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We are hugging, laughing, dancing and crying.

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We are mourning — the lost time, the lost people. And many of us are still feeling anxious.

But we are doing it together — over champagne and sonatas, in church sanctuaries and school corridors, at family dinners and surprise parties.

Here is a look at reunions that have taken place across the country as spring unfolded and vaccines became available, creating new possibilities for closeness and joy.

A sound more beautiful in person

Story by Karin Brulliard. Video by Allie Caren.

Matthew Viator missed Maya Asakura’s sound.

Some students who are enrolled at his D.C. piano studio — all adults, and many of them advanced pianists — play grandly. Others play technically. Asakura, he says, plays beautifully.

“It’s her tone. It’s her attack. It’s her touch,” Viator said. But although they had continued lessons during the pandemic, he had heard Asakura play only over the textureless audio of FaceTime.

“It’s been a real loss to me not to hear that tone that she has,” he said. “That beautiful tone.”

Asakura, 44, said she missed Viator’s coffee, and she was only half-joking. Viator makes excellent coffee. It is a path to connection with his students — the kind he had with his childhood piano teacher, whose art-filled home in Biloxi, Miss., was a sanctuary for him. Viator prides himself on those connections: In normal times, he keeps tissues handy during lessons, because students regularly pour out their hearts to him.

But for most of the past year, his studio — a chic condo that is also his home — had been bereft of students and their music. All stuck with Viator, attending lessons online. Many improved, Viator said — technically, at least, because they had plenty of time for exercises. Not when it came to expression.

“For someone in my shoes, the mourning is not just because I love these people,” said Viator, 36. “It just doesn’t sound as good over remote. It just doesn’t. Technology hasn’t really caught up with it.”

The studio began to come alive again this spring, as Viator and his students got vaccinated. Now it was early May, and Viator was standing in his kitchen, holding a yellow mug of coffee. On the counter was a white mug for Asakura, who was about to arrive for her first in-person lesson since March 2020.

Soon she peeked around the corner. “Hi!” she said, smiling widely.

“You look so good!” Viator said, as they hugged. “Oh, my God!”

Viator handed her the coffee, and they clinked mugs.

Asakura, who works for the Inter-American Development Bank, has played piano since she was a child in her native Japan. She has had various teachers, but none like Viator.

Viator likes to talk about composers — “not as busts on a fireplace” but as human beings, he says — and how their life experiences come through in their music. He challenges Asakura to channel that understanding into her playing, she said, and along the way, he has become a friend, “almost a family-type relationship.”

They had been working for five weeks on Beethoven’s 13th piano sonata, opus 27, No. 1. It is long and complex, and Asakura had worried Viator could not always detect over FaceTime a delicate change she had practiced. Today she would play it on Viator’s biggest pandemic purchase — a seven-foot Yamaha concert grand piano.

But first they talked about Beethoven — about how when he wrote the piece, he was losing his hearing, threatening his connection to other people and to his art. As Asakura played, Viator stood behind her, making notes on the music in pencil. When she was finished, he complimented her transitions and urged her not to hold back on the dynamics.

Asakura prepared to play the sonata a second time, this time without the rack that holds the sheet music, opening up the piano’s sound even more.

After a few bars, Asakura paused. She could feel the difference. The sound was louder, stronger. She kept going.

Viator listened from across the room, sitting on his leather couch next to his pit bull mix, Ludwig. Sunlight filtered through spring leaves outside and through the large windows, flickering around the room.

After a few minutes, Viator walked over to the piano, wiping tears. Asakura stood and, again, they hugged.

“I hope you’re not crying because I’m doing something wrong!” Asakura said.

“No, no, but I can’t sit over there,” Viator said. The whole experience felt overwhelming: the glimmering light, the sound of the music — her sound.

“The leaves, the sun,” he said, and Asakura began to wipe her own tears. “And I’ve got you back and playing.”

A congregation comes home again

Minister of Music Terry Napper.
Minister of Music Terry Napper.
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Story by Kim Bellware and Brittany Shammas. Photos by Daniel Acker.

The Rev. Keith Thomas was anxious at 6 a.m. on Easter Sunday.

Thomas was about to hold his first in-person service in 56 weeks and wanted everything to be perfect. He arranged masks and hand sanitizer on a table, checked a registration sheet and straightened chairs in a makeshift sanctuary filled with box fans and air purifiers.

