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2020 was a year that left many people unmoored. But for some, it inspired big change.

It happened late one night, about three months into the pandemic. I saw an alert in Facebook Messenger from a person I didn’t know. “Hi, Dori. I am from Dublin, Ireland. I believe we have the same father.”

My stomach dropped. I sat up. My free hand slapped my husband’s chest as he dozed off next to me. “Someone is writing me on Facebook to tell me they’re my brother,” I told him. The man in the message said he wasn’t trying to shock me and understood if I didn’t want to connect. But for him, “it was the right thing to do. Life is too short not to make contact with you.”

With everything going on, this was just too much. There was a pandemic raging. My husband was furloughed. I had been working from home providing psychotherapy to patients on Zoom, struggling with compassion fatigue. My children were homeschooled and grieving their “normal lives.” Still, my husband convinced me that responding to this stranger could be a good thing.

I have been estranged from my father, who is originally from Ireland, for over 20 years due to his alcoholism. He and my mother, a Jewish girl from Teaneck, New Jersey, met young and married against their parents’ wishes. When their whirlwind romance fell apart, my dad returned to Dublin and had another child. A few years later, he came back to the US, and to my mother, and they had me. But he never told us about his son — my half-brother, now writing to me on social media.

dori kavanaghPhoto courtesy of Dori Kavanagh
Dori Kavanagh found out she had a half-brother and decided to pursue a family relationship with him.

Raised as an only child, I always wished I had a sibling. I was lonely as a kid and I’m grateful my three young daughters have each other in the pandemic. But before I became attached to the idea of a brother, I needed evidence.

I told him I wanted to take a DNA test and he agreed. In the meantime, we emailed and sent photos and learned we had a few things in common: Our love for animals was deep, so was our love for travel, which had frustratingly been put on hold due to Covid-19. Then in August, the test came back, stating we shared 24.6 percent of the same DNA, an accurate number for the company to name him as my half-brother in the relative finder feature.

We recently had our first video chat, talking for over two hours. He and his wife are easy-going, funny, and kind. They are reassuringly normal. He recently asked me if he “could be so bold” to ask me for my home address since he and his wife would like to add us to their Christmas card list. I happily said yes.

Covid-19 has forced many of us to stay still. For some, fears of mortality and uncertainty can be immobilizing; it can be easy to fall into despair or avoidance, especially when you feel cut off from the world as you once knew it. But it also makes sense that some people would reevaluate their life’s path, act on their instincts, and make life-changing decisions. My half-brother chose to contact me. But I also chose to engage with him and reconnect with a part of myself I had written off 20 years ago. The pandemic reminds me that life is precious. Life is surprising. Life can change quickly.

I spoke with four other people who have also made bold decisions in the pandemic. Most of those choices have come out of love — of others, of learning to love themselves. As one woman told me, nine months of Covid-19 has taught her that “we need to be human, to lead from the heart and prioritize love and joy and humanity, especially now in this moment, with so much loss and devastation.”

Our conversations have been lightly edited and condensed.

The couple who got married after six months of dating

Jason, Los Angeles

For years, like everyone else, I’d been internet dating. I was also doing a lot of hiking and events on Meetup to try and meet women there too.

Last year, after Thanksgiving, I signed up for a hike. Around the same time, I saw a woman on Meetup who was pretty and I sent her a message. In it, I wrote her a joke: “How many tickles does it take to make an octopus laugh? Tentacles.” She loved it and gave me her number.

We texted a little bit, so I invited her on the hike. When we met there, I found out she was from Japan and had been working here on a visa. She also lived an hour away in Long Beach. On traditional dating sites, not Meetup, there are so many filters you add, especially when you live in LA. Dating someone who lives an hour away? Forget it. Someone who is only here temporarily? No way.

We started dating, even though her visa was up in July. In February, we started to talk about where the relationship could go if she was leaving in a few months. The idea of marriage had come up, but I had only been dating her for a few months and knew I didn’t want to get married right then. Then the pandemic happened.

 Photo courtesy of Jason
Jason and his wife, Ayako, who got married in May.

I told her she should lock-down with me in my apartment because I was afraid we wouldn’t be able to get to one another. At that point, we didn’t know how bad the pandemic would really be. But after a month of living together and working from home together, I told her she should stop paying rent on her apartment and just live with me full-time.

I knew I wanted to marry someone that I had lived with first. What we were doing was part of the path to marriage, eventually, but there was a timer on it with us. In normal times, I probably wouldn’t have done all of this so fast. But she is awesome. We get along so well and are a great match. We were in love in this crazy situation, and just thinking, “What is waiting going to do?”

We got married on May 23. We went to this place called Same Day Marriage down the street from me. I’ve driven by it a hundred times before and never thought anything of it. It was just me and her and Joshua, the officiant.

The pandemic for me is like sink or swim. It’s time to make serious decisions.

The woman who started recovery for her eating disorder

Paige, Queens, New York

When restaurants shut down in March, my first thought was, “Oh, thank god, now I don’t have to go out to dinner with my friends anymore. I don’t have to eat in front of people. I can lie about what I’m having to eat because they’re not going to be with me.” And I was excited.

I knew I had these thoughts in my head since lockdown started, but I didn’t realize I was acting on them until two months later. I couldn’t concentrate at work, I was messing up things that I’m usually good at. That’s when my eating disorder, which has always been there, really kicked into high gear.

In July, some people I know had tragic things happen to them. Thinking about that I realized, “I’m killing myself right now. What am I doing?” I have all these people I need to be safe and strong for, and I can’t do that when I’m starving myself to death. I told one of my friends — saying it out loud for the first time in my entire life — “I have an eating disorder and I need help with it.”

