Feature image photo by IzaLysonArts / 500px via Getty Images
For most of my life, Thanksgiving was about community. When I was young, it was a time when my dad — the chef in my family — would make enough food for friends, family, and even coworkers. We’d push several tables together and squeeze in as many people as possible. Starting in junior high, I joined the marching band, and Thanksgiving became a day mostly spent with friends and neighbors. Half the day was spent at a football game that I had no interest in, but I got to sit in the stands surrounded by my closest friends. At halftime, we’d eat festive snacks like turkey-shaped cookies and mini turkey hoagies provided by whichever school was hosting the game. When my cousin got married, his wife, a native of Portugal, hosted gatherings of Portuguese wine and home-cooked Portuguese food served side-by-side with sweet potatoes and stuffing.
It’s different now.
I have chronic illnesses that make me high-risk, so I didn’t do anything indoors until I was vaccinated. I didn’t see anyone besides my spouse for at least a year. Even after the vaccines, and still, now, my mask doesn’t come off if I’m indoors. Thanksgiving became something we acknowledged alone in our apartment with reheated takeout.
Still, the longer the pandemic goes on (because, no, it’s not over), the more isolated I feel. Too many people who, months ago, were ridiculing the maskless for their refusal to listen to science and their failure to protect the most vulnerable have joined the no-mask club. Friends and family who tell me they care about me are willing to sit outdoors with me but leave their masks off to go inside and use the bathroom, putting the entire community of high-risk people like me in danger. People at outdoor gatherings try to hug or kiss me on the cheek without my consent because they assume that if they feel safe, I should too. People have “moved on,” and the high-risk are left to fend for ourselves by hiding in our homes and keeping our KN95 masks on. But like when straight people failed to care about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 80s and 90s, the virus still kills when the privileged have stopped paying attention. We are again losing a generation of our community to a virus while the government asks us to look the other way, and this time there is no ACT UP holding die-ins at the CDC and demanding justice.
As I write this, nearly 70,000 new cases were reported yesterday, and hospitalizations are increasing. Health officials have started to warn of a coming surge in the winter, just as we’ve seen the last two winters.
The last two winters in the cold northeast were unbearable. The weather was mostly too cold, snowy, icy, or all three to spend much time outdoors — a problem made worse by a condition that comes with my chronic illness called Raynaud’s. Raynaud’s causes the tiny arteries in extremities like fingers and toes to constrict too much in the cold, turning the skin blue or ghostly pale. It’s painful, and it can be dangerous. I spent months inside, only leaving my apartment to visit a doctor or pick up curbside groceries, or sometimes just to go for a drive to escape cabin fever. I developed a Vitamin D deficiency, and eventually, I became so depressed that it was a struggle to get out of bed.
This year, I am packing up my life and moving to sunnier, warmer weather in California in an attempt to survive the coming winter. Thanksgiving again looks different this year. I will be going to my hometown for the holiday, the last time before the big move.
I will spend it with my parents and spouse, combining it with Christmas for gift exchanges and some sort of outing to a drive-through Christmas light display. I’m looking forward to my dad’s cooking, which I haven’t had in years, and a chance to do something festive since I also haven’t seen my family for several Christmases either. I am hoping I can convince my mom to make her one famous dish usually reserved for Christmas: a recipe for scalloped potatoes passed down the generations and written in pencil on the inside cover of an old cookbook. If I’m lucky enough to have a warm day, I might see a few friends or family members outdoors while I’m in my hometown.
I can’t wait to cuddle the elderly black lab that I still consider my dog. My three-year-old poodle mix will play a funny game of tug-of-war where the 70-pound lab will lie down and barely hold the end of a toy, and the 35-pound mini poodle will exhaust herself with the effort to pull it away from a dog who is twice her size. Both dogs love to open Christmas presents so that they will have gifts too.
After Thanksgiving, my spouse and I will drive a few hours back to our apartment and begin our last week of packing. Exactly a week after we return, we’ll pack everything into a big truck and start our journey on an epic cross-country road trip that I’ve definitely romanticized in my head as something between Kerouac’s On the Road and Britney Spears’s movie Crossroads (because who doesn’t want to hang out with Kristen Stewart, Zoe Saldana, and Britney Spears in a bucket hat). We’ll stop in seven states along the way, several of which I’ve never been to before, and traverse some of what remains of Route 66. We’ll visit national parks, historic sites, kitschy Route 66 Americana, cities, natural wonders, and a roadside stand where Native people sell homemade frybread.
I’m excited for this adventure. In the back of my mind, though, I know it means I’ll also spend Thanksgiving wondering if this is the last time I will ever get to see my black lab. Or when I’ll be able to see my family again. Or what else I might miss by being thousands of miles away. I already had to decline an invitation to a 90th birthday party for my great aunt because it’s after my move. As I get closer to the end of November and start checking off the “last times,” I feel like a river of emotion is building up behind a dam that I know will break.
I’m excited to move and live where I can spend time outside all year. I’m looking forward to exploring new places, trying new foods, and enjoying the beautiful landscapes in California. But I am also sad and angry because I am mostly moving because of the pandemic, and I shouldn’t need to do that. Because people no longer seem to care about the vulnerable, we must protect ourselves. Because people who would otherwise call themselves allies of the oppressed and claim to believe in progressive values like community care and centering the needs of the most impacted can’t be bothered to put some paper or fabric on their faces to save the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in society: the Black, Indigenous, brown, poor, and queer disabled people who are still dying. Because protecting my physical health during the past two pandemic winters has meant completely separating myself from society and sacrificing my mental health. Because I know that while California will provide better weather overall, the fire, drought, and earthquake risks provide different dangers that force disabled people to fend for themselves to survive. Because it has become painfully clear that even the most “woke” people have little desire to listen to disabled people if it means sacrificing a little bit of fun or comfort. Because my entire community has been screaming into the void for years now, begging people to take simple steps to protect us. Because it feels like society wants disabled people to die and that we are in the middle of a massacre. Because the pain of knowing our actual lives are not worth, the slight discomfort of having a couple of layers of paper on your face when you go to the grocery store is worse than any depression or chronic illness I have experienced.
I don’t know how to recover from that. How to forgive knowing that there are people who wouldn’t have died if more people wore masks and that so many of those people are BIPOC, queer, and disabled.
The only thing I’m thankful for this year is that I’ve managed to survive so far and have enough privilege to relocate to a more temperate environment. I am still mourning the things the pandemic continues to steal from me daily. So I will sit at the table and eat some turkey and be grateful for this moment with my family and my dog before the pandemic sends me thousands of miles away. I will do my best to enjoy the adventure and to find joy in starting over where I can be outside in February, safer from the virus. But I will still be fucking angry.