A Christmas gift: Stories of the quest for connection

A Christmas gift: Stories of the quest for connection

It’s been a year of defying basic human needs. The need to be with each other. The need to touch and to hold. The need to explore and discover.

Instead of coming together, we have, in the name of survival or in the name of righteousness, turned away from each other.

But despite disease, discord and dysfunction, the need to connect is primal, urgent. This year, people found ways to let others know they were there: From a married couple to a pair of newlyweds — total strangers — a gift to remember. In a place of ancient animus, a risky phone call across a dangerous divide.

In a year of separation, these are stories of connection — by video link, by pure persistence, across the country and into worlds beyond.

(Ana Miminoshvili/For The Washington Post)

‘Don’t go home, marry me’

Six bridesmaids, six groomsmen, a seven-piece band playing Nat King Cole. That was the day Mary Guido and Niko McMurray had been planning for two years — or, really, since Mary subscribed to Martha Stewart Weddings at the age of 13.

But even Martha couldn’t foresee 2020, the year that canceled their wedding, forced them to work from their studio apartment, and, in a way, made Mary and Niko more certain than ever about each other.

And so when May 30 came, they still said “I do” — not in front of 175 guests, but in a park, alone together.

Somehow, there was still applause. As they walked through Adams Morgan with fingers laced, strangers clapped, cheered and awwed.

“You married today?” a man on a restaurant patio called, holding up his phone to film them.

“Yes!” they said together as they walked on.

At the restaurant, the man returned to his seat beside his wife. Any time Susan MacGhee saw something that made her hopeful, she asked Alfonso Aguilar to capture it: light shimmering in a window, children climbing trees, and now, a bride and groom on the verge of the rest of their lives. That was Susan and Alfonso once, 33 years ago.

Back then, his visa expired and Alfonso was about to return to Mexico. “Don’t go home, marry me,” Susan insisted. They did it at the courthouse. They, too, were alone. They, too, went home to a studio, the same one they lived in now, retired and in their 70s.

Months after that May encounter, they saw the young bride again. Mary recognized Alfonso in the neighborhood where they both live and introduced herself.

From then on, the older couple looked for the younger. There was so much Susan and Alfonso could share, about growing older, about making a marriage last. But there was one thing they wanted Mary and Niko to have most.

On the morning the election was called, Mary rushed outside to see the people banging pots and pans, whooping once again. And there was Alfonso.

“Come with me,” he told her.

Minutes later, Susan handed her a gift bag. Inside was a USB with the video of the new couple, hand in hand, surrounded by strangers — two of whom weren’t strangers anymore.

— Jessica Contrera

(Ana Miminoshvili/For The Washington Post)

Calls from across a barrier

On a December Friday, Roni Kaidar gets in her black Chevrolet and, as she does each week, heads south from the small farm village in Israel where she lives just yards from the security wall enclosing the Gaza Strip.

That’s the wall the rockets come over now and then, usually landing in surrounding fields but sometimes closer. Years ago, one struck Roni’s house; another killed one of her husband’s farmworkers. When the alarm sounds, she has 15 seconds to make it to the shelter, a dash easier for the young English teacher she was than the 70-something grandmother of 17 she is.

Over the same wall go the airstrikes and tank shells that the Israeli military fires back in its chronic, almost ritualized conflict with Hamas, the militant group that governs 2 million Palestinians confined to Gaza’s 140 square miles.

But Roni, an Israeli Jew, is on her way to send something different over that barrier — a call to her friend Rami Aman, a Palestinian Muslim.

She pulls up to an abandoned sulfur plant. Inside its ruined walls, around olives and dates and camp-stove coffee, Roni joins a dozen like-minded Israelis, mostly aging residents of surrounding kibbutzim, but also an 18-year-old student and an Israeli Arab from Be’er Sheva.

They are here to chat with the enemy.

“Rami? Rami?” Roni says into her balky smartphone. “Oh dear, I know he’s waiting.”

It’s not the best place to get a signal. But if you climb atop a broken wall, it is within sight of Gaza’s minarets — a view that gives people on both sides a sense of proximity.

In Gaza City, Rami is waiting, accustomed to the delays of life in a place that gets less than eight hours of electricity a day. An engineer by training, Rami has devoted most of his time in recent years to forging ties like the one he has with Roni.

Fellow activists introduced the two. They bonded over the idea that even the most banal phone call — talk of cooking and music and laundry — is a radical act, a possible path to peace.