 Photo courtesy of Paige
After Paige’s eating disorder ramped up during the pandemic, she entered an intensive outpatient program.

With the support of my boss, I took a leave of absence and entered a four-week intensive outpatient program at a recovery center. Individual and group therapy sessions were from 8 am to 2 pm, Monday through Friday, and all on Zoom. I have since returned to work and I now go to therapy twice a week and see a nutritionist once a week. I also see my primary care doctor once every other month for weigh-ins because I threw my scale away. That was really hard, but I did it.

I’m very nervous when I think about another lockdown happening. I know my eating disorder is my response to stress and one of the only coping mechanisms I’ve had. I’ve had days where I’ve had breakfast and lunch and my two snacks and no problems, and then a dinner that I have had before and I am comfortable with, and I go to eat it and I cry and I can’t do it. So I go out for a walk or I call a friend. I figure out how to get through it.

There are things that I want in the future, authenticity being one of them. I couldn’t live the way I was before. I never could truly let anyone in. It’s a lot of hard work. I’m not always happy I made this choice, but I don’t regret it.

The woman who decided to do fertility treatments after loss

Jessica, New Jersey

When we had some trouble conceiving our first daughter seven years ago, we saw a doctor for fertility treatments. They followed my cycle, gave me a shot, and I got pregnant. We just needed a little help.

It wasn’t until last year that we decided to try to have a second child. I got pregnant easily — I was 40 and really proud of my body. But sadly, I lost that baby.

My ob-gyn said to try again for a few months and if I didn’t get pregnant, then we might want to consider fertility treatments. When my blood work proved my egg quality was starting to decline, my doctor told me “this isn’t a red light, but it’s a yellow light.” That’s when I went to a fertility doctor.

But then I got pregnant again on my own. It was a chemical pregnancy and I lost it early on. I was devastated. I just wanted to hide from the world. I needed a break.

Three months later, in February, we did an IUI cycle at the clinic. It didn’t work. Every month you try to get pregnant and don’t, it feels like another loss. It’s a roller coaster of emotions, overwhelmingly exhausting, both physically and emotionally. Then Covid happened, and it just all felt like too much.

When the lockdown started, the clinic stayed open; reproductive health care was considered essential by the governor of New Jersey. There was a moment when I thought, “Is this the worst idea ever?” I was anxious just leaving the house, so adding the multiple clinic appointments felt like excessive exposure. But I didn’t have time to wait until after the pandemic. Doing fertility treatments in this time was so out of my comfort zone, but my egg quality was only getting worse. My fertility window was so small, it even felt like it had closed.

I’m sure many people are putting their family-building on hold, but the clinic waiting room was always filled with socially distanced patients — clearly there were many women like me, not letting the fear of Covid stop us from our desire to be pregnant. Perhaps, Covid is pushing us to do the treatments sooner than later.

I got pregnant in June. I didn’t tell anyone I was pregnant until I was 20 weeks because I was so nervous about experiencing another miscarriage. I was showing, but nobody saw me, so it was easy to hide.

Now that people know, I make sure to note that this is not a pandemic pregnancy. There are couples who were bored and accidentally got pregnant, for sure. But we are not one of them. This pregnancy happened during the pandemic but not because of it. This was no accident. The pandemic pushed me to get pregnant in the nick of time.

The woman who opened herself up to love — and her sexuality

Annie, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Love was the furthest thing from my mind. I work in a leadership position at a domestic violence agency. I was overwhelmed with managing coworkers and hundreds of clients in their isolation.

But while working from home, I started sharing stories and experiences with a person I had worked with for over a year and a half. We started forming a connection as friends through Zoom and text. We shared experiences that we never had with others.

Just so you know, I don’t become friends with people I work with. I have my professional universe, which is very contained, and my personal universe stays private from that. I always felt the need to keep walls and boundaries up in order to be considered professional, especially as a woman in a leadership role. Coworkers knew I have kids, and that’s pretty much it. None knew any aspects of my identity.

 Zoe Prinds-Flash
Annie says she fell in love “before we had ever touched.”

But nine months of Covid has taught me that life needs to be a whole other way. We need to be human, to lead from the heart and prioritize love and joy and humanity, especially now in this moment, with so much loss and devastation. In doing so, I started to fall in love with this person.

Even though we had known each other for a year and a half and worked in the same space every day, we fell in love before we had ever touched. The first time we hugged each other was a post-quarantine embrace. I really do credit the way we had to communicate with fostering our connection. I do not think there would have been any way we would have come together if we did not have the space and distance that we were gifted.

There was a moment when we both knew we had feelings for the other. They asked me, do you want to come and have a beer with me in my backyard? I spent four days thinking about it. Wrestling with my established barriers, my life expectations, my role at work, and knowing that accepting that invitation would mean surrendering. It felt like a crossroads of listening to my heart or staying closed. I actually don’t think there’s any other way to be right now than to lead with your heart.

I’m not out about my sexuality at work. I actually haven’t been out about my sexuality with labels ever. I have always loved who I love regardless of gender, but I never wanted to put myself in any box. My sexuality has always been a spectrum. The person that I love is queer and trans and is out at work, so by being in a relationship with them, I would need to share aspects of myself that I had guarded. This is the first time in my life I have ever had to put a label on my identity since we decided to tell coworkers and board members about our relationship. Many just assumed I was straight. I’m trusting this journey of getting to know myself through love. There is still love in this world.

Dori Kavanagh is a social worker and psychotherapist. Her practice focuses on adoption, infertility, and complex family building. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, their three daughters, and several rescued pets.

Author: Dori Kavanagh

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