A ping on my phone interrupted my luggage. Princeton University requires us to test twice a week for COVID-19. Typically, the notification says “not detected.” I was horrified by the subtle change: “detected”. I was incredulous. I didn’t feel bad. I was exhausted, but this is how everyone feels after final exams.
I called my mom. She was also incredulous. Just a few days earlier, he summed up all the fun activities we would do together: attending a comedy show, meeting the neighbor’s new puppies, shopping at the mall, and having dinner at that really good Italian restaurant. Apparently my younger brother was excited to see me, but I think he just wanted my help with rehearsals.
It was difficult telling my mother that I couldn’t fly home. She canceled my trip. I thought, “What if we had booked my flight for yesterday?”
The guilt of getting sick
I unpacked and put the suitcase in the closet. I retired to my bed and stared at my elegant party dress hanging on the hanger. I felt a shooting pain in my chest. He really had COVID. I realized that I was going to be trapped in my room for ten days.
I wasn’t worried about catching COVID, but I was upset at the moment. I’ll be fine: I’m young, healthy, and (somewhat) fit. But why couldn’t I catch the virus during the semester? It would have been the perfect excuse to miss lectures. Why couldn’t I catch the virus after Christmas, maybe on the flight back to campus?
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I’m not sure when or where I got COVID-19. I’m a boring introvert who can handle only two hours of social interaction a day, so I didn’t catch the virus at a party. Also, I think you need an invitation to those things. Maybe I caught it in the dining rooms. Actually, it was probably in the library because I practically live there, which probably explains the lack of party invitations.
No matter how I got the virus, the illness still felt like my fault, and I was devastated that (I could have) passed it on to someone else. What if everyone else had to cancel their vacation plans? What if I pass it on to someone who won’t be okay?
I sent a message to all the people I had seen in previous days. I sent a very frantic email to a teacher. I was worried because it’s old and important – your Wikipedia page is longer than the final essay I submitted for your class. Then I called a second teacher in a panic that maybe I had accidentally killed the first teacher. I texted my friends and offered to pay for their quick tests. My roommates had already left for the holidays and I warned them not to come back. I apologized to everyone.
I blamed myself but no one blamed me. They all offered to help. They asked me how I was feeling and if I needed anything. My dean called and said he was available. The teachers sent me their phone numbers and offered to help. I didn’t really need your leftover food, just your letters of recommendation for law school, but I’ll take what I can get. Friends sent me a reassuring message: “I have tested negative!” Nobody panicked.
I told people that I felt good because I didn’t want to be a bother. People shouldn’t spend their vacations worrying about me. However, the truth is that I felt terrible. I had a fever but cold. I was hungry but nauseous. My body felt like 1,000 pounds, but I’m only 100.
I woke up and it was Christmas. It was supposed to be in Nevada, not New Jersey. A small, childish part of me believed that the gifts would be under the little tree my roommate had set up. Santa would have slipped down the chimney, although there is no chimney, and left the gifts I ask for every year: makeup, perfume, and fancy foreign chocolate with a name I can’t pronounce.
I pressed my nose against a cold glass window. There was frost but no snow. It couldn’t be Christmas morning if it didn’t feel like winter outside. I did not dress up. I didn’t even wear real pants. I was wearing one of my father’s T-shirts that came up to my knees. I made coffee and had a blueberry muffin. Nothing special.
I live-streamed a Catholic mass on my laptop. The glare from the stained glass faded on my screen. I held up my purple rosary and looked at the wall. There is no crucifix on the wall because my roommates are not Catholic. I wondered if I will ever hold the hand of a stranger again during the Lord’s Prayer. I watched as random parishioners received the Eucharist. The organ music was distorted, almost haunting. I felt estranged from God on a holy day.
When I was little, mass was the worst part of Christmas morning because it meant waiting another hour to open presents. My family had a rule: socks before church, gifts after. This year, he had no presents to open.
Missing my family at Christmas
I wanted to be in church. My mother would have made me wear nice clothes and my brother would have combed his hair, a rare feat. This year, I was alone and I missed the awkward socializing after mass. He wanted to eat stale donuts and drink soft coffee in a basement while the older women pretended to be interested in each other’s children and the men talked about sports or other men’s things.
I tried to create joy. I made expensive dough cookies from Whole Foods Market. A warmth and sweetness seeped out of the oven. It was as if my mother was hugging me, but she was not there.
I lit a candle. I wrote an irate email to an unfortunate intern at Yankee Candle, complaining that my product was defective. The room must smell like pine! Then I realized that I had simply lost my sense of smell. I hit the delete button.
For dinner, I had avocado toast with goat cheese. I was wondering, “Should I drink wine if I’m sick?” I poured myself a glass. (And then another.)
I remembered my father’s roasts, which he prepares every holiday. I always kept the end slices, the specialty chunks covered in all the seasonings. There is an annual joke: the roast weighs more than me. (It’s funny because I’m small). He was unjustifiably proud: the people were definitely missing my spectacular sauce, that I definitely no plagiarism from Martha Stewart.
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My mom and I always bake a red velvet cake for dessert. It has been my favorite flavor since I was little, perhaps too small to pronounce “red velvet cake.” Every year my mom warns me about salmonella poisoning, but I always lick the spoon anyway. Somehow my whole face is covered in cream cheese frosting. This year I didn’t eat cake. I looked at the bright blue truffle wrappers that littered my table. God, I ate too many.
I joined some video calls. I noticed that the younger cousins had grown quite a bit. I joked that my gift was that I no I have to spend Christmas with my family. I was spared arguing at the dinner table. I can guess the topics: vaccines, critical race theory, Roe vs. Wade.
Still, I had to endure the annual round of questions: “How is school going? Do you already have a boyfriend? Why not?”
This year there was an additional question: “Are you feeling okay?” Followed by an emotional coda, “I’m sorry you can’t be here.”
We can hope for better next year
I felt terrible. Everything hurt, especially my chest. He wasn’t sure what caused the pain. Maybe it was COVID, maybe it was quarantine. This could not be the most wonderful time of the year.
People are tackling how to end the pandemic. That would be a Christmas miracle. I have accepted that I am living in a pandemic. My Christmas wasn’t significant, but it was memorable, for all the wrong reasons.
My mother said, “Don’t worry, we’ll be together next year.” I hope you are right. Next year could be better. But it could be a lot worse.
Abigail Anthony (@abigailandwords) is a third-year student at Princeton University, studying politics and linguistics. He is an intern at USA TODAY Opinion.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism