This is the year when the word “reunion” feels nostalgic and impossibly far off, like a mountain on the other side of a mountain or a dream about an old lover who boards a train that leaves before you can reunite.

The first few months of the coronavirus pandemic, when it seemed as if Americans had developed unity of purpose, “feel so long ago now,” Kathleen Sullivan writes. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Sullivan

For this is the year of disunion. The disunion began slowly for me. First, I had to cancel a trip to visit an old friend in New York City. Three days later, Janet Mills announced the state was shutting down. I remember the quiet of that first morning in March when I woke in the dark and was reassured to see the crescent moon still in its place in the sky. I remember the sense, despite my sadness at not seeing my friend, at not seeing patients in person, not of disunion, but of union, that together we would defeat the virus. I remember the sweet high of that hard time when I felt a kinship with the people in London during World War II who had to come together to survive.

We can do this, it will all work out. 

Except we haven’t. Except it didn’t. Those first few months feel so long ago now, so part of another story I had about who we are, who we could be for each other. By early May, when the state began its reopening, signs of disunion popped up like cracks in a pavement. The wearing of masks was the place where the great tectonic plates of the country first began to widen, tear apart. Wearing a mask went from a sign of caring to a symbol of freedom. From there the disunion grew and grew until there were maskless men with assault-style rifles in the halls of a state legislature protesting their right to be untamed. Rich suburban white people with guns defending their homes against peaceful protesters after George Floyd’s death revealed our racial divide, another smoldering crack. Of course, those last sentences are all dividers. Wherever you stand on the mask, the machine guns, the rich white couple, George Floyd’s death puts you on one side of the great divide or the other.

We haven’t pulled it off. At this writing in late October, I don’t know how the elections will turn out but I, and everyone I know, are frightened for the disunion of this moment. I have a long career as a couples counselor. I start with division and conflict, with hurt and fear, and try to calm the couple’s connection enough that I can build empathy and tolerance for difference; replace disdain and disgust with respect. This kind of reunion takes time. And sometimes it doesn’t happen until each person’s heart is so broken they are ready to lay down their anger and try again.

My heart is broken. I hold a desperate hope that after Nov. 3 we can calm ourselves, listen. Make plans for a reunion. A picnic, a baseball game, hot dogs. God Bless America. It can’t all just have been a dream.

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