Mount Olive, known as “The Mountain,” is one of the oldest and largest Black churches in Champaign, Ill. Thomas had kept his congregation together over the past year by preaching online, though it had not felt the same. He cried thinking about a deacon who recently died of heart failure; his funeral could not be held at the church because of pandemic restrictions. A hospital chaplain, Thomas has seen the devastation of covid-19 up close.

The church’s sanctuary was severely damaged by a fire in 2019, compounding the congregation’s sense of loss. Rebuilding plans were put on hold because of the pandemic.

“If I don’t feel the sorrow and hurt and the ups and downs, then I can’t pastor correctly,” he said.

Fans circulate air as the Rev. Keith Thomas preaches. The church held three Easter services, the first held indoors since March 2020, with a maximum capacity of 55 people.
Fans circulate air as the Rev. Keith Thomas preaches. The church held three Easter services, the first held indoors since March 2020, with a maximum capacity of 55 people.
Parishioner Deloris Hensley wipes what she later called called tears of joy during the service.
Parishioner Deloris Hensley wipes what she later called called tears of joy during the service.

Vaccinated and eager for a sense of normalcy, Thomas pored over health guidelines on how to safely gather indoors, and he sweated the details of three back-to-back Easter services. What was previously a 25-person choir was now five vaccinated singers. Attendance was capped at 55 congregants, choir members and staffers per service. Masks were required.

“They don’t teach stage management at Moody Bible College,” he said, laughing.

By 7:30 a.m., churchgoers started to file through the front door. They joyfully patted shoulders and struggled over unmet handshakes before deciding on fist bumps and elbow taps.

As the foyer filled, a choir member holding tithe packets asked, “Should we remind them not to lick the envelopes?” A box for contact-free collection had been placed in the sanctuary, and Thomas said the church would accept Cash App.

The organist played a gospel rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” as worshipers took their seats. Thomas, dressed in a black and purple robe, told a parable of a man lost at sea who ignored three ships, confident his faith in God would save him, but drowned.

“In heaven, God told the man, ‘I sent you three ships!” Thomas said, tying the message to the importance of getting vaccinated and stating that getting a shot doesn’t demonstrate a lack of faith. “Sometimes God sends us the help we need.”

Thomas greets parishioners following an Easter service at Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Champaign, Ill., on April 4.
Thomas greets parishioners following an Easter service at Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Champaign, Ill., on April 4.

After, there was no lingering over brunch or coffee. Parishioners were soon shepherded outside so the sanctuary could be sprayed down and set up for the next service.

“The pandemic really took a toll,” said Marion Harrington, a 60-year-old church deacon. “But now we’re back home again.”

Toasting luck, laughter and a game that became a ‘lifeline’

Story by Karin Brulliard. Video by Jonathan Baran and Allie Caren.

New flowers basked in pots outside Wendy Elliott’s Northern California house. The card table was set up in her sunny great room. Four champagne splits chilled in a bowl of ice on the kitchen counter, a bottle for each of the women who were about to gather for their first in-person mah-jongg game in 396 days.

The women, all in their 60s, weren’t out of practice. When the coronavirus shutdowns came shortly after their last get-together on March 12, 2020, they decided to try playing online. Stuck inside their homes across the South Bay, each rigged up two devices — one to play a computerized version of the game to which they all professed a level of addiction, and another to beam the Zoom meeting that would allow them to see each other and chat.

In pre-covid times, they played weekly. They were friends, but not close ones. Their connection was mah-jongg, an American version of the Chinese tile-based game that demands both skill and luck.

But pandemic isolation quickly changed that. Soon they were playing online nearly every day. Despite the physical distance, they found they were growing closer, even making plans to travel together someday.

“It was a godsend for me — something to look forward to every day,” Val Greenberg said. Terri Sachs described it as “two hours of feeling like life was sort of normal.” For Pat Thomas, the games were “really kind of a lifeline.”

To Elliott, they felt almost like a literal lifeline. Days after the group’s last in-person game, she learned she had breast cancer. Six rounds of chemotherapy, one surgery and 25 rounds of radiation followed — all of which she attended alone, because coronavirus-related safety protocols kept her husband and friends from coming along. Sometimes she played online with the group during her chemo sessions.

“It was like this oasis of normalcy in this year where so much of my life was involved in the whole cancer thing,” Elliott said. “I had this time when I could leave that, you know, and just be a normal person and play with my friends.”

The disease deepened the bond between Elliott and Thomas, who’d fought breast cancer years before. Then, in the fall, Greenberg found out she, too, had breast cancer. Soon Elliott was helping guide her through treatment.

