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A strange trip to Massachusetts

I would not have chosen to travel to the East Coast last week in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. I suppose it was a stark reminder that we don’t generally get to choose the time and place of our final departure. The time was chosen for my father-in-law. It was in the middle of the afternoon on Good Friday, a time at which my wife Kathryn and I would normally have been in church if public liturgy hadn’t been suspended. The place was chosen too. It was his nursing home bed in Massachusetts.

I also would not have chosen to fly there under the threat of coronavirus. Shortly after Kathryn received word of her father’s passing, I suggested we hop in one of our cars and start driving, taking turns at the wheel until we got there. Of course, “taking turns” for her and me means I would have done 80 percent of the driving and she would have done the rest. I think I would have preferred to spend 80 hours in one of our own cars than to spend 10 hours in a flying petri dish, or even to rent a car that we could have wiped down well before getting underway. However, she wanted to get there quickly, and for the moment I had to put myself in her shoes.

Saturday afternoon, after making arrangements for a burial the following Saturday morning, Kathryn booked us a round-trip flight to Boston from Phoenix, departing Monday morning and returning the following Sunday afternoon. It was a direct flight both ways, but under the circumstances we realized the confirmed schedule didn’t mean a whole lot. Flights were being rescheduled or outright canceled at a moment’s notice. We braced ourselves for a need to be flexible and patient.

As I haven’t had any formal employment for almost three months, my only prior commitment was altar service the morning of Easter Monday, for a private Mass that would be live-streamed from our church. A quick text to a group of men at my parish was returned with willing substitutes, along with assurances of prayers for me, for Kathryn, and for the soul of her father.

The strange conditions under which we would be traveling were apparent from the moment we left the house Monday morning.

First, we got onto a nearly empty freeway at 7:30 am, a time that should have been peak rush hour. I’d been taking the freeway to church once a week around this time of the day, so I was prepared for this. However, Kathryn’s shift at the hospital starts before 4 am, and her route to work is entirely surface streets, so seeing the deserted freeway was a bit of a shock.

Next, we parked at a lot near the airport, one we’ve used dozens of times before, where we usually have to circle around to find a space. This time, there were only about a half-dozen cars in the entire lot, so we parked right next to the elevator. Once in the lobby, we found the shuttle driver idle, just waiting for something to do. Signs were posted to let us know the driver couldn’t help us with our bags, but he did anyway.

A few minutes later, and we were at Terminal 4 of Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, in the departure area, where normally we’d get in a long line to wait while a self-service kiosk checks us in. American Airlines had closed half its check-in area, merging steerage passengers like us into what is usually the priority area. There were more employees in the area than passengers, and as we approached one of the check-in kiosks, one of the agents suggested we just come forward and let her take care of everything. We then approached one of the security checkpoints, half of which were closed, got in the TSA PreCheck line by ourselves, and breezed through.

We walked to our departure gate, and by the time we got there, it still hadn’t been a half-hour since we parked the car. The concourse, usually one of the busiest at Sky Harbor, was almost a ghost town. A few restaurants were open, but you could only order to-go items. However, in a bizarre twist, for the first time I’ve ever seen in Phoenix, you could take away alcohol from the airport restaurants. That’s always been a no-no until now. You still couldn’t take it on an aircraft, but you could drink it in the waiting area. I wasn’t particularly craving a beer at 8:30 am — I prefer to wait at least until 10 am — so Kathryn and I stretched our legs with walk through the concourses. We had seen a pilot with a Dunkin’ cup and thought there must be one open somewhere. We never found it, at least not in Phoenix.

As we walked the concourses, I noticed something else unusual. There were a lot of aircraft parked at gates that clearly weren’t in use. It crossed my mind that all those airplanes that would normally be in the air had to be on the ground somewhere. An unused gate is just as good a place as any. I looked outside across the runaway and saw an unusually large number of planes parked on the ramp as well.

When the time came, the boarding process for our flight took about five minutes from beginning to end. There were perhaps two dozen passengers aboard the Boeing 737 bound for Boston. A disproportionate number of passengers appeared to be off-duty airline personnel, including at least one pilot and at least two flight attendants. Kathryn and I took our assigned seats next to each other, but a number of passengers were relocated to provide as much space as possible between unrelated individuals. Food service was suspended, but a flight attendant would bring a beverage if you asked. Alcohol was only available in first-class.

The weather on the East Coast was rough Monday afternoon, so the last hour of the flight was with the seatbelt sign illuminated. Even the flight attendants were asked to do their final pass of the cabin early and then not get out of their seats. It was the closest I’d come to being airsick since I flew a glider in Austria in 2007.

Mercifully, the flight came to an end, and we arrived in the terminal in Boston, which was just as deserted as Phoenix. Like at Sky Harbor, nearly everything as Logan was closed — except Dunkin’, of course — but by then we were more interested in getting our luggage and our rental car and getting out of Boston than in getting a medium reglah.