“I don’t like to be called a peace activist,” Rami says. “Peace and love are inside yourself; they are not a project.”

The first time they met in person, when Roni helped Rami get a travel pass to India, they met at the Gaza checkpoint and added a hug to their relationship. “I kissed her on the head as my mother,” he says.

Rami’s vocation for building connections across the wall has put him afoul of Hamas. In April, he was imprisoned for six months after hosting a mass Zoom gathering with more than 200 Israelis. The day he was released, he called Roni.

The two talk almost daily, but Fridays are for sharing with a larger group. Rami’s image finally appears on Roni’s screen, and the others in the group call out, “Hello Rami!” their English flavored with Hebrew, his with Arabic.

Rami chitchats and updates and hopes to see them soon.

“You make me feel better just by talking,” says Rami, his smiling face cradled in the hand of his friend.

— Steve Hendrix

(Ana Miminoshvili/For The Washington Post)

‘I’ll see you at Christmas’

These are the last words I said to my grandfather: “Get better, so I can come see you at Christmas.”

But he didn’t. So, three weeks after that phone call, this is the last thing I did to my grandfather: I bent to kiss the knuckles of his right hand, which the undertaker had laid atop the left in a neat “X.” I lingered over his square-nailed thumb.

I was not the last to touch him. His wife of 64 years was. Sitting in her wheelchair, my grandmother rested her left arm atop his forearm. She nestled her head into his bone-sharp elbow. She closed her eyes. Then my mother wheeled her away. Some hours later, they fed his body to the fire.

Leaving the room, I demanded: “You better stay healthy, Grandma.” Pause to swallow mucus and tears. “So I can come see you at Christmas.”

That was May. My mother and I had flown from D.C. to California mid-pandemic for the funeral, swathed in N95 masks, hats with earflaps, goggles and two layers of clothes.

When we got back home, we told ourselves we would be flying to Palo Alto again in seven months. Her entire life, my mother has never missed a Christmas with her parents.

Banking on this plan, sustained by this hope, my mother called my grandmother every day. She taught my grandmother’s nursing home helpers how to set up the iPad, how to launch FaceTime. She talked my grandmother through two coronavirus scares, two exposures that came to nothing.

I joined some of the calls, less as time went on. It’s hard for my grandmother to speak — the stroke she suffered at 60 gave her aphasia — and hard to understand when she does. One thing always got through: “I’ll see you at Christmas,” I’d say. She’d nod.

Then came a text from my mother on Nov. 29, a day when America reported 109,671 coronavirus cases: “I’m a little worried about our December trip.”

Six minutes later: “I feel like the safest thing is to stay put.”

Two minutes after that: “I don’t know how to break it to my mother.”

We decided to tell her together. My uncle emailed everyone a Zoom link.

“Everybody has to stay home,” he told her. “Can you understand me, Mom?”

She nodded. She was wearing sea-green clip-on earrings, the ones she always asked Grandpa to slip onto her ears for special occasions.

“We’re going to have to do Christmas virtually,” he continued. “We should try to stay connected.”

He explained how we would do this: An online gift exchange. A family Zoom call on Christmas Day. My mother would read everyone Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas In Wales.”

My grandmother nodded again.

“This is the wrong time and I know it,” she said with effort, working to finish the sentence. “We will get another chance.”

— Hannah Natanson

(Ana Miminoshvili/For The Washington Post)

‘This virus doesn’t discriminate’

One day in April, Sarah Breshears peeled off the layers of PPE that had become her uniform — blue gloves, clear face shield, N95 and surgical masks — drove to her one-bedroom apartment in downtown Tulsa, sat on her couch and wept. The speech pathologist never imagined she’d be on the front lines of a pandemic, but in March she suddenly found herself working in a packed ICU to help people who’d had breathing tubes removed swallow safely again.

What broke Sarah, finally, was the sight of one more intubated patient, a woman who was young, seemingly fit and frighteningly close to death. Sarah took a closer look at the ID bracelet on the woman’s wrist: She was just days younger than Sarah.

“I had a good long cry that day,” said Sarah, 32. “I felt like, this is me. This is one of my best friends. This virus doesn’t discriminate. I did not think she would survive.”

She lived. Others didn’t, including a 40-something nurse practitioner at Sarah’s hospital. The stress was constant. Sarah’s smartwatch alerted her one day that her heart rate was at 134 (a resting heart rate higher than 100 is dangerous). She went to work anyway. “I figured if anything happened, I’d already be at the hospital,” she said.