Now, on this April morning, a cancer-free Elliott was readying everything for the group’s reunion — popcorn, a veggie tray, an enormous fruit salad, blueberry French toast casserole and a layer cake that read “Mahj On!” in piped icing. She was especially looking forward to the audible click mah-jongg tiles make as players shuffle them between games.

Sachs arrived first, with her golden Lab. Greenberg came next, carrying gift bags holding small Rubik’s cubes. Thomas, dressed in pink and red, arrived last.

“I’m so excited to be here! Oh, my goodness!” she said after she and Elliott shared a long, tight hug. “I was all ready to go, and I was like, is it time yet? Is it time yet? It’s not time to go yet!”

“I’m so glad you’re here!” Elliott said, dabbing at tears. “Now we can start drinking!”

The four friends sat at the card table, dealing the tiles. They raised champagne flutes that Elliott had recently purchased at Home Goods — a place she felt safe shopping again now that she was fully vaccinated.

“To in-person mahj,” Elliott said. “And to luck, and love, and laughter and life. L’chaim!”

“And, we have to add: To getting past covid,” Sachs said. “Completely.”

‘Are you kidding me?’

Valerie Brachulis was the surprise guest in the back seat of the car when Emma Rice, her 5-year-old granddaughter, was finished with school on April 8 in Prescott Valley, Ariz.

(Jennifer Rice)
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Story by Ariana Eunjung Cha.

Tanya Aguilar had the first-day-of-school nerves. It had been 391 days since Sherwood High School held in-person classes, and Aguilar was so excited to be back she had barely slept.

When the first students arrived at the Olney, Md., school on April 8, she and the other teachers screamed with joy, snapping socially distanced selfies on their phones.

“I feel invigorated,” said Aguilar, who teaches Spanish. “I think most teachers are performers. We get our energy from our audience when we are in front of our students.”

But there were so few students, she said, the day felt surreal: “like it was an episode right out of the Twilight Zone.”

Food reunites a family, but with a ‘missing seat at the table’

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Story by Brittany Shammas. Photos by Salwan Georges.

Mo Baydoun arrived at his parents’ house about 40 minutes before sunset, walking inside to the smell of his mother’s cooking wafting through the air.

In the dining room, dishes heaped with Lebanese food covered almost every inch of a long table. After a lonely Ramadan a year earlier, Mo and his newly vaccinated relatives were finally together for iftar, the evening meal that breaks a day-long fast during the holy month.

Mo’s family — his parents, three siblings, a brother-in-law, a cousin, a niece and a nephew — milled around the home in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn Heights, exchanging greetings and small talk. After the sun slipped beneath the horizon that April night, they gathered around the table, filling chairs pulled from rooms around the house.

For Mo, one of six children, it wasn’t a moment too soon. The pandemic had underscored something he already knew: the importance of family and moments spent sitting around the same table.

“Who are we without our family?” asked the 31-year-old, a member of the Dearborn Heights city council. “That’s our roots. And Ramadan really reminds us how important it is to be around family.”

The Baydoun family gathers for iftar dinner in Dearborn Heights, Mich., on April 17, during Ramadan.
The Baydoun family gathers for iftar dinner in Dearborn Heights, Mich., on April 17, during Ramadan.
Rashid Baydoun holds family bird Shakoo as he chats with his brother, Dearborn Heights city council member Mo Baydoun, left, after dinner.
Rashid Baydoun holds family bird Shakoo as he chats with his brother, Dearborn Heights city council member Mo Baydoun, left, after dinner.

The Baydouns, a big family in a line of big families, had always been close. Nazem and Hiam Baydoun, who immigrated from Lebanon in the 1970s, raised their kids to be tightknit. Now grown, they all live within a one-mile radius. Before covid, they had standing Sunday brunch plans. They often gathered with their extended family, which numbers around 150 in the metro Detroit area.

But 2020 put get-togethers on hold. Ramadan last year was devoid of most traditions, with time together limited to FaceTime calls.

“It was lots of me and my wife sitting together, breaking fast alone,” Mo said. “My mom would put a bowl of soup outside, a thing of fattoush outside.”

Coronavirus hit hard in Detroit, and the family was not unscathed. In January, Mo’s uncle and Nazem’s brother, Rafic Baydoun, died after a month battling covid-19 in the hospital.

The owner of Dearborn restaurant Rafic’s Falafel, he was “the most giving, most kindhearted man you would ever meet,” Mo said. He remembered his uncle filling Ramadan orders on the honor system, trusting that his customers would come through. It was just “the kind of man he was.”

