I woke up to 76 text messages and 14 missed calls. “Did you hear about the travel ban?” “You need to get home now.” “Get to London ASAP.”
Donald Trump had addressed the nation while I finally got a full night of sleep across the globe. A tsunami size wave of terror ran through my whole body as I tried to prioritize understanding how this policy would affect me with buying the first flight home I could find.
2020 was due to be my year. I left a job that had me working long hours, traveling constantly, and feeling depleted. In an existential life crossroads, I rented out my condo in Denver and exchanged it for a cozy one bedroom in Seville, Spain. While basking in the Spanish sun, I hoped to be struck with some divine idea of my life’s purpose, but I was also okay with simply relaxing, eating tapas and learning a new language.
Four days into my solo adventure, I wanted nothing more than to be home. It was Thursday at 6 a.m. The first flight I could get out of Seville to anywhere with an intercontinental airport was Friday night. I bought it.
My trip home was long and scary and shook me in ways I never would have imagined. As an American, I’ve traveled freely across the world with the assumption that at any given time I could return home to my safe and comfortable life. This was a privilege granted to a small portion of the world, and I now understand how fortunate we, as Americans, have been.
I arrived four hours early for my flight out of the tiny Seville airport. When I was told I couldn’t check my bag in for two hours, I sat on my luggage in the terminal surrounded by other panicked travelers in masks and gloves. I sympathized with the college students ending their semester abroad early. This was an ending none of us could have predicted. I attempted to bury myself in my book, Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” as if all was just fine.
I made it to London only to be told I couldn’t board my plane to Denver as planned.
“Unfortunately, because of your travel in Spain, you need to be screened for COVID-19. Neither London nor Denver have testing facilities right now.”
And at that, I finally cried big slow tears in front of the United agent at Heathrow. “I just want to get home.” She put her head down and typed away and eventually handed me two new boarding passes.
“You’ll fly to San Francisco where you can get screened and then on to Denver.”
If I could track down that agent again, I would send her flowers or whatever the flowers equivalent is during a “stay-at-home” order. The screening site at SFO was disorganized and chaotic, but after seeing the photos of O’Hare and DFW, I counted by blessings to be in California with fewer European flight arrivals. I passed the screening with a temperature of 97.3 and thanked the young EMT from San Mateo, California, who signed my form and sent me on my way.
I’m on day 12 of self-isolation at home in Denver. Fortunately for me, my tenant also needed to move out in a hurry, and I was able to move back home, albeit with only the suitcase full of clothes I brought to Spain. The remainder of my worldly belongings are divided in closets at my mom’s house. I will get them eventually but what does one really need to be at home and still?
I have a set of pajamas, a running outfit, and plenty of summer dresses I’d expected to wear while sipping cold beverages at the cervecerias.
This isn’t the 2020 I expected. This isn’t the 2020 anyone expected. But COVID hasn’t stifled my ability to explore my purpose. It’s done just the opposite.
I foolishly thought I needed to disrupt my whole life to learn more about myself and my journey. I’ve returned home to find meaning and purpose in my role as a daughter, sister, aunt, friend, neighbor, and resident of Cap Hill. My purpose right now is to stay home, to check on my mom, and to call friends and family for our collective sanity.
My purpose is to let the people fighting COVID know how much I admire and support them. As the pandemic continues, hopefully there is something more we all can do. Each day seems to unfold with new uncertainties.
I’ve found new meaning in the slowness of life at the moment. Fun can be traipsing around Europe alone or fun can be playing the piano with my mom via FaceTime. My exotic cuisine is now figuring out what meals I can make from the groceries my neighbors left me. And happy hour takes place over Zoom with my college friends.
As we all are, I’m eager for the return to normalcy, but for now, I am just grateful to be home.
Katherine Brownson lives in Denver.