Migrations Reaching for My Family—And My French Not-Husband
Comforting each other is more natural when we’re physically present, which is what the pandemic made it impossible for my not-husband to be.
My mom called me three times at lunch. I was sitting outside on a gray French November day. The meal was chilly, but it was the fall of 2020. We were lucky restaurants were even open. It was the final day before Paris’s second confinement, and the city had a cold, paranoid energy. My friend arrived with a backpack full of just-purchased puzzles, replacements of the ones he’d finished last lockdown. But when I saw my missed calls, I couldn’t have cared less about puzzles, old or new.
Despite my best efforts, WhatsApp rarely rings on my phone. After four years of living abroad, being reachable is never as easy as I need it to be. But sometimes a missed call tells it all. And as I dialed my mom in California, I already knew what she would say: Grandma was on her deathbed. When could I get there?
Back at my apartment, I looked at plane tickets to San Francisco, clicking faster as options appeared and disappeared. My body was shaky with indecision, and I wanted my French partner there to assess the risks. I’d moved in with him for the first confinement, and he was the human hand-sanitizer dispenser who kept me updated on transmission rates, who trained me to wash my hands then lock our door. It’s some combination of freak luck and his loving diligence that have kept us both virus-free.
But he was at his parents’ house in a tiny village outside of Bordeaux where he’d decided to stay when the French government announced the confinement. It forbade both interregional travel and daily errands, except for government-approved reasons. Getting to Paris wasn’t the only administrative hurdle: We have a French civil union, which isn’t recognized internationally; ever since the travel bans of March 2020, he had no legal means of entering the United States with me.
I found tickets to San Francisco with a connection through Newark. It felt dramatic, frivolous almost, to buy them on such short notice. But I did. Then I called my partner to tell him what was happening. He’s a generation older than me and far less attentive of his phone, so I wasn’t surprised when he didn’t pick up. Besides, his decrepit Samsung barely gets reception at his parents’ house, and of course there’s no Wi-Fi.
Sometimes I refer to my partner as my not-husband . We’re not married; he’s not at holidays; none of my friends and family truly know him. The only time he’s been to the US with me was on a weeklong trip for a memorial. Our three-year relationship is a grafted limb that has yet to thrive alongside my American life. We’d barely known each other when I asked if he’d government-certify our relationship. Of course, it was for love and visas—the sticky web ensnaring every international couple.
As I boarded the plane alone, the way I had so many other times, I contemplated my decision to move to France and partner with a man so different from me. When we talked before I left, he brushed past my raw fear, comforted me with advice on double-masking.
Sixteen hours, three N95 masks, and puddles of hand sanitizer later, my mom picked me up in San Francisco. We hadn’t seen each other in fourteen months, and the first thing we did was hug. It would’ve been excruciating not to hug in that moment. We’d already decided the family would be as responsible as possible on our respective flights, but once we arrived, we weren’t going to quarantine. We were going to hold each other.
My grandma was home in hospice with a bed in the living room, the table next to her arranged with flowers, crystals, and essential oils. She’d been in a coma for a few days, but her Do Not Resuscitate orders and my mom’s tenacity had gotten her out of the hospital. It still felt like a miracle that my grandma was there—that my mother and her partner, my brother, and I all were.
We were the extent of my grandma’s family. She was twice divorced and my mom is her only child. When Grandma was attending the University of Wisconsin, she met and fell in love with a Bolivian man. They married and had a baby; then he moved back to his country, leaving his wife and daughter an unpronounceable last name.
One time, my grandma told me she’d been waiting for a letter from him to know the state of their relationship. He was in Bolivia, and she in Indianapolis living with her parents. His letter went to India—the address misread—before, somehow, it found its way to her. This was how she learned her then husband was staying in his country. Two generations later, an estrangement like that, one that took months to reconcile, could’ve been resolved with a few minutes of 4G. Even with our current technology, however, my partner felt inaccessible.
Once we arrived, we weren’t going to quarantine. We were going to hold each other.
My first morning in San Francisco, I woke up to a clear Bay November day. It was eerily normal despite the circumstances, and after a few hours on our laptops, my brother and I spent the afternoon at the condo’s pool. For decades, we swam in it with our grandma, the daily ritual integral to every visit. We made sausages with burnt onions for dinner—nothing is as comfortably chaotic as cooking with my brother—and I poured beer into tulip glasses from Grandma’s dusty collection.
In the midst of eating, my mom looked into the living room. She’s not . . .
