The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As the world starts to open up, it’s tough to let go

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I am euphoric. I am bereft. I can’t stop clapping. I am going to vomit. Over the course of the next few weeks in my life, change is coming. If I were to pick a theme word for this month, it would be unstable.

Within the last week, I have gotten my second coronavirus vaccine dose, as has my husband and 18-year-old son. Our 15-year-old daughter’s shots should happen soon, now that her age group is approved. Before long, it will finally be safe to do some of the things I stopped doing more than a year ago: socializing with friends inside; visiting family; shopping in person instead of online. (I actually tried running an errand in a mall recently. I left after a few minutes, overwhelmed by the inhaling and exhaling of so many people in one indoor space. This is going to take awhile.)

I missed these interactions with humanity, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also relish having an airtight excuse to stay home and indulge some of my more antisocial tendencies. I like eating takeout on the back porch with my family more than I like standing around at a crowded party. I’m not sure which is more accurate: “I get to leave the house!” or “I have to leave the house.”

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Coincidentally, I’m at a professional inflection point, too. I am making final edits to my new book, preparing to turn it in to my editor. Some people had babies born during the pandemic or adopted pandemic puppies in 2020. I had this project as my daily companion. It is a memoir, a deeply personal one, and once it is officially out of my hands, it begins its journey toward publication. I remember this feeling from the last book — excitement blended with irrational dread. It’s not that I’m not ready for the world to read it; it’s that it feels bizarre for other people to be able to see something that has lived inside my own head for so long. It’s like one of my own organs going out and having a life of its own, away from my body.

Speaking of which: My son graduates from high school at the end of the month. He has begun to pack up his room, passing books, T-shirts and other outgrown belongings to his sister before leaving for his job at a summer camp, followed by college orientation. This is it. The first bird leaves the nest.

I laugh at everything. I cry at everything. I’m not just having mixed emotions; my emotions have been put in a blender set on puree.

Did we get on each other’s nerves, all four of us sticking so close to home over the past year? Sure. We argued over who was hogging the WiFi (me). We exchanged words over who seemed to be doing a purposefully bad job loading the dishwasher (both kids). But oh, we had fun. We binge-watched so much good TV and some hilariously bad TV, too. I wrote at the kitchen table every morning, looking up occasionally to watch robins splashing in the bird bath outside my window. My husband stopped traveling for work and did Zoom meetings from home instead. I never had to ask on Sunday evenings, “Which nights is everyone home for dinner this week?” because it was all the nights, just like I’d always wanted: my babies, my beloved, here with me.

The hermit lifestyle suits us, I joke, while the kids roll their eyes. They can’t wait for it to end, to get back to congregating in big, jolly groups of friends, without limitations.

And what an ending it will be. If vaccination rates keep up — or, even better, speed up — we could be looking at herd immunity by later this year, a conclusion to the constant worry over the health of friends, family and strangers. I can already see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m having dinner soon with vaccinated friends on a restaurant patio. I accepted a speaking engagement in another state for a few months from now.

This week, I looked at the 2021-2022 college calendar, dates tentatively and optimistically scheduled for a post-pandemic future. I stared at the words “Family Weekend.” We are still a family. Nothing about that changes with a shift from one life stage to the next. But Family Weekend, in capital letters, is what you get when every weekend isn’t a family weekend anymore. We will continue being ourselves, continue being a unit, but the configuration will never be the same.

So much of life — creating, parenting, aging — is getting used to one phase just in time for it to end, then stumbling forward to the next one. A new stage may feel exciting at the same time it feels unsteady. Like flying, but also like falling. Like exposure. But when it’s time, it’s time. You can’t go back.

How do I do all this? I mean that question in the most mundane terms: How do I pack a suitcase and put together outfits? (Seriously, do people wear blazers anymore? Are we still doing high-rise jeans?) But also, how do I close the book on a story written within a bubble of suspended time? The virus has been a centripetal force pushing us physically together — my children, my spouse, my work and me — but in the best case scenario, that force will weaken soon.

It has been more than a year since we turned homeward. We have belonged, briefly, to just each other. How will it feel to move outward, to belong to the world again?

I don’t know, but here we go.

Mary Laura Philpott is the author of “I Miss You When I Blink,” as well as a memoir forthcoming in 2022.

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