Why is this night different from all other nights?
It is a question we ask during our Passover Seder. The seder is a night unlike other nights with a set of rituals honoring our cultural history and celebrating emancipation. The entire holiday is centered on questioning. This year was a year different from all other years. In a typical year, we might day trip to our family out of state or pack for a weekend away. But in the middle of March, as Passover began, the pandemic was still early, and our state (like most) was in the start of a serious quarantine that no one expected. Passover was different from all other Passovers in my memory. Rather than gathering with family, we spent seder at our kitchen table, the four of us. We were alone, but together. We ate familiar foods and we tried new recipes. We made it meaningful. It was special to us.
No one could have anticipated the weeks and months to follow. All of the nights felt different from nights before the pandemic. That is, until no nights felt different. The world was so quiet. The nights blended one into the other. While others lamented the things we lost, I tried to focus on the horizon. It is what it is. Life would be better if we could do the things we planned to do, celebrate the victories we hoped to see, spend time in person with our loved ones, but we could not do any of that safely. I am not willing to engage with the line of thinking where herd immunity wins the day. Culling the population is not fair or just, especially when some people disproportionately suffer and die.
Looking back on the start of the year, I know now that I was grieving. I didn’t know the depth of the grief or how long the grief would last because I compartmentalize expertly. Quarantine felt a lot like shivah, the Jewish mourning ritual, where the mourner spends time reflecting, cut off from the world for several days after the death of a loved one. March blended into April into May. It wasn’t until the days stretched out and the sun shone brighter that I realized I was living in shivah. The dilemmas of typical family life, the jumble of schedules and timetables and deadlines and priorities shrunk to a simple set of questions: what will we have for lunch, for dinner, where will we walk today, who will fold the laundry. There was countless things to grieve, lost chances and opportunities for the girls and for us, but we kept focused on the horizon. One foot in front of the other.
We spent the summer papering over the grief. We got outside, went on endless walks. We cooked and baked. We rode bikes and arranged time with friends. We ignored calendar reminders for end of year celebrations, the dance recital, the children’s choir event at the fancy concert hall. We took time off to go to family camp and see the beach. We finally visited family outdoors and made up for time apart this year. The girls returned to school in some form. We found a new dance school. Life started to resemble itself. Kind of.
Thanksgiving loomed on the horizon, inching closer and closer as though a ground zero of sorts. Here we are again: another opportunity to gather, another special day likely sacrificed to the pandemic. I knew in July we would be alone for Thanksgiving. I said the words aloud so it would not come as a surprise to anyone when it came to be. I socialized the idea lightly in conversations with family. If things proceed in the way experts predict, we would be alone.
Somehow, though, I hardly mourned Thanksgiving. The grief passed quickly and the horizon stretched out again. This Thanksgiving is different from all others because we’re in a pandemic. And if we’ve learned anything collectively, we have to remember that we make the days precious. We make them different. We should not need a day for gratitude. This has been a year of trials but we have not been without blessings. We are safe and healthy. We are employed. We have not lost any loved ones to Covid. We can make days precious again when it is safe.
Grief gives way to perspective: we are doing it wrong. It is not the special days that are precious. It’s all of the moments in between. This pandemic year has forced us to slow down, to really see the world around us. The ordinary conversations and chance meetings and quick hugs and teary goodbyes. It’s the simple moments after dinner when everyone is crazy and someone makes a joke and everyone laughs. Or when the puppy does something immeasurably cute and everyone agrees our life before the puppy was devoid of cuteness. It’s the taste of something we made ourselves that we cannot believe didn’t come from a restaurant. It’s the effort we bring to making all of the moments, every day precious in its own way.
This night is different from other nights and that’s okay. Another night can be just as precious. We can make a feast in April and call it our thanksgiving. We can make a celebration of love or independence or birthdays on any day of the year and make it precious for us.
This year this is what it is. It was special because we made it special. At our Thanksgiving table, we laid a beautiful dinner before our children, and my oldest remarked that once everyone sits down to eat, Thanksgiving dinner is just like any other big family dinner. She’s right. Dinner is dinner is dinner.
Precious dinners happen on ordinary days. And I am thankful for that.