We stood over my grandma to say our goodbyes. A family of five with four last names between us. My mom’s partner had spent the last six years playing Scrabble and scrubbing dishes between the times he helped my grandma to her health appointments. A younger me could’ve never imagined crying over her dead body with a former stranger, but life is a revolving door of people appearing and disappearing, sharing laughter and tears.
While I was able to call and text my American friends instantly, three days passed after my grandma died before I could get my partner on the phone. There’s a nine-hour time difference between France and California, the reception is best in his parents’ attic, and we’d been scheduling our calls so he could meet me up there. I’d told him to keep checking his phone in case anything happened, but when I tried him in my grieving, all it did was ring.
When he finally got back to me and I asked why he hadn’t answered, he said he didn’t think my grandma was going to die so soon. In France, it’s illegal to remove someone from life support. So instead of talking about my loss or his abandonment, we were debating French end-of-life rights. I started to cry.
Being there for someone occurs on so many planes. Sometimes it’s answering the phone and listening, picking up when someone needs to talk. Sometimes it’s comforting them with messages, meals, or hugs. Sometimes it’s about spending hours doing nothing together, investing in the nothing-time itself. And all this becomes so much more natural when we’re physically present, which is exactly what the pandemic made it impossible for my not-husband to be.
My grandma had arranged to be cremated. She wanted her ashes scattered in San Francisco Bay. When it was time to pick them up, my mom’s partner insisted on going with her. She was handed the box, and it was unbearably heavy, so he was the one to carry it home.
As we worked through the list of after-death tasks, I couldn’t stop wishing my not-husband was there. He excels at helping in practical ways—disassembling, hauling, and cleaning—and would’ve never wavered or complained amid the emotional maelstrom. I wanted him as I packed my grandma’s crystals for my desk in Paris, as we picked up tacos in Oakland, as we went for our final swim. We were selling the condo, and he would never see the place where I’d spent thirty years’ worth of holidays. If he were here, carrying a box of ashes, a box of anything, he might understand where I came from. He could start to be part of my family, rather than a phantom limb.
In the beginning of the pandemic, as a response to the border closures, international couples started a movement called Love Is Not Tourism , which petitions governments to reunite couples in any country where one of the partners is a legal resident. Their Facebook group now has fifty thousand members. Although they’ve made some progress in Europe, at that time, the United States hadn’t wavered from their initial executive order, which forbade nonresidents besides siblings and spouses. And of course, I have a not-husband, not a husband.
If he were here, carrying a box of ashes, a box of anything, he might understand where I came from.
Last November, I emailed the embassy, joined Facebook groups, and tried to contact the man who notarized our civil union. But there was no easy solution. I’ve been to enough visa appointments to know the clerks don’t see me —they see another application that must meet the requisites, or it’s their responsibility to reject. All throughout the pandemic, governments have been trying to define the undefinable when family means love, time, and support. Showing up in every situation and doing the best we can to get through it.
And while our civil union was deemed internationally unworthy, reuniting was not impossible. There were stories on Facebook of couples meeting in Mexico, of Europeans quarantining in Croatia, outside of the European Union, before flying to the US.
But my not-husband is risk averse, a rule abider. While my inner entitled American insisted that if he cared, he would find a way to California, his rational French-self maintained that it was impossible. It was the embodiment of so many of our arguments that dead-ended in frustration and tears.
We spread my grandma’s ashes in San Francisco Bay a week after California reissued their stay-at-home order, which meant only my mother, her partner, my brother, and I were there. The weather was flawless and the Bay Bridge empty as we drove to meet the arranged boat at Fisherman’s Wharf, and there on the pier, the honking sea lions outnumbered any people. It was one of those days that the pandemic’s quiet rendered even more surreal, that felt more like a movie than something we were living.
My grandma’s condo sold the first week it was on the market, and the loss of our oldest gathering place sent a ripple of regret through the family. As a consolation, my mother proposed an annual family vacation, but, like many pandemic promises, it felt too optimistic to even entertain.
Months of curfews and confinements crumbled Paris’s allure and my relationship’s thin foundation of normalcy. I thought about moving back home—living abroad had never felt so foolish or frustrating. But over the summer, Europe opened to American tourists, and my family made plans to meet in Greece with our respective partners, mine included.
At one of our sprawling dinners on the island of Hydra, we toasted my grandma. As we settled back with our glasses, my partner apologized for missing the memorial. But so had my father, who had been her son-in-law for twenty years. So had my brother’s fiancée, who had visited her diligently. The pandemic had ravaged so many families that it was a privilege I’d made it to my grandma’s bedside. It was a privilege to finally be together with my family—including my not-husband.