Never Going Back

A year ago today, I was sitting beside my sister on a plane headed to New York City. It was Friday, February 21, 2020, and we were headed to my NYC bachelorette weekend that she had planned flawlessly. There would be eight of us in total who joined in the weekend’s festivities consisting of Broadway, cocktails, good food, and small moments with women who helped make me the person I’ve grown up to be.

It was easily one of the best weekends of my life.

On Sunday, February 23, we landed back in Little Rock, and on Sunday, March 1, New York announced its first COVID-19 positive case, although some reports suggest that thousands infected with COVID-19 were already spread throughout the city by then.

And that’s when our entire world changed.

Back when my husband and I started our engagement – really even before that time – we decided we wouldn’t attempt to have a traditional wedding party. For one, we’re getting married in our thirties and many of our friends have mortgages, little ones, and lives that don’t easily lend themselves to the expectations like those of the dozen-plus wedding parties we’ve each been a part of over the years. That’s not to say we haven’t treasured every single wedding we’ve each been a part of, only that asking all our friends to buy expensive outfits AND expensive plane tickets seemed a bit much.

What’s more, we are actually quite lucky – blessed if you will – because we each have a large number of close friends we consider family. I actually think that’s been one of the greatest joys that’s come from of our lives following a timeline different from the one either of us expected: our friendships have been critical parts of our twenties, impacting the very formations of who we are as individuals and what we are growing into as a family.

Still, we didn’t want to get married without this small army of friends by our side in some way.

So, we named our sister and brother our maid of honor and best man respectively. We then formed a “Krewe de Campbell,” filled with our would-be wedding party, but – hopefully – with less pressure, expectation, and cost typical associated with the custom.

Everyone was delighted by this flexibility – or at least they said they were. Maybe they actually hated us for making an already-complicated ask more complex – but they were all good friends and said this was a “very good idea.” (So thanks for that, y’all.) And, as it turned out, the wedding was never going to happen as planned anyway, so at least no one purchased a can-only-be-a-bridesmaid-dress or when-will-I-ever-wear-these-again-suspenders. (You’re welcome.)

As we now resume plans for yet another attempt at a wedding celebration (lucky number three!) – one that still seems far too soon to mimic the kind of celebrations we were once a part of – I find myself reflecting deeply on the last 12 months. On marriage. On friendship. On loss and all that we’ve put on pause this last year.

I miss my friends. I miss our Krewe. I lament the fact that I got to have one of the best weekends of my life in NYC and my husband’s bachelor weekend never came. I judge myself for missing and mourning the small things – the insignificant things – when many social feeds are filled with the death and loss. 

And still, I grieve. I’ve wallowed in the unfairness of the fact that what we expected to be a happy, carefree season has been full of sorrow, anxiety, loneliness, and uncertainty. I’m frustrated that I haven’t been able to name and articulate what’s exactly been lost, of what aches on dark days — that it’s been sitting on the tip of my tongue for months, but escapes like a ghost when I try to breathe it into existence. There’s a clarity of this season that has been just beyond my fingertips every time I’ve tried to write or talk about it. 

But, in an attempt to continue on as a writer or my best stab at true insanity (or maybe a combination of both), I’m sitting here at our kitchen counter trying again as the snow melts in the sunlight outside. 

We began our marriage just over 8 months ago. In a time when certainty seemed foreign, we promised to choose one another each day for the rest of our lives. There’s a juxtaposition in that choice that I’m too inexperienced in both words and love to name, but I recognize its power all the same. 

Going out with friends, being part of a church community, and finding a good climbing gym are all important to us, but none of those things have been easy to do in a brand new city much less in a global pandemic. So, for most days over the last 8 months, we have only had each other. That’s not to say we aren’t grateful for our families and friends who have showered us in love and encouragement, because we have. I only mean that everyone’s social bubbles and activities have decreased dramatically due to COVID-19. I cannot tell you how many times we’ve simply wanted to play a board game – yes, that’s where we are – but we have had to settle on playing cards because all the games we own are for three or more players, and the dog cheats.

But, although we have been lonesome because we each miss the Krewe de Campbell and the many others we’ve been distant from, there’s been a real sweetness to this time. Maybe that’s not the right word – see, it’s hard for a newlywed to name the powerful feelings of marriage even if she prides herself on being a writer of unwritten things.

I guess, what I’m really trying to say, is that although this year has been one of grief and loneliness and anger and misunderstanding and frustration and cabin fever and ache and weight gain and signing up for at-home workout services while drinking a margarita and eating chips and queso, I would, 10 out of 10, recommend marriage. At least to my husband. (Although, that’s too bad for you, because he’s already taken.)

