A second pandemic trip to see Mom

I spent an amazing month with my mom in Virginia in the US, but learned some hard lessons on the trip.

Surprised to leave Australia

Last year, I traveled to the US to move my mom into a new living situation after a bad fall. In April of this year, Mom fell again, but luckily the staff at her residence found her quickly and she escaped with minimal long-term damage. We made changes to her care schedule and felt the situation was safer, but my sister was bearing 99% of the load for her care beyond what the care givers could provide.

While you had to prove a true need to leave the country, my mom’s health would serve as a legitimate reason, though there was no guarantee that my application would be accepted. In July the government announced another 50% reduction in the number of inbound passengers, and stricter examination of requests to leave the country, preferring that if citizens left, they planned to stay away for at least three months.

Shortly thereafter, American Airlines notified me that my flights were canceled — American had decided to shut down all routes to and from Australia, citing a lack of economic viability. I found a replacement flight on United, but expected that my application with Australia would be rejected given the new harsh reality of quotas.

It was accepted. In shock, I made plans to leave. A month later, I walked into Mom’s apartment in Virginia.

Mom

Seeing Mom was amazing. Last year when I arrived, Mom was shaken from her accident, confused from her move into the new apartment building, and even after a month, didn’t always know how to get from the elevator back to her apartment.

After nine months, Mom had settled. Her short term memory is spotty, but she has a routine, she has dinner in the dining room every night, and she interacts with other residents. The care takers are wonderful to her, and all of them enjoy how sweet she is. (Side note: Even though 50% of my genes are from mom, I expect I am going to be a royal pain in the ass if I ever get anywhere close to 90 years old.)

Mom had declined physically quite a bit, and could no longer move without the use of a walker, and her short term memory (and memory of any names of people she had met in the last two years) was worse . Yet overall her situation was stable. My brother and sister had done a great job getting her back into her apartment and helping things return to normal.

Virginia

The area where my mom lives is beautiful — green forests and small country roads. The density of Sydney has really gotten to me through lockdown; leaving the front door the weight of the masses of people feels like swimming upstream no matter what direction I turn. The time in Virginia was a blissful escape: riding small country roads on the bike I keep in the US, running through wooded pathways where everyone smiles and says, “Good morning” (if it’s morning that is), kayaking on calm lakes with herons in the distance.

After not being able to run or ride for six weeks, the first time I began to climb out of the saddle on my bike, something was jiggling — and it was me!

I stayed twice at my sister’s to take care of their animals while they were away, and two different airbnb’s, one amazing and the other not so amazing.

As a creature of routine, I quickly fell into mine: up later than usual, out for either a run or a bike ride, back for breakfast, then off to spend the rest of the morning and the early afternoon with Mom, then returning to whichever home base to make some dinner and start work, overlapping with Australia for 3–5 hours before I called Leigh and collapsed in a dream-laden slumber.

Will I get back?

Prior to COVID, just under 25,000 people per day came into Sydney from international destinations. At the end of August, a new weekly cap of 750 people in NSW was announced, meaning less than 110 people could fly into Sydney International airport each day. We have ~250 times less people coming into Australia now.

I waited each day to find out if my return flight had been canceled, the way it had during last year’s trip.

Letting my guard down and getting jabbed

The US is such a mixed bag of inconsistent COVID policy and even more inconsistent behaviour of the people who live there. People are overly apologetic about asking for mask wearing and social distancing, fearing retribution from the masses who have been manipulated by falsehoods spread by facebook groups and amplified by Russian bots.

I was still on guard, or so I thought. I considered my family my “bubble” and I wasn’t going to see friends in the area or put myself or Mom at risk. Unfortunately, my family in Virginia, other than Mom, have chosen not be vaccinated. Half way through my time with a family member, I discovered they had been exposed to someone in the week before. Being immune-suppressed, and spending time with my mom, I couldn’t believe how dumb I had been. The next day my family member tested positive, and I had to spend four days away from my mom, to make sure I hadn’t contacted COVID.

Given my mistake, Leigh and I decided that we would add two simple rules until COVID is no longer an issue: 1) we will not be in a home with unvaccinated people 2) we will not have unvaccinated people in our home.

