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In Quarantine, Love Is Finally Prioritizing My Family

Three and a half years ago, when I packed my belongings into four suitcases and moved to London, it meant accepting a certain distance between myself and my family. It was a distance the five of us had already started to understand since one of my two sisters had made her home in Israel. I’d happily existed away from my home state of Colorado for years already, first in New York and then in Los Angeles. But there’s a palpable undercurrent of anxiety that comes from relocating abroad and knowing that you’re an expensive 10-hour plane ride away from any emergency.

My family and I are not the most affectionate bunch, something that my husband found odd when he was first introduced to my parents and sisters. We don’t usually hug, except when saying goodbye—and those hugs tend to be loose, one-armed side pats that are awkward for everyone who witnesses them. When one of my sisters and I traveled around Europe together a few years ago, we piled pillows between us in the double beds, not wanting to get too physically close. Most years we’re not all together on Thanksgiving or Christmas. We don’t end phone calls with “I love you” the way my husband does with his family. Love isn’t something we really talk about or often express, unless something truly dire or tragic has happened.

So in the past, the physical space between my parents, my sisters, and I has sometimes been welcomed. We’ve all made our own choices and lived our own lives, and occasionally months have passed without real communication about any of it. There wasn’t some great rift—from my perspective; it’s just that our priorities have focused in directions other than each other.

Love doesn’t have to be showy to be real. But it does take effort.

It’s not that I don’t love my family—or that I’ve ever doubted they love me. Love manifests in many ways, not just in words or embraces. Love is remembering someone’s birthday with an improvised song; it’s sending your sister a forest-scented candle during quarantine because she can’t be in the woods of Colorado for months to come. Love is helping someone pay their rent during a financial meltdown without them ever asking for help. It’s simply remembering to call your mom every week.

Love doesn’t have to be showy to be real. But it does take effort. It requires you to consider the people around you, however far away, and to offer something to them. I never would have predicted that a pandemic that’s caused so much isolation would be the thing that brought us back together. In the most dramatic fashion, it’s taken a global lockdown for us to confront how important we are to one another. But when five people begin to put in effort simultaneously, the love that’s always been there becomes suddenly more apparent.

That’s what’s happening to us now, from our homes around the globe. My family—including my husband, who’s one of us now—have made a collective effort. Every Saturday we meet on Zoom for a weekly trivia game, often joined by my sisters’ boyfriends and my best friend from high school, who is quarantining pregnant and alone. Each week we take turns running the game. It’s not about the winner, but about spending time together and feeling less isolated.

Sometimes we talk about the pandemic or about politics, but sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we just watch my sister’s new puppy show off his latest tricks. Sometimes there are moments of silence or people walk away from the computer for a few minutes without saying anything, just as they would if we were all in the room together. No one is obligated to be here. No one feels pressure to spend this time with the family or to make the effort. Every Saturday, when we join up in our virtual meeting room, it’s a choice to be together.

The “Zoomlers.” A cartoon courtesy of my sister Lindsey.

When you reach your mid-30s, like me, you begin to more fully consider the mortality of your parents. Practical things, like where the will is kept and whether you have access to the safe deposit box, become normal discussions. I was beginning to grapple with this potential future loss when the novel coronavirus began to creep around the world—and now I’m forced to consider the possible impact of this new threat. I’m afraid of my parents’ catching the virus and getting sick. I’m afraid of being so far away in a time of crisis. I have no idea when I’ll get to go home again. Could I get back to Colorado if something happened to one of my parents? Are they safe in America, where chaos seems to be the chosen strategy for dealing with the pandemic?

I don’t know if these fears are shared by my sisters, but I imagine that part of our compulsion to reconnect comes from a place of apprehension. The truth is that it’s only in the looming shadow of loss that you can truly understand how much you value something. And it’s the threat of it being taken away that urges you to grab onto it that much tighter.

It’s only in the looming shadow of loss that you can truly understand how much you value something.

Much of the discussion about the pandemic recently has been about how it will change the way we live going forward. We can’t just go back to status quo, not after so many cracks in the structure of society have been revealed. In an ideal world, that means letting go of how we did things before and embracing the change. Maybe things before weren’t all they were cracked up to be. Maybe my family will let go of how we’ve done things before. Maybe we’ll get together on holidays and hug and laugh and play charades. Maybe we’ll continue to gather on Zoom every week, even when there’s not a pandemic. I don’t know whether this closeness will last or whether we’ll fall back into old habits once social distancing rules relax. But it’s here now. And it’s an unexpected delight.

If something good comes out of all this loss and suffering, it will be these moments of connection that might not have otherwise happened. It will be five very different people living separate lives in three different countries deciding they’d rather be together than exist apart.

Emily Zemler is a freelance writer based in London.

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