As a Post reporter who covers the pandemic, I feared a potential superspreader event. As a son, I just wanted her there.
November 17, 2022 at 7:00 a.m. EST
Xiaoqi Li Photography; family photo; iStock; Washington Post illustration Comment on this story
The text from my mom appeared while I was walking across the parking lot at DSW, scrambling to find a pair of shiny black shoes for my wedding just four days away.
I had been bracing for this moment since she casually mentioned feeling sick after attending another wedding the weekend before my mine.
As a health reporter for The Washington Post, I’ve spent the last two and a half years writing about the ways the pandemic has upended our lives. On a personal level, I viewed the coronavirus as a tolerable risk as long as I was up to date on my shots, but something to carefully avoid ahead of major events — especially my own wedding. The scenario I long dreaded was now becoming reality.
The virus did not stop me from planning a 130-person wedding — big by American standards, tiny by Indian ones — in Leesburg, Va. Cases were plunging when I proposed to my now-husband Chris in June 2021. We were optimistic the pandemic would be over by our wedding date more than a year away on Sept. 17.
Instead, new daily U.S. infections that month were five times higher than when I proposed, with widely circulating variants especially adept at infecting the vaccinated and reinfecting the previously infected.
We weren’t counting on our May bouts with covid to shield us from getting sick before the wedding, so we agreed to hunker down after Labor Day, donning KN95s at work and skipping social functions.
Early on, we assured our wedding guests that we took covid seriously and would keep some sides of the reception tent open to improve ventilation, offer outdoor eating options and distribute rapid tests for everyone to take before attending.
It would be one thing to turn away a co-worker or a college friend who tested positive. But here was my mom, struck by covid on the eve of a wedding that marked the culmination of a long and painful journey to mend a relationship shattered after I told her I was gay. She had raised me on her own with my father out of the picture.
Would it be the virus — and not disapproval — that left me walking alone down the aisle?
Even as I started to feel attracted to male classmates in my middle school in a heavily evangelical Atlanta suburb, I refused to accept I was gay. I was a devout Catholic and tried to pray the feelings away. I didn’t know a single gay person.
I came out of the closet to my sisters and friends as I started my freshman year of college, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell my mom. I feared we would become the latest subjects of gossip in our insular community of South Indian Catholics, with people blaming my mom for turning me gay by divorcing my father when I was young.
When I mustered up the courage to finally tell her before I graduated college, she sobbed. The first words out of her mouth were, “We can change this.”
She never attempted to disown me. But the next decade was a complicated one, as she fell silent on the phone when I told her about boyfriends, asked why I would need to get married when I could just call a future life partner a roommate, and semi-jokingly asked if I could wait until she died.
When I FaceTimed to tell her I had proposed to Chris, she abruptly ended the call. She was at an Indian neighbor’s house and rarely acknowledged my sexuality to others in the community. Later, she griped that my sister’s Facebook post about my engagement led to my aunt in India getting mocked. She dissuaded me from inviting distant relatives who had attended my sisters’ weddings years earlier.
But she also started embracing the nuptials. The save-the-date with a photo of Chris and I holding hands hung on her refrigerator, in plain view of guests. She worked her connections in India to secure golden saris for our groomsmaids and custom-made Indian suits for me and Chris to wear during a wedding ceremony that would honor elements of my culture.
I had spent so many years feeling like an outcast who tarnished the family reputation because of who I love, rendering my education and job irrelevant. Most of my aunts and uncles declined to attend the wedding, few even acknowledging the invitation. But it was my mom’s presence that mattered the most.
The morning after testing positive, she began feeling worse.
“Not good. More cough at night. But I am doing everything possible to make me feel better,” she texted me.
My mom, Mary Thomas, is a 67-year-old retired nurse, with a long history of medical problems. Fortunately, I had booked her an appointment to get a second booster when I visited Atlanta in July. We also arranged for her to get Paxlovid, the medication that has been found to reduce the severity of covid-19, particularly for senior citizens.
My oldest sister and my aunt, who attended the same wedding as my mom, were also sick and would eventually test positive.
I scrapped plans for a prenuptial self-care day of hiking and getting a massage. Instead, at the prodding of my detail-oriented fiance, I spent the morning drafting a 1,324-word email to the wedding party and my future in-laws laying out the situation and a plan for how to proceed.
