The empty seat at our table
“By next year we will all be vaccinated and this too shall pass (hopefully).”
This is a line from an email my father wrote his brother on Nov. 20, 2020.
A few days later, dad contracted COVID-19. What started as a mild case took a turn when his oxygen level suddenly dropped. In a month’s time, my healthy, intelligent, full of life dad would transition from home, to the COVID ward, to the ICU and ultimately to a ventilator. His battle ended when he died on Dec. 27.
I re-read this email often and think about that parenthetical “hopefully.” The hint of skepticism in his tone haunts me. Could he ever have imagined that this would be the outcome? A few weeks shy of his vaccine eligibility, he disappeared. No goodbye, no closure. We grieved alone without the usual comforts and distractions of memorials in a pre-pandemic world. After a socially distanced funeral with a limited number of guests, I retreated into a chilly New York City winter cocoon. I only emerged after receiving my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine in April. Grateful for science, enraged that my dad never got the chance.
So yes, as predicted — we were all vaccinated. (In fact, we are triple vaccinated.) But he is gone. And we are left standing still, sunken in a deep and visceral collective grief. Those who have lost a loved one to COVID truly understand the brutal toll this virus has taken. It has become a part of my life, my thought process, my decision making and my outlook on the world — forever.
With the first anniversary of losing my dad looming, I feel a deep sense of dread this holiday season. I sulked on the sofa during Thanksgiving, with no motivation to cook (my usual source of comfort). How could I even partake in a celebratory meal when I’m having flashbacks of everything that happened a year ago, retracing each conversation, each choice. During last winter’s surge, there were over 65,000 COVID-related deaths in the U.S., and many more worldwide. That’s tens of thousands of empty chairs at the tables around the globe.
I sometimes feel like I have lived through a completely different pandemic than others.
I see so many families coming together for their first “vaccinated holiday season.” Smiling pictures posted online of unmasked get-togethers with worry-free captions make me envious and resentful. Of course, I don’t mean to take away from anyone’s joy, I wish with all my heart we could join in the festivities. But my trauma is still so raw — and the pandemic is still raging, new variants emerge amid incredulous vaccine hesitancy. Television ads show holiday shopping and gatherings, depicting an alternate reality. I sometimes feel like I have lived through a completely different pandemic than others.
I walked into a shop the other day, and was overcome: a Christmas song filled the air. Through the years we all will be together — if the fates allow. My eyes welled up with tears. Why? I wondered. I’m an American-Pakistani Muslim. I have no memories of my dad singing Christmas carols — our speakers blared with old Bollywood tunes, not Bing Crosby.
But what I do have are the memories of being together during this time of year. My dad foraging some pine branches from the backyard and hanging stringed golden twinkle lights across his bookshelves in the sunroom, his immigrant contribution to a holiday he didn’t grow up observing. Shoveling the snow out of our long, winding driveway while my sister and I made snow angels in the yard. A masala spiced leg of lamb on an antique silver platter with all the delicious sides. Perhaps a game of 20 questions after dinner. My dad’s favorite opportunity to show off his vast knowledge while we all grumbled.
No matter what our traditions, the holiday season is a time where we would and should be together. COVID has taken so much from us — from everyone, and while it's easy to just want to move on, many of us are left reeling.
Thinking back to that moment in the shop with the Christmas carol, I realize that the fates were not on our side and dad won’t be with us "through the years" anymore. Instead, we will gather at our long dining table, where my dad used to sit at the head chair eager to host and fill his guests' drinks. We will cook his favorite foods and remark how much dad would’ve liked this. We will remember his humor, his animated storytelling, his expressions. We will reminisce about his slightly annoying habits and wish we never gave him such a hard time about them. We will recall our most fond memories and somehow attempt to honor him as we navigate our pain and our immeasurable loss.
Our table will never be full again, but we will attempt to preserve dad’s legacy in everything we do. And someday, sometime in the future, December won’t hurt so much (hopefully). Like dad, I am skeptical. But hope — parenthetical or not — is all there is.