Early last March, I boarded a plane to visit my mother in New York. As I live in Australia, this was not a simple coast to coast jaunt, but rather a hemisphere to hemisphere voyage. My husband and I planned the trip months in advance. Though my food storage was already in good shape, I did some bonus shopping for canned food and ready-made meals that would make life easier for my husband and children.
The coronavirus was beginning to hit the news, but I wasn’t worried. I was focused seeing my mother and friends who I had not seen in years. Even when my connecting flight in New Zealand was significantly delayed, changing a long line of connecting flights—I was pumped. Every bump on this adventure felt fun.
Before heading to New York, I caught up with friends on the west coast. I bought my daughters pink cowgirl boots, wandered through Wal-Mart with fascination, and shared stellar Japanese food served by Hispanic migrants. I joked with friends about the border guards at LAX wearing gloves and masks as we sipped McDonald’s Shamrock shakes—something I’d missed, and only ever seen in the USA.
Within days, those jokes were not so funny. I had been so excited about my trip, that I had not been following the news. As I boarded my flight to New York, airport bathrooms were being refitted with hand sanitizer dispensers, complete reminders to wash hands for 20-30 seconds. Bottled water and flour were beginning to sell out in grocery stores.
It was late when my flight arrived on the west coast, and after meeting a friend for dinner, even later when I arrived at my mother’s house. By the next morning, flights into the US from Europe were suspended. I took my mother to lunch, mostly because I had not risen early enough for breakfast or brunch, but I was beginning to worry. I wanted to stay for the entire week; actually spend time and find things to do to help my mother. But the daily connections with my husband were changing from “what the kids did today” to “what the President (and/or) Prime Minister announced today”.
In the previous seven days, I had been in five different time zones, including a daylight saving change that I had not anticipated. Suffice to say, my body had no idea what time it was. So at 11PM, I called my international carrier to see about getting my flight changed. As I do not have a US phone, and the number was NOT toll-free, I topped up my skype account, dialed the number, and sat. On hold. For six hours. And then my phone timed out, and turned off.
“I think you should just get to the airline counter in San Francisco and demand they put you on a flight.” My husband said when I reported what had happened. I had purchased my domestic airfare online and could easily change it, but the international leg of my trip had been purchased months ago, at the budget rate that didn’t allow for flight changes. Per the terms of the flight, I would have to purchase an earlier return trip at full price and not be refunded in any way. A quick google of airfare prices made me feel nauseous.
“It doesn’t matter what the flight costs are,” said my husband. “I think… you should come home.”
He knew better than to tell me what to do. We are partners, not co-workers, not boss and subordinates. So he would not tell me what to do. But he was worried, I could tell. Anxious, even. Mandatory quarantining had fallen in place in New Zealand, and I was flying via New Zealand. I was worried I might get caught there. I was also afraid that I might get caught in the US. I had places to stay. Friends and family who generously welcome me. And after such a long time, and a hundred challenges, a break from routine could be fun.
But I didn’t want fun. I mean, I do… and I did. But I wanted to be at home. I missed my husband and children. I missed the sound of snoring (not saying who), the smell of my youngest daughter’s hair, and the words of wisdom beyond her years of my eldest daughter. I craved them. Deeply. Desperately. I needed to get home.
I booked the next flight from New York to San Franciso, and spent another four hours on hold trying to talk to someone—anyone—about my flight to Australia, but gave up. I needed to pack. And sleep, I really needed sleep.
The next day brought a strangely quiet drive to the airport, and more hugs with my mother than I can remember giving her in all the years before. Signs throughout the airport announced purchase limitations of hand sanitizer, and demands to leave if you felt unwell. Still, the flight was on time. To pass the time, I began crocheting an “beach” blanket that a friend asked me to make for her. Every stitch made me feel like I was doing something to progress, and I was grateful for the tangibility of seeing a thing coming to fruition, even if it was just artfully twisted acrylic fibres.
We made the scheduled landing in the Midwest. This three hour layover in Denver felt like the longest layover I have ever experienced (it wasn’t). But I was yet anxious. I paced—partly for exercise and partly to calm my nerves. I paced though all of the arms and levels of the Denver airport, taking the train to different spaces, then back again. I sampled hand lotion, ate the pastrami on rye I had packed for myself the day before, and mapped out the San Francisco airport so I knew exactly how to get to which airline. “Can I catch a flight to Auckland, and then Melbourne tonight?” I fretted to myself, almost aloud. I hoped so. I prayed so.
