"Have a good Thanksgiving," I said through the glass door. It felt strange saying this to my own family. I'd never had to wish them a happy Thanksgiving before, as I had always spent my Thanksgivings with them. But those plans changed as soon as I got the call that my dad tested positive for COVID-19.
Like most other college students, I was sent home back in March, at the start of the pandemic. And like most other college students, being home with my family got old really fast. Don't get me wrong, I love my family and I get along with them. But I'm also very independent. Being independent isn't easy when you have a mom who automatically speaks for you at doctors' offices and a dad who calls you 800 times when you go to a concert in the city. I finally went back to school in August after what felt like 47 months at home, and while it was a different environment on campus than what I was used to, I was happy to have my own space and do my own grocery shopping and call my family once or twice a week.
The week before Thanksgiving came in the blink of an eye, and it was almost time to go back home again. I was walking with my friend, talking about our plans for the last weekend of school. We both wanted to be especially careful and not hang out in group settings because we would be going home to our high-risk mothers, who both had breast cancer while we were in high school. "Yeah, it would be too risky for my mom," I remember saying.
I got the call only a few hours later. A man my dad works with had been feeling sick for a week, but didn't say anything and kept coming into work. By the time he tested positive, it was too late. He had already infected my dad and a few other coworkers. I was upset that I couldn't go home for Thanksgiving, but even more than that, I was terrified. If my dad had COVID-19 without knowing it, then of course he had given it to my mom by then. I couldn't bear the thought of anything happening to either of them.
I came back home to wish them a happy Thanksgiving from my front lawn, then I stayed one town over with my aunt, uncle, and cousin. Things were alright, until the morning we got the call that my dad was in the hospital with pneumonia, a complication of COVID-19. He told us later that a nurse had said to him, "I'm gonna try to get you out of here." He thought that she meant she'd try to get him out of there as soon as possible. One or two days maybe. "No," she said again. "I'm gonna try to get you out of here."
When your parents are in a state of bad health, you can't help but think about all the times they have ahead of them, all the things they have to stick around for. I already had those thoughts about my mom when she had cancer, but this was the first time I had them about my dad. I never had to worry about him before, but there we were. I have this image of my parents when they're old and retired, in a house with a porch. They've always planned to move closer to the beach and spend winters in the South. My dad has always talked about finally leaving his job to do something that he loves, like work on boats at a marina. It can't be easy being a dad of three girls, so I always thought about how much he'd enjoy possibly having a grandson when he's older. Even thinking about the near future put a knot in my stomach: we still had to decorate a Christmas tree as a family. This is what I thought about as I drove to the hospital to drop off some of his things at the front desk.
The woman at the front desk wouldn't give him his flannel pajama pants because they would only accept items that they could wipe off and sanitize. My mom got upset when I told her this on the phone. It was similar to the time she cried after realizing I left a jar of peanut butter behind after she dropped me off at school for sophomore year. "What if Kate really wants a peanut butter sandwich but she can't make one?" she said to my sisters through tears on their drive home. Even though she was feeling exhausted and nauseous every day due to her own battle with COVID-19, all she could think about was my dad not having his favorite pajama pants.
My aunt, uncle, and cousin tried to distract me from all the worry. During the first week with them, we watched Christmas movies, I convinced my cousin to do face masks with me, and we hung out at my other uncle's garage-turned-bar around the corner. In between, I would take necessities, like cough medicine and Gatorade, to my family. The only time I cried was when I accidentally dropped a gallon of iced tea that I was delivering for my mom and sisters. As it exploded, and a river of iced tea flowed down my driveway, I sat down and faced the reality that my dad, my mom, and now one of my sisters had COVID-19. Before, it had been easy for me to tell myself that they'd get better. But after seeing death counts rise every day on the news, I had to eventually come to terms with the fact that my family isn't special. There's nothing that sets us apart from those numbers we see on TV. COVID-19 doesn't care that my dad loves me enough to call me 800 times when I go to a concert in the city. I needed to sit with that for a while.
But my dad did get better. They all did. The nurse told my dad he was very lucky. When my mom picked him up from the hospital, he broke down right when he got into the car. He had put on a brave face when talking to us over FaceTime, but it was scary for him too. Maybe he was having the same thoughts I had about his retirement at the beach, his future grandkids, and the Christmas tree we still had to decorate as a family.
So when we could all celebrate together, we did just that. We hung ornaments and lights on the Christmas tree my uncle had gotten for us. We even got a hammer and smashed a glass ornament of the breast cancer awareness ribbon someone had given my mom a few years ago. We know just how lucky we got — not just once, but twice.
Looking at our Christmas tree all decorated, I could picture the tacky flip-flop ornaments we'd have when my parents spend their winters in Florida. But I also know there are plenty of Christmas trees that were't decorated this year. My family still isn't special, we're just incredibly lucky. And there are too many families who didn't get to celebrate with loved ones. So many families who suffered in ways I'm so thankful I didn't have to. And while I didn't lose my parents at the end of this story, I won't forget all the people who did.