Essay: Winter break reminded me how much I love my family. What will I do without them?

The start of the spring semester may have you longing for the halcyon days of winter break when vacations replaced Blackboard notifications. In classroom icebreakers and catch-up conversations with friends, those trips back home and abroad to see family or journey somewhere new bubble to the surface. Yes, the syllabi have come out, but those memories of winter break – and the people you spent it with – remain.

I spent my winter break with my mom’s extended family. After failed attempts to reconcile school vacations, work schedules and other dynamics over the past several years, the 15 of us – my grandparents, two aunts, two uncles, five cousins, mom, stepdad, sister and I – embarked on a weeklong cruise aboard the Norwegian Prima for my grandpa’s 80th birthday. Split between Boston, Atlanta and Florida, it was the first time we’d all seen each other together at least since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, if not earlier.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. At the very least, it helped make the hedonistic excess of cruising feel like valuable family time. I put down my copy of Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate” – not exactly light pleasure reading by any stretch of the imagination – to race around the ship’s three-story go-kart track and play cards over lunch at the oddly Western Market-adjacent “Indulge Food Hall.”

Yes, there were quite a few firsts and plenty of laughs on the Prima, just as Norwegian Cruise Lines’ marketing implies. I’ll never forget when Grandpa puffed out strawberry-scented clouds from a borrowed vape in the ship’s cigar lounge, or how he and Grandma, respectively nicknamed “Papa Smurf” and “Mama” by our tour guides, braved the rapids of the White River in Ocho Rios, Jamaica during our one-and-only shore excursion of the trip.

But just as gray clouds and stormy weather had turned three days at sea into a six-day circuit of the Caribbean, I found myself beating back a dark thought at the back of my mind – how much time do I still have left with my grandparents? Spending a week together made me realize how much my family means to me. What will I do without them?

While I may not have hit up the ship’s casino to count cards at blackjack, I still understand statistics. Based on the average life expectancy in the United States, I can expect to have eight more years with my 80-year-old grandpa and between nine and 12 more years with my 77-year-old grandma, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In the strange blur of COVID and college, that doesn’t seem like a lot of time – it’s not enough.

No amount of included gratuity will make it easier to sit a party of 15 together, and I saw how the years had already passed looking across the multiple tables we sat at every night. For my younger cohort of cousins, there’s first dates and first jobs, internships and apartments, classes and college. They talk about professional misogynist and alleged human trafficker Andrew Tate and debate which bodybuilders are “natty” – the ones that don’t use steroids.

At the table for the parents and grandparents, where glasses of wine replace rum and cokes, cosmopolitans and mudslides, there’s pain – back pain, hip pain, knee pain, joint pain, eye pain. Pain that stings, pain that burns and pain that never really goes away. They take steps a little slower and a little more carefully, and every conversation is a few decibels louder than it was a few years ago. Grandpa’s eye drops come out after every meal, and Grandma’s wrist brace is another accessory in her ensemble.

I’ve cruised before, happily sipping from a virgin strawberry daiquiri or piling my plate high at the buffet. And even though my maternal grandparents are generally healthy, save for my grandpa’s ongoing cornea transplant, this year didn’t feel like an escape. As a wake follows a ship, so too did the idea of death follow me.

The truth is obvious, and it is inconvenient – everyone is simply getting older, including you and me. I turn 21 next month, which means there’s 54 years to go based on those life expectancy estimates. Like the cruise, that should be a celebration, but it’s also a moment to reflect about time, life and death – how you want to spend the former and what, if anything, you’re going to do about the latter two.

So here’s some advice, courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Lines and Donna Summer. Taking up an entire row of seats in the ship’s theater one night, the 15 of us basked in a production of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” a tribute to “Queen of Disco’s” life that ends with a show-stopping rendition of Summer’s “Last Dance.”

In “Last Dance,” Summer may have been singing about hitting the dance floor in search of love before the club closes – “Last dance/Last chance for love/Yes, it’s my last chance/For romance tonight” – but there’s a lesson in there, too. Even when the end is here, you can stomp to the beat, clap your hands and head out to the dance floor for the performance of the lifetime – “So, let’s dance the last dance.”

If those life expectancy predictions really are true, I have quite a few dances left. There’s hundreds of phone calls and FaceTimes left to make, and maybe even a few more vacations to take. I’ll still have time to feel Grandpa’s prickly mustache and watch him cheat at Uno by hiding the cards under the table, and Grandma will still call shopping carts “buggies” and wear her necklace of little jeweled shoes, one for each grandchild.

There’s still time. And when it comes to an end, I’ll be ready to dance the last dance.

Ethan Benn, a junior majoring in journalism and mass communication, is the opinions editor.

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