How an overdue vacation taught me a valuable lesson about family and friendship

Two weeks ago, my partner and I packed our bags and hit the road. We made two stops in our hometowns Milwaukee and Detroit. It was the first time we had sat in fellowship with family and friends in two years, and just before the second anniversary of my partner and I leaving home to move across the country. Back then, had I known the distance a thousand miles could place between me and my loved ones, I most certainly would have spent my time differently.

In person, and in what felt like a decade, we got the opportunity to see the faces of our tribe — sans the asynchronous, filter-ridden moments on social media. It was surreal; standing in their presence felt like a new beginning, and at the same time, my heart ached knowing that no amount of time would could close the widening gap between us. A lesson I have learned since moving from home, and one that felt ever pressing over the last few weeks, is that we have far less time with those we love than we think.

I repeatedly revisited this thought as I reminisced with friends about summers past. I scheduled lunch’s back to back, stayed up later than I planned, and woke earlier than any vacation should warrant. But despite all the effort to cram the last two years into 20-minute conversations, there were so many people I did not get the chance to see. The reality settled with me that the largest chunk of time I would likely spend with my loved ones was behind me — and I wept with nostalgia.

I didn’t let the thought sour the moment. We shared stories of our recent adventures, retold tales of our shenanigans from back in college, and listened to our family and friends as new stories filled the empty space of the last two years. Many of us had kept in touch in one respect or another, but being in person reminded me of the inferiority of phone calls and video conferences. That no matter how much I wanted to, our most tender moments via Zoom carry the sting of distance.

We had friends transitioning into new careers, starting new lives with babies and romantic interests, all events that we had heard before, but the glass divider of webcams and front-facing cameras must of have blocked the glow in their eyes. But as they retold those stories, their irises lit with an excitement that made the 15-hour drive to the Midwest worth it.

On one special night, we gathered with a group of friends that I had known since high school, and many of us had attended the same University. We drove 90 miles west of Detroit to the capital, Lansing. The moment we opened the doors of the restaurant, smiles were glued to our faces as we embraced each other. We sat and talked until our waiter’s shift ended, and eventually until the restaurant closed. Afterwards we stopped by an old friend’s place to rest a bit before getting back on the road back to Detroit.

On the drive back, like many other instances during the trip, I pointed to landmarks in the distance, nudged my partner and said something like, “I spent a looot of time out this way.” In one moment, as I came around a bend on the highway where an outlet mall appeared marking that half the journey back to Detroit was done, I told my partner: “I’m just now remembering how important this road is. Some of the most significant moments of my life were spent driving on this highway.” I paused for a moment to recall. “I drove on this road for the first time while dropping one of my closest friends off to college. A year later, I made that drive again as I began my college journey. I also drove down this highway when I packed everything I owned into my car, to move away from home and into my first apartment. And a few years later, I packed everything I owned in my car, again, after graduating and moving back to Detroit to start work. Those are some of the most significant moments of my life, and driving on this road often felt like driving into a new chapter. This moment right here, driving back from this experience, is now among them.” She smiled, and we cruised home to some of our favorite songs.

This first trip home has taught me a new lesson about the value of my connections with others, and helped me better calibrate my priorities. If I were to leave you with any advice, it would be not to wait to pick up the phone, to cram in that social time in between classes and meetings, and to ignore the notifications on your phone for an evening to be present with someone you care deeply about.



Mel is an Associate Case Researcher at the Harvard Business School interested in business, politics, social media, and the tech that drives our world today.

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Mel Martin

Mel is an Associate Case Researcher at the Harvard Business School interested in business, politics, social media, and the tech that drives our world today.