My parents were married on Christmas Eve. In a restaurant. It was the only place they could afford. The owner didn’t expect any business that night, so he let them have it cheap.
Every December 24, I would make them retell that story, as we — their kids and loved ones — congratulated them on reaching 40 years, 50 years, 60 years together.
They are both gone now. December 24 has returned to being Christmas Eve, minus the annual phone call and wedding story. It marks another anniversary that is now and forever shaded by loss.
It seems the older we get, the more holidays and milestones are dimmed by those no longer present, by the empty kitchen chairs, and the extra space on the couch. How many people this weekend were saying, “This is the first Christmas without Mom,” or “Grandpa would have loved the tree this year.”
COVID has made it worse. Across the world, parents were unexpectedly missing from the holidays, uncles and aunts did not deliver their annual cooking specialties, sons and daughters were absent from the gift-wrapping and present-opening.
The holidays, the cliché goes, are all about bringing us together.
But what about those who are gone?
Missing those who’ve passed on
It is a particular affliction to miss family members at the holidays. Christmas and New Year’s are dots on the timeline, the way we mark the years passing. Each milestone that passes without a loved one present only confirms their absence, how long it has been, and how much older you are getting without them.
This can not only leave you feeling sad, but guilty. It seems unfair that we should be gaining years while those who have died are not.
My wife and I lost a little girl named Chika four years ago. We took her into our lives after she developed a brain tumor. She was part of Christmas, New Year’s, Easter, her birthday. She died in 2017, when she was 7.
When those holidays come now, we ache over her memory and the years it has been since we last saw her. We struggle with being able to go on when she can’t. She is frozen in our memories at the age she was when she passed. It’s the same for every parent who has lost a child. You can’t help but reach a birthday and say “today, they would have been …” You yearn for the years they didn’t get and the memories you are no longer able to make with them.
We may need human connection now more than ever
So it was no surprise to me when I saw a recent AAA survey that said more than 109 million Americans — or a third of the entire population — would travel 50 miles or more for the holidays this season, an increase of 34% from 2020 and a jump of 184% for those taking an airplane.
This despite the new COVID variant, omicron, which is reportedly far more contagious — though likely less potent — than the delta variant.
Why take the risk? Because the need for human connection is greater than scientists can estimate. Because the world doesn’t just come down to germs and percentages. Because the agony of being without those we love can overwhelm us, and loneliness is an affliction every bit as powerful as a virus.
So after a year of giving up on traditions and milestones (2020), people are saying, despite an even more contagious strain, “not anymore.” They’ll buffer up, vaccinate and take their chances. And while certain pundits wring their hands over societal irresponsibility, they might remember that we are human beings, not lab rats.
When Pope Francis gave his annual Christmas message in St. Peter’s square on Saturday, he spoke poignantly about the need to remain connected during the COVID crisis.
“Our capacity for social relationships is sorely tried,” he said. “There is a growing tendency to withdraw, to do it all by ourselves, to stop making an effort to encounter others and do things together.”
This is dangerous to society. Dangerous to the world. The pope’s warning was legitimate, but he needn’t have warned many of us who are already marking the years by those no longer in the picture.
This is a human truth: we want to be with each other. We want to laugh together, cry together, hug together. We want it for now and we want to savor it for the future, when we can only smile through tears and tell stories of those who are gone, of their Christmas Eve, of their wedding night at an affordable restaurant, and how much we wish they were still here.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.