Nazem Baydoun holds a photo of his brother, Rafic Baydoun, who died of covid-19 in January. He was “the most giving, most kindhearted man you would ever meet,” Mo Baydoun said of his uncle.
Nazem Baydoun holds a photo of his brother, Rafic Baydoun, who died of covid-19 in January. He was “the most giving, most kindhearted man you would ever meet,” Mo Baydoun said of his uncle.

When the Baydouns sat together for iftar on April 17, his loss wasn’t far from their minds. Although the night was imbued with the joy and relief of being reunited, it was still tinged with sadness.

“This Ramadan, yeah, you may be able to gather with some friends and family,” Mo said, “but there’s still going to be that missing seat at the table.”

‘Do I get to kiss you, too?’

Dave Greenstone, 12, reunited with his grandmother Barbara Rose in San Diego on March 27.

(Paul Greenstone)

Catching up on two years of missed card games and tea parties

Story by Allie Caren. Video by Laura Helseth and Allie Caren.

Laura Helseth last saw her family, including her 88-year-old Memaw, two years ago. On April 8 she boarded a flight from Orlando to Kansas City, Mo., where she was greeted by her parents and 5-year-old nephew. The boy held a sign reading, “Auntie Laura, We’ve waited a LOOONNNGGGGGG time.”

Helseth sneaked into her Memaw’s new apartment as a surprise and reconnected with her siblings. There were birthday donuts, tea parties, early-morning coffee chats and card games. After four days, Helseth was exhausted — but not ready for the visit to be over.

An engagement, a closed border and a relationship put to the test

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(Dwight Borden)

Story by Brittany Shammas.

Kristen Hawley pulled up to the airport terminal, and Dwight Borden leaped into the passenger seat of her Toyota Scion. They threw their arms around each other and held on for so long, people in the cars behind them started honking. Neither of them cared.

“They can wait a second; they can drive around us,” Borden thought. “This is our minute.”

Friends for 22 years and engaged for three, the couple was reunited at the Huntsville, Ala., International Airport on April 1 after an agonizing 14 months apart. When the U.S.-Canada border closed in March of last year, Borden, a Canadian, was stuck on one side and Hawley, an American, on the other.

Now 38, the pair met on the Internet as 16-year-old Dungeons and Dragons devotees — Borden a shy yet confident sci-fi fan in Nova Scotia and Hawley an outspoken animal lover in Alabama. Thousands of online messages forged a close friendship, and as they visited each other over the years, their families began to wonder whether there could be more to the relationship.

When Hawley’s dad died in 2014 and Borden flew down the next day to comfort her, they realized their families were right.

“I think it’s one of those situations where we were in love for a long time but we didn’t know it,” she said.

The couple got engaged in 2018. While Borden was visiting in January 2020, they decided Hawley would immigrate to Canada. They figured they would finalize details in March, when he planned to return for another trip. Then the pandemic hit.

Even when the border restrictions were eased for close relationships, Hawley and Borden remained in their separate countries. They couldn’t miss work to quarantine, and they worried about spreading the virus.

After years of seeing each other a few times a month, their relationship was confined to Skype dates and text messages — so many that Borden had to upgrade his phone plan. When Borden’s grandmother had a health scare, Hawley panicked about not being there for him.

“At times it almost felt like, wow, is this relationship going to last?” Borden said. “Because the longer this keeps going, there’s going to be a part where our lives have diverged so rapidly.”

In the end, the pandemic only solidified their desire to be together. They put all their energy into figuring out the easiest way to safely reunite — for good.

They decided Borden would fly to Alabama and they would drive together to Canada, where they would quarantine for two weeks and Hawley would start the immigration process. They hired a lawyer and sought approval from the governments of Canada and New Brunswick, where Borden now lives, for Hawley to cross the border.

They didn’t dare become too hopeful. Even after getting the negative coronavirus test result he needed to board his flight, Borden texted Hawley: “I am almost crying. One hurdle down, one to go.” He still worried he might not be let into the United States.

It was only when she saw him striding toward her car that Hawley allowed herself to believe their time apart was over.

As they held one another, Borden said, it felt like the past 14 months melted away.

“It was like, finally,” he said.

“It was,” Hawley agreed. “It was that warm, comforting feeling in your chest of knowing things are going to be all right.”

‘Happy birthday, little boy!’