The US is offering booster shots for organ transplant recipients, and my nephrologist had advised that I get one while I was in the US. It turns out to be very complex to have 2 shots of AstraZeneca’s Vaxzevria and then try and get a booster in the US: most vaccines are administered by pharmacies who hear AstraZeneca, Australia, and booster and quickly duck behind the counter. I found a GP who gave me a dose of Moderna mRNA-1273. I had a delayed-by-a-day onset of side effects which abated in another 24 hours. Third dose done!

The tragedy of the US

From talking with my friends in the US, the clear and present damage of misinformation is shocking. Teachers in Austin having masks ripped off by the parents of students. Cardiology patients having to delay important heart surgery because 95% of their case loads are COVID complications of the unvaccinated. Scheduled surgeries are risky because ICUs are full — full of the unvaccinated, who are discovering that they have bought into lies and more lies and now demand to be saved.

Can the U.S. government make you do something you don’t want to do in order to protect others? To protect our country? Since the revolutionary war, the US drafted young men into military service, and asked them to put their lives at risk, and often die, for their country. Yet today the idea of protecting others is shouted down and vulgarised in the name of “freedom”. The same people who would and have attacked “draft dodgers” as traitors and unpatriotic are not willing to protect others — we are being called to serve and protect others, and all it takes is a vaccine.

My heart aches for my country of origin. We’ve never been perfect by any notion, but we are more and more flawed.

Last day with Mom

My time in the US had come to an end. There were the necessities of preparation for travel — laundry and packing, getting a final haircut given that barber shops back home were still closed.

I took Mom to the doctor — and was gripped with a feeling of purpose, in taking care of a parent, that made me want to cancel my flight and spend my all my days for years to come with Mom.

I called my brother and shared some thoughts and some good laughs. I felt so connected across the distance despite not having seen each other for a few years.

We ate dinner outside at my sister’s, and then drove Mom home. Remembering what a good time we had singing Christmas carols on my last visit, Spotify made it way through the hits of John Denver as I drove the back roads with her. Mom knew more lyrics than I did, and remembered that Mr. Denver had actually played a concert in Katmai National Park (next to King Salmon, Alaska, my home from 0–9). Knowing that I’d have to say goodbye to Mom within the next couple of hours, “Leaving on a Jet Plane” left streaks from the tears as I tried to sing through the emotion.

We watched Jeopardy together, which we’d done since I was in high school. And finally, with a long hug, I said goodbye.

Will I make it home?

72 hours before your flight back to Australia, you need to fill out an Australian Travel Declaration. The final question of the Declaration loomed large in my mind:

My exposure had been the evening of September 4th, US time. When I landed in Australia it would be almost exactly 14 days since the exposure, but at that moment it had only been 10 days. I had already tested negative twice since the exposure.

By default, I am a firm believer in “the truth will set you free” but in this case, perhaps the truth would trap me in the United States. But I have a policy of truth regardless of temptation (bringing a new bike into Australian customs is the biggest temptation I have faced), and answered truthfully.

Within a minute, an email had arrived in my inbox from the Australian government:

At first the giant red box and scary red X made my heart rate skyrocket — had Australia just barred my return? I called United Airlines, and the COVID information call centre worker looked up the information and explained that I had done all the right things (isolate, get tested twice, etc) so I could board my flight. Whew.

Enough carbon for life

I boarded the flight from LAX back to Sydney and was appalled. The total number of passengers on a 14 hour flight back to Sydney was… 14. While these airlines do carry freight, that meant that the total carbon footprint for my travels to and from the US totalled just under 40 tonnes of CO2. I had assumed that there would be fewer flights with more people, but it was not the case.

In some countries the single flight back to Australia is more CO2 that a family might emit in their lifetime. It’s the equivalent of driving around the world 6 times with a diesel car. The 2050 target 2.1 tonnes per person — so I had exhausted 20 years of carbon budget with one trip.

Of course, I will offset those flights — but offsets are just asking for forgiveness instead of doing the right thing in the first place. We should offset our emissions, but our priority is to reduce our footprint. I failed to do that.

14 hours later, I boarded a bus at the Sydney International Airport, wondering which hotel would serve as my home for the next two weeks… (hint: this might be the topic of the next blog)

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