This spring, while the state of Georgia had COVID restrictions in place against gathering in groups larger than 10, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows threw a big party for his daughter, Haley. On May 31, at the Biltmore Ballrooms in midtown Atlanta (reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution), the Trump administration’s top aide walked his daughter down the flower-petal-carpeted aisle as 70 guests looked on. The reporters who broke this story on Thursday reviewed pictures of this indoor wedding and write that there were 11 bridesmaids and eight groomsmen. “Large groups of attendees, none wearing masks,” they note, “were seen hugging and celebrating on a crowded dance floor.”
To which an exhausted, sad, lonely America replied: Must be nice. Must be freaking nice. This was like seeing that picture of Sen. Mike Lee hugging guests at Amy Coney Barrett’s Rose Garden party, but worse, because while most people haven’t had to scratch a Supreme Court nomination celebration off their personal calendars during this pandemic, plenty have missed weddings, funerals, and birthday parties. Twitter filled up with replies to the news lamenting the occasions that have gone unmarked: “I retired from teaching without saying goodbye to my beloved colleagues and students.” “We postponed my father’s funeral twice, then canceled it entirely.” And the winter holidays—a whole new chance to miss everyone desperately—are coming right up.
There are those who’ve died (212,200, at the New York Times’ last count). There are those who’ve become sick in a way that will negatively affect their lives for years to come (we don’t know how many, yet; we may not ever know). And then there are these losses of time together, which are another crime, perpetrated on the American public at a scale beyond measuring. Everyone has their own story of time theft. This year, my extended family had to cancel a May wedding and our usual week at the family camp on the lake. To my cousin, the pandemic has meant no wedding—until when? To my grandmother, it’s meant she’s spent half a year, in her 90s, confined without visitors to a single room. I have friends who couldn’t go say goodbye to dying parents, others whose babies have never met their grandparents. We all have stories.
In my immediate family, where all three siblings had kids in our mid- to late 30s, the Year Without Visiting has meant that the number of total hours my parents will have with their grandkids has been reduced by some real, heartbreaking fraction—how large, we just won’t know until later. When the pandemic hit, I was already in a period of life—middle age—where you realize your mortality with a new sense of urgency. Even before March 2020, I berated myself privately for not realizing earlier that obviously—obviously!—one should have one’s kids earlier rather than later, so that they have more time with their grandparents. (As my colleague Tom Scocca wrote in a 2018 blog post on this same revelation, which came late to him, as it did to me: “The only true certain thing is that your time will run out.”) And I berated myself publicly, this year, for living so far from those grandparents—a decision that looks ever more foolish as the pandemic’s disruptions to travel stretch out into an uncertain future.
Time looks precious to a 43-year-old with a preschooler and septuagenarian parents who are anxious to get every minute they can with her. But surely time around other people—laughing with them, breathing with them, hugging them—is precious to all of us: kids missing their friends, athletes who want to play and musicians who want to perform, people looking for sex or for love. The pandemic, if it were a problem shared equally between us, could be a time to find solidarity in that pain—to resolve to make more trips, when we can; to find new and different ways to connect from afar. For a while, I was doing well at cultivating a more Buddhist way of coping: contemplating the unstoppable nature of time’s passage, and reconciling myself to the inevitability of change. But hearing about Haley Meadows dancing the night away, as so many of us locked ourselves up for the greater good? It’s awfully hard to feel anything but rage.