I’m near tears from relief.
The trip was a series of battalion assaults, unimaginable outside of a science fiction novel. TSA men hid behind large plexiglass partitions, gloved, masked, instructing us to wave our government issued ID’s at magic scanners, reading a report on me, no need for a boarding pass. Even at 4am I was hyper vigilant, like an alien visitor to Alternative Earth, where reality had shifted, familiar had turned inside out.
I fast-walked SFO corridors, dodging incoming passengers like ducking death mushrooms in a video game. I pretended away my anxiety. Eschewed the plastic face shield for a second mask plastered over the N95. Stood instead of sat at the Boarding gate. Skipped hydration. Adjusted and readjusted the masks for leaks along my cheeks. Ignored the fifteen-month long habits and cautions, the sheltering and quarantine that taught me no contact, no friends no family no son equals no death.
I jumped into the deep end of the viral cesspool and held my breath.
The man sitting next to me on the nearly six hour flight traveled frequently, he said. I ran my doctor husband’s vaccination stats through my brain. The man ate his snack box slowly, mask lowered. I closed my eyes and turned to the sunrise. Calculating the inches that separated us times potential viral load times airliner ventilation system flow.
And then I succumbed. I flew to my Dad’s house because I had no choice. He, like all of us, has no control over the outcome of his biopsy, over the day he believes ordained by God for his end. I am of a generation that believes in controlling environment, schedules, moods and life. Despite my own cancer diagnosis, my loss of a kidney, my lung disease, I cling to the idea I can master my surroundings and save myself. And him.
I started with the simple assumption that I could eat out in the outdoor section of a restaurant for the first time in nearly fifteen months. That golf-country North Carolina would be similar to San Francisco and have converted sidewalks and streets to COVID free outdoor zones. My first clue should have been how flummoxed Dad was at my request.
We can’t interrogate the wait staff about ventilation system upgrades, nor walk out mid-dinner when the raucous table of twelve (!) a mere six feet away starts in on a drinking song, mask-less. We cannot insist on cooking in a kitchen where my dead step-mom’s olive oil expired ten years ago. We cannot do take-out and disrupt my Dad’s routine while he struggles with a second major health issue within three months.
Heck, at the age of 62 I’m not even allowed to drive the van. Yet.
My resiliency at low ebb after losing my mother in December and my brother in February, the trip felt an almost impossible mountain to climb. All without hiking boots, backpack, oxygen. (But vaccinated!)
And then. The biopsy was negative. We settled into a routine. For the first time, I felt at home in my Dad’s house. I ventured on errands, rode in a car every single day–sometimes more than once–had cocktails with my Dad’s friends, went on walks in his complex and chatted with his neighbor. Went to his doctor’s appointments and finally understood what the heck was going on.
The immersion shored up my resources, renewed me. Instead of obsessing over the inevitable chin-mask guy inside the Ace Hardware, or how many of my Dad’s prayer-group seniors were anti-vaxxers, instead of scurrying back home to safety, I let the anxiety go for the relief of seeing my Dad.
I lost that opportunity with my mother. She died alone.
If I am going to contract COVID, this will have been the week. If I’m going to get sick, I will not die.
I am home now. I’m safe within my walls, safe to reflect on the trip back to the real-unreal world, grateful. I am near tears with the relief that the worst has not happened again, that I have not lost another parent before we were safe to travel again.
To my last-week self, the one so afraid, and to everyone else still captured by anxiety even after vaccination, I say, we came close to dying, we came close to losing each other, we came full-frontal up against the battalion, we lost half a million, and yet we are here. Venture out with your shield up, venture out without regret.