Change of Plans

C

When I posted my last entry on Monday, I indicated that you probably wouldn’t be hearing from me for a week or two because we would be traveling. I’m hoping that this is true for you as well and that when I send out my reminder that there’s something new to read, I will be flooded with “Out of the Office” notifications. Unfortunately, I’m still here, writing to a diminished holiday audience. Here’s why.

We hatched a plan several months ago to travel to Puerto Rico for the week between Christmas and New Year’s with daughter Elana, son-in-law Ben and granddaughter Dalia. We’ve had a couple of spectacular foreign adventures together –  to Berlin and to Tuscany – and were hoping to replicate those after this long period of Covid grounding. Doing the risk calculus, we were betting that the level of cases, though not zero, would be at a manageable level and that our booster shots would provide sufficient protection. We were reassured by the data that showed that we were likely to be safe from serious consequences even if we became infected.

Omicron changed that equation dramatically. Suddenly, this enormously contagious variant increased the odds of infection by a significant factor. Secondly, because we got our booster shots early, they were already declining in their ability to protect us. The Israelis were quick to recognize that and have moved to offering a fourth injection. Third, even if our cases were mild or asymptomatic, testing positive while on the trip meant quarantining for an extended period in a strange place away from home. Finally, although the odds are low, we know people – well-vaccinated people – who have had breakthrough infections that were anything but mild. One of them has a form of long Covid that continues to leave her nauseated several months after the infection.

So, what are the mathematics that govern this decision? At age 82+ we don’t know how many more chances we’ll have to do this kind of travel with our family, considering that we have already passed the stage of extended hikes or even brisk walks. How do we weigh this against the risk of illness that could have a lasting effect on any of the five of us? At the beginning of this final week before the departure date, we were being bombarded by contradictory advice from the media, ranging from exhortations to stay home to reassurances that the odds were in favor of moving forward.

I’ll spare you the suspense. We decided to cancel and stay home. Our anxiety about the trip had become unbearable.  After two years of living cautiously, it didn’t seem to make sense to cast aside all the sacrifices we had made – no restaurants, no theaters, no large gatherings – to engage in an activity that seemed to contradict all that had preceded it. Whenever I told people of our impending trip, I was struck by the seeming contradiction in planning such a trip which was going to put us in contact, particularly in the airport and on the plane, with exactly the kinds of groups we had been distancing ourselves from until now. We are by nature low risk takers. We don’t gamble, nor do we engage in physical activities that might result in injury or worse. Our decision to bail was entirely consistent with these inclinations.

(As I write this, I’m weighing the contrary evidence on our risk taking: We married. We had children. We went to Mississippi. We moved from places where we were happy to places with unknown prospects. But Mississippi aside, none of these involved risks from bodily harm.)

Once we made the decision to cancel, we were, at the same time, relieved and sad. Covid aside, before any trip I am overcome with a feeling of inertia. My life is so pleasant right here at home that it makes no sense to be leaving it. Of course, once I’m launched into the new adventure, I can’t imagine why I would have missed a moment of it. Still, I was suddenly absolved from all the burdens of travel – the obsessive packing To Do lists, the mad dash to the airport in the early hours before sunrise, the anxiety about flight cancellations. But today, just twenty-four hours before what would have been our departure time, the pendulum is swinging ever so slightly in the direction of sadness and regret at all we’re missing -adding to our list of memorable new dwellings to inhabit, explorations of new terrain, vibrant street life to contrast to the drab snow-free scene we encounter on our daily walks. And yet, and yet, I think we made the right call.

We encouraged our younger family members to go ahead with the plans without us. The risk for them is so much lower than ours. But even this part of the story is not without drama. Our son-in-law Ben was sent home from his school with symptoms that could be anything from a cold to an anxiety attack to Covid. The long line at testing sites across the country is an indication that Ben was not alone in needing reassurance that it was okay to proceed with their holiday plans. So far, the rapid test results were negative, so the trip is still on for some of us, barring any new curve balls between now and departure time.

If this little personal drama is worth telling it’s mainly because it is one that is being reenacted thousands of times over across the country as people weigh the significance of their travel plans against the risks for themselves, their aging relatives and the immune compromised travelers they might encounter.  This cursed pandemic refuses to loosen its stranglehold on us and thwarts our desperate desire to return to business as usual.

My best wishes for a Happy New Year to those of you who have been following me on this writing journey for the past two years. I hope it has occasionally given you something to think about, to enjoy, to identify with. For me, it has been my salvation. The self-imposed commitment to produce something every week has provided the supporting skeleton to an otherwise shapeless week. Thank you.

PS. The family arrived safely in PR yesterday and today are regaling us with photos of their excursion through Old San Juan. They fill us with delight.

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Marv Hoffman

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