My sister sets up a camping chair for me on the snow-covered front lawn. She sits with the rest of her family on the front porch. I’ve driven over to the other side of the city to see them and it’s cold, very cold. The street they live on seems to catch the wind like a sail. But I wear my thermal pants and multiple layers under my coat. My digits are cold, but other than that I’m just fine. This visit has become the highlight of my week.
My three-year-old niece stands behind the plastic gate holding the bars and stares at me. She likes to know exactly whom she is talking to. I chuckle because she kind of looks like a prisoner. I would explain this to her, but she wouldn’t yet understand. Maybe one day we can reminisce. She tells me about her day at the park earlier that week. She went “tobogging” and made a “snow ain-jo.” She got snow all over her face, which made her feel cold, but she wiped it off and felt better. Everything about this story is amazing.
My sister hands me a coffee in my Thermos, which I use every visit. We talk about work, what’s new (mostly not new) in our life and our ever-changing plans for family holiday get-togethers this year. The conversation feels repetitive, but I don’t mind. It’s tough to explain the feeling of just seeing a person speak, in front of you, with eye contact! I just smile during the conversation thinking about this feeling sometimes and not hearing what she is actually saying.
I start to feel the chill a bit more. She notices and offers me a blanket. I oblige and am now sitting on the camping chair, bundled up with a blanket on my lap. I look like a retiree at an outdoor movie. And I couldn’t care less. This is the best entertainment a young man could ask for.
My brother-in-law is tired but happy to see me. We gravitate toward our usual sports chats. The Bills are winning the Super Bowl next year. I disagree. The Leafs are due to make the playoffs. I suppose anything is possible. We get into a mildly heated discussion on the questionable restart of professional sports leagues and lack of athletes’ concerns for COVID-19 restrictions. No one wins this argument, but the banter warms me up.
On his lap is their year-old son. His big eyes are lit up. He has no idea what’s going on right now. Perhaps that is a good thing. He won’t remember this visit from his uncle, nor the dozen others over the past few months. But I like to think the memory will always be there. But just in case, my sister takes a photo of him and sends it to me by text message. Can’t hurt to have a hard copy of this moment.
He smiles with his two teeth. I suspect he smiles for the same reason I do. Human connection. A buzz you get from being with family, which feels far more intoxicating during these days of isolation.
After we wrap our regular conversation topics, we almost naturally shift to voicing our gripes about the pandemic restrictions. Will there be a third wave? Why is the vaccine rollout so slow? Like anyone I’m frustrated, but I’m mostly exaggerating during these talks because in my heart I know it will get better. The world will one day return to normalcy.
But in the present, our family has made it work – from a safe two metres apart at all times. While everything in our lives has been flipped upside down, I’m still enjoying myself in this moment even though I’m starting to shiver and am curling my toes tighter each minute.
Fine, it’s time to go. Everybody has their limits and, more importantly, my niece needs her nap. That’s actually not a bad idea at all. I might do the same when I get home. I say my goodbyes and head to the car. Still smiling and enjoying the buzz from the interaction and possibly the exceptionally strong coffee they always serve.
That was much better than a Zoom chat. I’m converting permanently. I want the real thing, even if the weather is terrible. I mean, it’s not so different than chatting over video. There were awkward pauses, the young kids were still noisy and distracting as ever and even in person, we quickly ran out of original topics to discuss. But it’s so much better, in a million ways I can’t describe.
I know it’s not possible or safe for everyone, but if you can, and if government restrictions allow, see your family: Find a porch, a sidewalk, a park or anywhere else to experience the warmth and energy that comes with seeing those most important to you, in the flesh.
When I get home from my visit, my fiancée asks how it went. She isn’t keen on the cold, on account of her South American background, but says she will brave it out and join me next time.
“So, what did you talk about?” she asks.
“Nothing, nothing at all. And it was lovely,” I respond.
Nick Williams lives in Toronto.
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