My heart skipped a beat. “Welcome to New Jersey,” the pilot said after the plane landed at Newark Liberty International Airport.
After nearly a year of not seeing my family and friends, I was finally home. Immediately, I dialed my father’s number to tell him I had landed as I adjusted my face shield and grabbed my backpack. “I’m here!” I said muffled through my N95 mask.
In early November, my brother and his fiancée decided to get married in my childhood backyard after postponing their more traditional ceremony three times. In order to witness one of the most important moments in my brother’s life, I had to make the trek from west central Minnesota to northern New Jersey.
Walking through the gates to baggage claim, hand sanitizer stations lined the entrance of every kiosk. Passengers waiting for their flight were evenly separated by six feet of distance. Seats were marked with signs, prohibiting any sort of close contact. I soon spotted my dad. He was wearing a pleated surgical mask, guarding my duffel bag that I had checked. I pulled out my camera and took a photo before he could see me.
“Welcome home,” he said. No hugging — that would be saved for when I had been tested five or so days after landing.
COVID-19 has put a halt on many travel plans. The virus has separated loved ones near and far whether it be through glass windows, across state lines, or even oceans of distance. I had multiple plans to return home in the spring and summer for my brother’s wedding, but they were canceled several times — like many things this year. Those little losses were incomparable to the big ones. I still felt them, though.
Kandiyohi County has been my home for the past three years. While I do love it here, I’ve always felt the distance between my family and friends on the east coast. The pandemic simply amplified it. Not knowing the next time I would return to my home state created a dull ache that was always there, sometimes more noticeable than others.
New Jersey and the tri-state area was the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak this past spring. According to the New York Times in the height of the first wave in April, New Jersey was averaging over 3,000 reported new cases per day whereas Minnesota averaged around 100 cases per day during that time.
This collective trauma was still apparent. People I know from my hometown got sick, some died. Familiar faces were now covered in masks. Spaces once full of people were empty and barren. Reality is difficult to process. Change happens incrementally and the familiarity of a place lessens as time passes.
Never in my life had I been so happy to be home, but it wasn’t the same home I had returned to previously.
Time is a strange thing. My friends have gotten older, each creating their own world. One of my best friends from high school, Katie invited me to visit her new apartment in Stamford, Connecticut. We initially planned to have an overnight stay, but to take extra precautions we limited it to outdoor visits only.
Maggie, my other childhood best friend who lives in our hometown, lost her beloved grandfather while I was in New Jersey. I was not able to attend his funeral for fear of exposure before my brother’s wedding. It was heartbreaking and not normal, but there was no other option.
“I know the stress you’re under and I wouldn’t want to make it any worse,” Maggie said to me in a text. We were both grieving — Maggie, over her grandfather, and me, over a world where I could be there for her.
On the day of my brother’s wedding in a very 2020 fashion, rain came pouring down and would not stop. As I held an umbrella over my brother’s head, I was able to witness him declare his love — during a torrential downpour during a pandemic ceremony with only 12 people in attendance.
Despite it all, they are now married. And that’s what matters..
Returning to New Jersey during a pandemic was joyous, stressful and heartbreaking at the same time. The virus has been a constant reminder that longing for a place that once was is a waste. Things are always changing, regardless of how badly we want it to stay the same. We have to embrace the rain, because embracing it means we know the sun will eventually shine through.