: springtime First Holy communions, beachside summer vacations, fall hikes, Christmases, and at the occasional wedding, funeral, birthday.
Anyone who is afflicted by the tyranny of distance will know that frequent gatherings aren’t realistic, logistically or financially. There’s no popping around to Grandma’s for a cup of tea. So the sporadic, intense, quality-over-quantity approach has to be the option – but still one that’s only the best of the worst. But somehow, this is always what we have done, and until 2020, we have made it work. Every single trip home has been entirely worth it.
By the time we are next able to get back, hopefully in late 2022, my three children will be 15, almost 17, and 18 years old. Wow. In that time, they seemed to have aged not at all, and then, suddenly. Those intervening years have made a huge difference. While perhaps not quite as dramatic as the years from birth to three in terms of development, in some ways, they are more so. Who they are as people is solidifying, as opposed to emerging. They have developed their own set of values and decision-making powers. And, unlike babies, they have much more awareness of themselves, and the significant relationships in their lives. They miss the people they aren’t getting to see.
Likewise for my parents – that when I next see them, I will probably think they, too, have aged not at all, but also suddenly. They’ll look at me and think the same.
My Spotify playlist (quite cruelly, might I add) threw the Bonnie Raitt song, “Nick of Time” at me this week. It unexpectedly brought me to tears, with these lines:
I see my folks are getting on
And I watch their bodies change
I know they see the same in me
And it makes us both feel strange
I can only imagine what that strangeness will be like after nearly three years. FaceTime just isn’t a replication for time spent physically present in another person’s company. The ageing process is ‘what we all go through’ the song acknowledges, before Bonnie croons in the bridge, ‘Life gets mighty precious/When there’s less of it to waste’.
Indeed, Bonnie. Indeed.