Arlo, Vivian and Sebastian Henriksen reunited with their grandparents, Linda and Tom Coughlin, in Littleton, Colo., on March 9.

(Linda Coughlin)

A surprise 60 years in the making

Story by William Wan.

Dan Sievers spent months plotting an epic reunion with his parents, who are celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary this month: He would fly from Baltimore to Big Bear, Calif., and surprise them.

Dan’s father begins every day with a walk. Sievers thought he would wait for his father to come outside and underplay the moment for comedic effect, maybe with an offhand comment like, “What’s for breakfast?” But Sievers made a big miscalculation.

He didn’t realize how early his dad, Dave Sievers, 83, takes his walks. When Dan and a friend pulled up to his parents’ home, his father was just returning from his stroll.

“Oh, my God,” Dave said with a laugh as they hugged in the driveway. “Does your mom know about this?”

Inside, Becky Sievers, barely awake and still in her bathrobe, was even more shocked.

Wrapping Dan in her arms, she started crying and squeaked out, “It’s so good to see you.”

“Missed you. Missed you. Missed you,” Dan told her. It was the first time he had seen his parents in two years.

“All that time and distance just kind of disappeared, and it just felt like finally I’m in the right spot again. I’m home,” Dan, 59, said later.

Dan knew his mom would be overjoyed — and maybe a little mad. Becky, who was born and raised in Mexico, loved cooking huge meals for such occasions — carne asada, enchiladas or, for a truly special occasion, tamales.

“Why didn’t you tell me? I didn’t have time to prepare,” Becky, 79, told him. She soon set about making him chorizo and eggs for breakfast.

Dave and Becky got an even bigger shock two days later, at an elaborate surprise anniversary party planned by Dan and his two siblings. They arranged for several of their parents’ groomsmen and bridesmaids to attend.

“What better way to celebrate them, their 60 years together and the end to this whole nightmare than a wedding party?” Dan said.

Dan’s sister told their parents she was going to have a friend take anniversary pictures — a ruse to get them dressed up. But when Dave and Becky pulled up to the house, about 40 family members and friends awaited them in the garage.

Becky was crying before she could open the car door — she had spotted her brother, who came from Arizona. A granddaughter flew in from Seattle, and another drove from hours away, her young son in tow.

“It was a total surprise,” Becky said. “It’s been so hard this past year. We live all the way up on a mountain, so there have been times when we’ve been just totally on our own. To see everyone suddenly there in front of us, it was so special, and I can’t believe our kids pulled this off without us having a clue.”

About this story

Project editing by Karin Brulliard, Katie Zezima, Nick Kirkpatrick, Allie Caren, Nicki DeMarco, Dee Swann, Bronwen Latimer, Lucio Villa and Ann Gerhart. Copy editing by Shannon Croom. Additional production by Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn, Sarah Dunton and Courtney Kan. Design and development by Emily Wright. Additional development by Lucio Villa.

Topper visuals by Kymberly Harris, Bonny Blair, Salwan Georges/The Washington Post, Alayna Hayes, Niki Dowell via Storyful, Dwight Borden, Scott McIntyre for The Washington Post, Halle Cho, Cassie Thompson, Daniel Acker for The Washington Post, and Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post.

Updated May 21, 2021

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Karin Brulliard is a national health and science reporter at The Washington Post. Previously, she was an international news editor; a foreign correspondent in South Africa, Pakistan and Israel; and a local reporter. Brulliard joined The Post in 2003.
Nick Kirkpatrick is a visual reporter at The Washington Post focusing on integrated storytelling. He collaborates across the newsroom on visually-driven projects blending text with photos, videos, graphics, and illustrations. Nick joined The Post in 2013 as a photo editor.
Allie Caren covers the visual side of the day’s big, breaking, viral national stories. She joined The Post from Cox Media Group’s digital startup, Rare, where she was a video producer.
Brittany Shammas is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post. She previously worked for the Miami New Times and the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Kim Bellware covers national and breaking news for The Washington Post. She previously worked for City Bureau, The Huffington Post and as a nationally-focused freelance reporter.
Ariana Eunjung Cha is a national reporter. She has previously served as The Post's bureau chief in Shanghai and San Francisco, and as a correspondent in Baghdad.
William Wan is an enterprise reporter focused on narrative and long-form stories at The Washington Post. He previously served as The Post's national health reporter during the pandemic, China correspondent in Beijing, roving U.S. national correspondent, foreign policy reporter and religion reporter.
Emily Wright is a news designer for The Washington Post.