There’s a harshness to being newlyweds in a shut-off world, but there’s also a real forging of spirits that has accelerated our relationship years ahead of its time, too. The closest thing I can compare it to is the kinship and shared knowing of unsaid things that siblings sometimes have from having shared all of childhood. Now, I’m not sure my husband will appreciate me describing our marriage to that of siblings, especially in Arkansas, but I hope you take my meaning all the same.

In this last week, when neither of us could go to work because of the historic Arkansas snowfall, a week when we have shared every moment together to the dog’s delight and the cat’s dismay, a week when our biggest fights have been about whether LOST is well- or poorly-written, I am grateful for this past year. I am grateful that my husband and I are more than best friends, more than lovers, more than one person who loads the dishwasher correctly married to another who does not. For better or worse, we have become extensions of one another, competing only to see who can make the other laugh first.

I am grateful to him and for him. And still, we both miss our friends deeply and long for real community.

Here’s the best I can do to wrap up this blog that really got away from me. My friend and fellow writer, Maria Goodson, said this week that there are things that “belong to the old world we left behind.” It was simple, beautiful, maybe a little dramatic, and yet, named everything I’ve been feeling. Over the last year, we have been tossed into an in-between season, mourning a life we didn’t even know we left, looking forward to a new time that seems as though it might never come. 

It doesn’t matter how many weddings or parties we plan and cancel and plan again. We’re never going back to February 21, 2020, when I had a clear vision of what the next year of our lives would hold. And now, knowing what we’ve gained amid all that we lost, I’m grateful that I am not faced with that choice anyway. I don’t know how much will “go back to normal” when this is all said and done, but I know we as people won’t ever be the same as we were before.

Maria helped me this week finally reach the acceptance stage of the grief I’ve been avoiding. Our lives took a sharp turn last year, not onto a path less traveled, but into the middle of a jungle, armed with dull machetes, trying to cut new trails altogether. 

My husband and I have started to say that the best days of our life happened during the worst year. And now, we’ve set our eyes on the future and are confident it’s filled with even better days, and probably, harder years. 

I know our story is not everyone else’s story. For all our gratitude for being together, I’m sure there are ten more stories of couples who chose to wait another year to marry and the joys that came with that choice. Or, the silver linings of being single and having a year to figure yourself out without the pressures of dating. Or, the expectation of being in a season waiting on a baby. Or, our many friends who had their first year of parenthood together at home when they wouldn’t have had an opportunity to do so otherwise.

There are millions of stories of love and survival and gratitude and grief. I don’t offer ours as better or worse, only as one in a million. 

Our love story has never been a straight line. It’s never followed the path of expectation and this year certainly has fallen in step with that trend. And although I have mourned much from the world we left behind, I am getting giddy about the possibilities that lie ahead. And together, we’re almost ready to announce our next chapter. (No, it’s not a baby. Chill out with all that.)

If I can leave you with anything we’ve truly learned this year amid all the pain and the plans and the plans abandoned, it is this: get a dog.

We truly love one another and have experienced such happiness amid challenge in our first year of marriage, but we look at one another at least three times a month and say, with all the sincerity in the world, “Thank God we got a dog this year. What would we have done without this dog?” (The cat finds this deeply offensive.)

Hang in there. The new world is coming. 

— Michelle

P.S. Below are photos and more details from the most amazing NYC trip ever planned. Huge thank you to my amazing sister (who’s come a long way since Lava Laws) and my entire Krewe for loving me so well. I’m privileged to know each of you and grateful to call you friends.

Bachelorette Weekend | Feb. 21-23, 2020

Seven out of the nine women who are part of the Krewe were able to join us for a NYC Weekend. My sister picked NYC not only because many of my friends still live on the East Coast, but because To Kill a Mockingbird — my favorite book and movie — was playing on Broadway. Not only have I only been to NYC only once before, but I’d never been to a Broadway show before. While we were there, we also saw Hamilton which you may have heard of.

Listen. I know people have talked about Broadway for years. It’s like a big deal. BUT LISTEN. BROADWAY IS A BIG DEAL. IT’S AMAZING. The talent. The staging. The lighting. The theaters. I was awestruck the entire weekend.

The other part of the weekend that I loved is that everyone came for different parts of it and overlapped different meals or outings. Although there were seven different relationships, I felt like I was able to spend time with smaller groups of friends and actually take the weekend in rather than all eight of us trying to do every single thing together.

The biggest recommendation I have for others planning something similar — you know, when traveling is a thing again — is to make reservations for all shows and restaurants ahead of time. Serious props to my sister for coordinating 8 different schedules in this way. By planning ahead, she managed to fit in two Broadway shows; meals at Dos Caminos, The Smith, Tavern on the Green, and Sarabeth’s in Central Park South; and time hanging out and walking around the city, all in 48 hours.

I’m looking forward to the day we can all gather in NYC for a girls’ weekend again, but until then, I’ll be planning wedding reception lucky number three.