I took my first plane flight in well over a year this past weekend. I actually could not remember when my last flight was and turns out, after some very brief checking, that it was January 2020. There were many flights planned in the months after that but, of course, none of them actually happened.
This was a very short trip, about 36 hours all told. I had a meeting to attend in Chicago and flew in and home the next day. It was a funny feeling to be packing to fly after all this time. We’ve taken a few trips by car which always becomes a “throw it in” if you think you might need it but airline travel took a little more thought. In the past I’d had a “go kit” of necessities that I would refill after every trip and I would just grab it, add it to the clothes in the suitcase and be ready. That kind of preparedness feels like a symbol of the way life “used to be.”
As I traveled, I felt as if I was also an observer of what the “new” reality appears to be, knowing that this is just another leg of the long COVID era journey. For the most part, everyone was compliant with the requirements. Masks were on the majority of the time, although some of them were not exactly correctly placed on the face. I had a moment of surprise when the TSA staff person checking my identification asked me to lower my mask and I realized that he needed to see my whole face and not just the area above the mask!
Life in the busy airports, masks or not, looked like business as usual. Yet it felt different. I sat at the gate, waiting for my flight, an empty seat next to me. Someone sat down in the seat and I instantly felt myself shift closer to the other side of my seat, unsettled by having someone that close to me. Knee to knee in the plane seats, as always seated next to some stranger who took up all of their seat and part of mine, increased the sense of disquiet. It was not that I did not feel safe as much as I felt uneasy, at risk, lacking the control of my surroundings that I have had for all these months.
That might seem at odds with the reality that I was on-site in the nursing home every single day of COVID and beyond. That I was with staff and elders when we were struggling to know what to do, before we had testing and before we even had a full supply, or understanding, of PPE. I had lots of anxiety but never a moment’s hesitation about being where I needed to be.
Yet, after living through what we have I don’t know that I will ever feel the same nonchalance about being in a crowd of strangers again. I don’t know that I will ever regain the naïve assurance that I am safe, that we are all safe. The lenses through which I see the world have changed. In truth I have no judgment connected with that, just a recognition that while the world has begun to look the same, it is and will be forever changed.