Kathryn had been visiting her father in Massachusetts every couple months for about the past two years, usually traveling without me, so she had gotten used to doing things a certain way. She likes renting her car through Costco Travel, which means usually getting a car from Alamo. This time, she registered in advance for the service that allows you to skip the counter and go directly to the car, which allowed us to eliminate at least one human contact. There was an attendant to direct us to an appropriate car, but he kept a respectful distance. The car smelled like it had recently been wiped down with disinfectant, but we broke out our own wipes and retouched all the surfaces we expected to touch. The trunk had been left open for us — one less thing to touch. There was no line at the rental car exit, so after a quick check of our driver’s licenses, we were off. There was also no traffic on the airport property, so a few minutes later we were on Route 1A heading north in a downpour. It was about 6:30 pm, and it should have been the tail end of rush hour, but the light traffic was moving at or above the speed limit.

Part of Kathryn’s routine is stopping at the Dunkin’ at the Route 60 traffic circle in Revere. Or, I should say, at one of them. This is Massachusetts, after all, and as you’d expect, there’s room for more than one Dunkin’ at a large traffic circle. I ordered a medium coffee reglah, naturally, and Kathryn ordered some iced something-or-other that no self-respecting New Englander should ever order at a Dunkin’. I tried to pretend not to know her when I pulled up to the drive-thru window, but somehow love conquered shame.

With a fresh jolt of caffeine, we continued north again. After several more miles of driving, another thing caught my attention. There were no cops anywhere — not even at Dunkin’. I tend to watch my speed in that area because it’s usually crawling with staties. In the current environment, perhaps they’ve decided a traffic stop isn’t worth dying over.

We arrived at our destination just before dark. One of Kathryn’s cousins had a mother-in-law apartment that wasn’t in use — the mother had died late last year. We were able to quasi-quarantine ourselves there during our stay in Massachusetts. The cousin and her husband, while being careful to maintain social distance from us out-of-towners, were amazingly generous to us. Not only was there food and beer in the fridge when we arrived, but they cooked us dinner and left it on the patio almost every night we were there. And the only reason I said “almost” is because we had so many leftovers one night that Kathryn sent them a text saying we couldn’t possibly eat another thing.

The next day, Tuesday, was the first and only day Kathryn really had to deal with any of her father’s affairs. We woke up to snow, of course, because being mid-April it was still winter. It melted quickly and we drove to the nursing home to pick up my father-in-law’s personal belongings. The nursing home was on complete lockdown because of COVID-19, and happily there’d been no suspected cases there so far. We waited outside in front of the facility while an employee fetched his things for us. One of the staff also came out to talk to us for a little while about what happened during his last few minutes. We then visited my father-in-law’s longtime companion at her house. He had left some things there, and there was also one item from the nursing home she had requested as a souvenir of the time she spent with him.

Apart from that, until the burial, Kathryn and I really only left the house a few times for beer and groceries. That was probably the strangest aspect of the trip. Usually when we visit New England, even for a funeral like a couple years ago, we eat at our favorite restaurants, go for drives, take walks, visit family and friends, and so on. This time, there just didn’t seem to be any point. Yes, we could have gone to some restaurants and ordered take-out, but part of the experience of eating a lobster roll, for example, is the ambiance of sitting at a picnic table in a kitschy seafood shack that looks like it could have been built from the timbers of old ships. To hork it down in a car that smells vaguely like rubbing alcohol isn’t worth the $20. We did do a bit of walking in the area around the cousin’s house near the line between Ipswich and Rowley. It was nice.

Saturday morning, the day of the burial, we woke up to snow again. This time, though, the snow stuck. There were several inches on the car by mid-morning. We had to remove it before the snow turned to rain and froze it in place. At around the same time, the wind increased. By the time we arrived at the cemetery, it was becoming increasingly difficult to hold an umbrella. Fortunately, at around the time the burial service was about the begin, the wind started to calm, and although the rain didn’t entirely stop, it tapered off somewhat. To meet social distancing guidelines, there were only ten attendees at the burial. A priest from the local church arrived to perform the brief service. After the priest left, a few of us stuck around to watch a cemetery employee cover the grave, and then we all parted ways.

On the way back to the house, Kathryn’s cousin and her husband stopped to pick up two pizzas, one for themselves and one for us, and left ours on the patio. It was the only take-out we’d eaten in over a week. It was from their favorite pizza place, one we’d never tried before. It was delicious. I finished it off the next morning as a classic cold-pizza breakfast.

I won’t bother too much with the details of the return trip on Sunday, which was more or less the same trip as Monday, but in reverse, later in the day, and with a lot less turbulence. The plane was an Airbus A321 this time, and there were perhaps a dozen more passengers. Remembering the idle parking shuttle driver from Monday, we called for a shuttle rather than waiting for one to make its rounds. It turned out to be a good thing, since we were once again the only ones having any business at the parking lot at that moment.

When we got home, I was actually somewhat happy to see the cat. Don’t tell my wife.