Before all of my anxiety was worked out, I was waiting for my next flight to land in San Francisco. It was then that I noticed how quiet all of the flights, and even the airport had been. Looking out of the window, I saw the snow-capped mountains around Denver disappearing—so I asked the man sitting by the window if he minded taking a photo for me. He obliged. I thanked him with a sanitized hand wipe.
Not long after, I made my way to the International terminal of the San Francisco airport. I found the airline I was flying, but the check-in was closed. They wouldn’t open for another hour and a half. If I stayed, I would be first in line. I pondered to myself. “Should I find a phone and try to call and change the flight again?” “Should I stay here?” “Should I go and find… somebody official??” I had originally intended to stay and catch up with friends in San Francisco for a few days, but the woman I was staying with had fallen ill (a short-lived head cold.) She thoughtfully and protectively made arrangements for me to stay with someone else. People were looking out for me. I felt loved. I knew I would be safe no matter what.
But I wanted to go home. I needed my children. I wanted my husband. The Australian Prime Minister had announced restrictions and isolation for incoming arrivals, and I was afraid things might get even more complicated. So there I stood. The first person in line. Forty five minutes later, other travellers began to line up behind me, all a respectful distance away. I found crocheting while standing wasn’t working for me, so I began putting gloves on. Then off. Then I put them on, tapped my right foot 100 times, then removed my gloves and tapped my left foot one hundred times. While playing Words with Friends and Spider Solitaire.
Yup. I was *that* person at the airport.
The gates finally opened, and I went to the first check-in agent. I explained that I had a flight for a week later, had been on hold for … EVER… and that “my husband told me I should demand a flight… but I’m a pacifist… I’m not a demanding person… so can we work something out?” After asking work mates, and making a phone call, he said, “Um. The supervisor is on her way. She’ll take care of you.”
As I stood waiting for the supervisor, a fellow passenger stepped past me, on his way to the boarding area. “Good luck,” he said. And I was grateful. He meant it. He had heard. I needed to hear that. That alone made my heart beat at a calmer pace.
The Supervisor arrived and listened to my crazy story. As she tapped nonchalantly away at her computer, we made small talk. She seemed disinterested in how long I had waited on hold, and I was grateful that she didn’t bring up the no-change clause in my budget ticket price. Turns out that she was also from New York, so I steered the conversation to that, trying to make her like me enough to change my flight. Finally she spoke. “Would you prefer window or aisle?”
I was gobsmacked! I was going to make the flight! At least I’d be in the same hemisphere as my family, even if I did end up stuck in New Zealand. But I dismissed the thought of being “stuck.” I was going home! This was happening! “Aisle,” I said. “I hate stepping over people when I need the bathroom.” She smiled, and weighed my luggage. Within moments, she handed me a ticket, and then changed her gaze. “Next please!”
I was elated, so much that I felt like skipping. But I didn’t. It was the airport, and I am an adult, after all. “I am on tonight’s flight!!!!!!!” I messaged my husband. Almost two hours later, I finally boarded the plane. As the plane crossed the tarmac to take off, the captain announced that a New Zealand opera singer was on her way home with us, her performances having been cancelled. She sang Pokarekare Ana, a traditional New Zealand song that was commonly sung for soldiers when they left for battle in the Great War.
As the song rang through the plane, my tears began to fall. It was then that I realised that the airline check-in Supervisor had put me alone in a row of four. It was like hitting the jackpot in airplane lottery. As soon as cruising altitude hit, I was able to lay across the seats and sleep. The flight was by no means full, but I was one of only a few who had an entire row to myself. I saw a cute older couple spooning each other across a row of three, and families make comfortable use of the additional space in cuddling together. It was beautiful, serene and sacred. It was as though we were all finally going home.
I was able to make my connecting flight to Melbourne. I had rested so well on the previous flight that I spent the time happily crocheting. As this final flight prepared for landing, I couldn’t help but smile. “Your crocheting…” said a voice as I gathered my growing blanket. It came from a greying man seated not too far from me. “My grandmother used to do that. I used to sit and watch her crochet. It reminded me of her. Very soothing. It made this flight good for me.”
I took a shuttle from the airport and pondered the beauty that had come from this experience. The kindness of strangers that I had experienced, and witnessed. Simple words like, “Good luck,” “It made this flight good for me,” and the echoing tune of Pokarekare Ana had lessened my anxiety, and made me seen, heard, and appreciated. There was so much beauty in all of this.
Especially when I finally was home with my family. Quarantine has certainly had its sting, but I get to share it at home with my family. That alone is an enormous blessing. I get to be at home. I am glad for that.