A ping on my phone interrupted my packing. Princeton University requires us to test twice a week for COVID-19. Normally, the notification says “not detected.” I was horrified by the subtle change: “detected.” I was in disbelief. I didn’t feel sick. I was exhausted but that’s how everyone feels after final examinations.
I called my mom. She was in disbelief, too. Just a few days earlier, she summarized all the fun activities we would do together: attend a comedy show, meet the neighbor’s new puppies, shop at the outlet mall and dine at that one really good Italian restaurant. Apparently, my younger brother was excited to see me, but I think he just wanted my help with essays.
It was difficult to tell my mother that I couldn’t fly home. She canceled my trip. I thought: “What if we had just booked my flight for yesterday instead?”
The guilt of getting sick
I unpacked and rolled my suitcase into the closet. I retreated to my bed and stared at my fancy holiday dress draped on the hanger. There was a stabbing pain in my chest. I really did have COVID. I realized I was going to be trapped in my room for ten days.
I wasn’t worried that I caught COVID, but I was annoyed by the timing. I’ll be fine: I’m young, healthy and (somewhat) fit. But why couldn’t I have gotten the virus during the semester? It would have been the perfect excuse to miss lectures. Why couldn’t I have gotten the virus after Christmas, perhaps on the return flight to campus?
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I’m not sure when or where I caught COVID-19. I’m a boring introvert capable of enduring only two hours of social interaction each day, so I didn’t contract the virus at a party. Also, I think you need an invitation to those things. Maybe I caught it in the dining halls. Actually, it was probably at the library because I practically live there, likely explaining the lack of party invitations.
No matter how I got the virus, the illness still felt like my fault, and I was devastated that I (might have) passed it to someone else. What if everyone else had to cancel their holiday plans? What if I passed it to someone who won’t be OK?
I messaged all the people I had seen in previous days. I sent a very frantic email to a professor. I was worried because he’s old and important – his Wikipedia page is longer than the final essay I submitted for his class. Then I called a second professor, panicking because maybe I had accidentally killed the first professor. I texted my friends and I offered to pay for their rapid tests. My roommates had already left for the holidays, and I warned them not to return. I apologized to everyone.
I blamed myself but nobody blamed me. Everyone offered to help. They asked how I was feeling and if I needed anything. My dean called and said he was available. Professors sent me their phone numbers and offered to help. Really, I didn’t need their leftover food, only their letters of recommendation for law school, but I’ll take what I can get. Friends sent me a reassuring message: “I tested negative!” Nobody panicked.
I told people I felt OK because I didn’t want to be a nuisance. People shouldn’t spend their holidays worrying about me. Truthfully, though, I felt awful. I was feverish but cold. I was hungry but nauseous. My body felt like 1,000 pounds but I’m just 100.
Christmas in quarantine
I woke up and it was Christmas. I was supposed to be in Nevada, not New Jersey. A small, childish part of me believed that presents would be under the small tree that my roommate had set up. Santa would have slid down the chimney – even though there’s no chimney – and left the gifts that I ask for every year: makeup, perfume and fancy foreign chocolate with a name I can’t pronounce.
I pressed my nose against a cold glass window. There was frost but no snow. It couldn’t be Christmas morning if the outside didn’t look like winter. I didn’t dress up. I didn’t even put on real pants. I wore one of my dad’s shirts that reaches my knees. I brewed coffee and ate a blueberry scone. Nothing special.
I live-streamed a Catholic mass on my laptop. The brilliance of the stained glass was diluted on my screen. I held my purple rosary and stared at the wall. There’s no crucifix on the wall because my roommates aren’t Catholic. I wondered if I will ever hold a stranger’s hand again during the Lord’s Prayer. I watched as random parishioners received the Eucharist. The organ music was distorted, almost eery. I felt alienated from God on a holy day.
When I was little, mass was the worst part of Christmas morning because it meant waiting an extra hour to open presents. My family had a rule: stockings before church, presents after. This year, I didn’t have any presents to open.
Missing my family on Christmas
I wanted to be at church. My mother would have forced me into nice clothes, and my brother would have combed his hair – a rare feat. This year, I was alone, and I missed the awkward socialization after mass. I wanted to eat stale donuts and drink weak coffee in a basement while older women pretended to be interested in one another’s children and the men talked about sports or other man stuff.
I tried to create joy. I made cookies from overpriced, Whole Foods Market dough. A warmth and sweetness seeped out of the oven. It was as though my mother was hugging me, but she wasn’t there.
I lit a candle. I drafted a furious email to some unfortunate intern at Yankee Candle, complaining that my product was defective. The room should smell like pine! Then I realized I had simply lost my sense of smell. I hit the delete button.
For dinner, I ate avocado toast with goat cheese. I wondered, “Should I drink wine if I’m sick?” I poured myself a glass. (And later, another.)
I remembered my father’s roasts, which he prepares every holiday. He always saved me the end slices, the special bits covered with all the seasoning. There’s an annual joke: the roast weighs more than I do. (It’s funny because I’m small.) I was unjustifiably prideful: People were definitely missing my spectacular gravy, which I definitely didn’t plagiarize from Martha Stewart.
My mom and I always bake a red velvet cake for dessert. It’s been my favorite flavor since I was little, perhaps too little to pronounce “red velvet cake.” Every year, my mom warns me about salmonella poisoning, but I always lick the spoon anyways. Somehow, my whole face gets covered in cream cheese frosting. This year, I didn’t have a cake. I looked at the shiny, blue truffle wrappers littering my table. Gosh, I ate too many.
I joined a few video calls. I noticed that younger cousins had grown quite a lot. I joked that my gift was that I didn’t have to spend Christmas with my family. I was spared the dinner table arguments. I can guess the topics: vaccines, critical race theory, Roe v. Wade.
Still, I had to endure the annual round of questioning, “How is school? Do you have a boyfriend yet? Why not?”
There was an additional question this year, “Are you feeling OK?” Followed by an emotional coda, “I’m sorry you can’t be here.”
We can hope for better next year
I felt awful. Everything hurt, especially my chest. I wasn’t sure what caused the pain. Maybe it was COVID, maybe it was quarantine. This couldn’t be the most wonderful time of the year.
People are addressing how to end the pandemic. That would be a Christmas miracle. I’ve accepted that I’m living in a pandemic. My Christmas was not meaningful but it was memorable – for all the wrong reasons.
My mother said, “Don’t worry, we’ll be together next year.” I hope she’s right. Next year might be better. But it might be much worse.
Abigail Anthony (@abigailandwords) is a junior at Princeton University, studying politics and linguistics. She is an intern at USA TODAY Opinion.