In March, she started ringing the alarm with family and friends, all those who helped her get through her mother’s death in 2018. They weren’t seeing what she was — young people choking on air, crowded ICUs and FaceTime goodbyes. They hadn’t felt the agony of not being able to help, or that disturbing new sensation of watching someone die and “you almost feel relief for them to not have to suffer through that anymore, because it’s torturous.”

Her people would listen, she thought. They didn’t. Her father in rural Oklahoma refused to wear a mask, refused at first to believe the virus was the threat his daughter and other medical professionals were describing. “He was very cavalier about it,” she said.

She wrote out long Facebook posts describing what she’d seen, begging people to take the virus seriously. Several times, she hovered her cursor over the post button but held off, resolving not to fight that day. Some days she clicked post and her peers — the same people who had responded with supportive heart and hug emoji when she posted about losing her mother — rejected her. “Fake news,” they said, calling the virus a hoax.

She was on the outside looking in, isolated by a virus and shunned for warning of its danger.

In the middle of it all, President Trump staged a rally in Tulsa. Thousands gathered, maskless. Sarah left town that weekend, disgusted and fearful.

This summer, she took a cold call from a recruiter and applied for a job at a school for children with severe disabilities in Destin, Fla. She hadn’t left Oklahoma since her mother died; her friends and family there kept her grounded. The virus altered every part of her life. She took the job.

At first, what she saw in Florida, where many behaved as if there were no virus, comforted her. Maybe, she thought, “if we just pretend like it’s not happening, then we can go about our lives.” She snapped out of that quickly. Her memories of the ICU wouldn’t go away.

Now, she wears masks in stores. She ignores dirty looks from the maskless. She doesn’t engage: “Trying to convince people to change their behavior after seven months of this feels like a futile effort. So I just don’t bring it up anymore.”

She still works on her 69-year-old dad, though.

“I don’t want to be 32 with no parents left,” she said. He’s stayed healthy but refuses to wear a mask. He eats out a little less and socially distances when it’s convenient. Maybe, she thinks, that’s enough.

— Robert Klemko

(Ana Miminoshvili/For The Washington Post)

‘Confession with the universe’

The Earth was a map of miseries in 2020. A boiling planet, burning homes, a pandemic that shuttered businesses, leaving people jobless, hungry, anxious, isolated.

But if the world feels like it’s creeping nearer to apocalypse, Richard Acosta suggests, look up.

Acosta’s life, like that of most Americans, was arrested this year. Stuck at home, he was starved for an adventure — socially distanced, of course. When Texas’s travel promotion agency put out a list of the state’s seven darkest places to stargaze, the chance to see the Milky Way again in the vast emptiness of the West Texas night sky seemed like the perfect pandemic activity for a photographer. It was a chance to connect to the cosmos, to see the sublime.

Four years earlier, Acosta’s heart was breaking when a friend invited him into the wilderness near Big Bend National Park. Acosta’s marriage was over. He had grinded to the top of a career in local television, but he hated it. After nearly two decades, he quit. His trajectory turned downward. He was listless, exhausted. He was angry, overwhelmed, uncertain of everything apart from his own sense of impending doom.

Then he looked up. A purplish-gold, hazy band of big bright lights, dust and gas streaked across the sky, sending a surge of something strange and wonderful through his body. Neuropsychologists call it awe.

The galaxy had always been there, but it wasn’t until Acosta escaped the pollution of light and life that he could be dwarfed by its majesty. In the darkness, his regrets grew faint. In the hush, his anxieties quieted.

A reverence overcame Acosta as the universe got bigger and he, and his problems, got smaller. The darker it got, the more he saw.

“It was like confession,” he said. “Confession with the universe.”

Four years later, with the country feeling as alienated as Acosta was at his low point, he packed the Jeep with too few snacks, his fiancee and a couple of friends and set off to visit seven dark sites in seven nights across big ol’ Texas.

From atop the Lighthouse formation at Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle to the McDonald Observatory 100 miles from the Mexican border, Acosta left open his camera’s shutter to try to capture in images what he was unable to express in words.

They had six nights of clear, starry skies before the Jeep broke down on the way to the seventh. But Acosta was grateful to return to his point of reference, to rethink and reconnect under the heavens.

“When it’s quiet and still, there is a voice there,” he said. “Whether you call it one thing, or your faith refers to it as another, that voice is there.”

It is no accident that the root of the word consider — to reflect carefully or observe closely — is the Latin word for star.

— Arelis R. Hernández

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