My mom first experienced a sore throat Sunday, meaning she could theoretically leave isolation after five days under revised CDC guidance — assuming her symptoms were improving and she was fever-free — in time for the Saturday wedding. The guidance did not require a negative test to end isolation. People are most contagious in the early days of their sickness. My goal was to let her attend even if she was positive, while taking extra precautions.
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I chose not to inform all wedding guests because I didn’t want to make her a pariah. Those I did warn, including vendors, seemed content with my plans. But I also learned I couldn’t make everyone happy.
Deference to parents is a key value in my culture, and my insistence on telling my mother what to do and publicly disclosing she was sick frustrated some in the family. Many relatives work in health care, some treating covid-19 patients, and don’t believe the virus is worth upending your life. One relative snapped at me that if covid were still such a big deal, the government wouldn’t have ended mask mandates.
But other guests thought my plan didn’t go far enough. A cousin with an unvaccinated infant dropped out, saying it was unrealistic to expect the family would stay socially distanced. Another member of wedding party lived with her mother and faced pressure from her to drop out.
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In my attempts to base my decisions on the science I had spent so much time covering as a reporter, I neglected to consider how so much of our covid decision-making is based on a mix of anxieties, desires and fatigues — we’re often paving a circuitous path to a predetermined conclusion. Humans always struggle with gauging risk, and I’m no exception. I was twisting myself into pretzels to justify having my family be part of the wedding without coming across as a giant hypocrite.
On Thursday, my mom told me she was feeling better. But I still felt uneasy.
I’ve interviewed enough medical professionals and patients to know how people with covid start to recover before abruptly deteriorating. And I suspected she was just trying to keep me from worrying. She told friends that she wished she got covid earlier because I was finally calling her all the time.
When I saw her for the first time, right before the Friday rehearsal dinner, after her 10-hour drive from Georgia, she appeared healthy. We held the dinner outside a manor house where Chris and I stayed with our families for the wedding weekend, and I seated my mom and sister at a table farthest away from everyone else. My brother-in-law dubbed it the “Time Out Table.”
On the morning of my wedding day, I walked down stairs to find my mother and sister eating breakfast alone. I handed them rapid test kits. Both came back positive, but with faint lines — an indication they were less contagious. My mom had no symptoms. My sister was still coughing.
I proceeded with the plan I’d devised — they could still come, but they’d mask indoors, get ready on their own and eat their pan-seared salmon outside.
My mom arrived at the venue shortly before the ceremony started. I chose not to wear a mask when she helped me put on my Jodhpuri suit and my late grandfather’s gold crucifix. I craved the intimacy of the moment and hoped immunity from my previous infection and a booster dose of the new formula tailored to omicron variants would protect me.
During the outdoor ceremony, my mom and I walked down the aisle to John Legend’s “All of Me,” and she put her mask on before sitting in a front row of chairs spaced apart from the rest of the rows.
The concerned members of the wedding party still attended, donning masks around my mom and sister or moving away from them. They wore masks while in the group shots — and our photographer photoshopped in their real faces later.
I didn’t handle the situation perfectly. I wonder whether I should have warned more guests ahead of time or bugged my mom more to keep her mask on indoors — and let’s be honest, she often let it slip. But as far as I know, no one got covid after attending the wedding.
I figured my mom would welcome any excuse to get out of her predinner speech thanking guests for attending since she’s not much of a public speaker. But she insisted on it. I told her all she had to do was briefly express gratitude and sit back down.
It quickly became apparent she had other plans.
Mary Thomas, Washington Post reporter Fenit Nirappil’s mother, spoke at his wedding in Leesburg, Va., on Sept. 17. (Video: Courtesy of Anand Shah)
“It was not at all easy for me to hear Fenit was gay,” she said, standing in the middle of the dance floor.
My normally unfiltered mom had always been uncharacteristically muted when it came to my sexuality. Now here she was — in front of more than a hundred people — laying bare our struggle. I squeezed Chris’s hand.
“After reading so many articles, watching several videos and listening to medical professionals, I came to know I am ignorant,” she added.
“Being gay is still a taboo in society, especially in Indian community. Even though it is not traditional, Fenit and Chris chose each other, to live together, love each other, build a family of their own,” my mom said. “I’m proud of you, my son, that you disclosed your sexual identity to the world so other kids like you have the courage to tell their parents and move forward in life.”
After a six-minute speech interrupted occasionally by raucous applause, I ran out to the dance floor to hug my mom, holding her tightly and telling her I loved her. Chris joined too, and we all embraced each other.
Covid was the last thing on our minds.
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