It was February 25, just a week before we were to leave for Fiji, the trip to celebrate my turning 70, when my husband, Thom, said to me.
“You know, Jo, this is dangerous and a silly thing to go on this trip. But I’m choosing to do it anyway.” I said, I know. I’m choosing as well.
I had planned my dream birthday trip for a year. My request to my sons was this:
“The only gift I want for my birthday is for all my grandchildren to be together and you guys, of course.” They said, “okay, Mom, let’s do it.”
Just weeks before we left, COVID 19 made its ugly entrance into the world.
We knew it was risky. We tried to console ourselves by saying there’s not that many cases of corona.
How could we know that we would be caught in another country as they closed their borders? And how could we know that we'd use all our resources to overcome some tough times?
Having the best birthday of your life on a tropical island surrounded by your family is an unforgettable experience.
We arrived at different times. The moment I saw my grans all together filled me with gratitude and immense joy. My dream had come true and we had an entire week of fun and relaxation together.
Every day was spent next to the pool, all 5 kids jumping in and swimming, while adults tried to keep their eyes on all of them.
On the day of my birthday, my family sent me off to the spa for a massage, scrub, and facial. In my blissed out, relaxed state, I rang my sons to say thank you and they said, “come over, Mom, to our room.”
I walked into the room and all of a sudden, kids were jumping up singing “Happy Birthday, Gran!” There were handmade decorations with tiny drawings and handprints all around the room and two large golden '70' balloons hanging on the wall.
A 70 tiara crown was placed on my head and a black banner over my head which said “fabulous and 70.” .
The cake my grans proudly baked that morning appeared in front of me.
A book was placed in my lap. I noticed the cover was of me at 4 years old. As I opened the first pages of the book, I burst into tears. It was filled with photos and words of love from my family and my friends.
Beautiful, touching, exquisite words about me.
I noticed out of the corner of my eye, Ella, my 6-year granddaughter, looking worried.
”Why is Gran crying? Does she not like our gifts?” her little face told me. I quickly explained that sometimes people cry when they’re happy, not sad and that I was so very happy and touched to get that book.
I heard the champagne cork pop and we ate the cake with sprinkles on top that the tiny bakers had made that morning.
It was one of the best moments of my life.
Moving forward in the face of the unknown is either bold or stupid.
At the end of the week in Fiji, the news was not good. Corona was spreading fast.
As my sons and their families traveled back home, Thom and I decided to continue our scheduled plans onto New Zealand for 2 weeks, then fly to Vanuatu for another 2 weeks. In hindsight, it’s easy to say “what were we thinking?” but we really didn’t realize that there would be a world wide pandemic.
We arrived in Auckland March 14.
The following day, New Zealand’s Prime Minister ordered from midnight March 15, anyone arriving into the country should be self-quarantining for 14 days.
Whew, we thought. We were just under the wire.
There were six reported cases of COVID 19 in New Zealand. We thought, well, it’s not that bad, we’ll just keep going with our plans to explore the country’s South island.
We flew to Queenstown, two days later and witnessed, from the airplane window, one of the most amazing countries in the world.
This was the place where Lord of the Rings had been filmed. It was jaw-dropping.
We made the Dairy, a small bed and breakfast, our home for a few days. We took the advice of our Kiwi friends who suggested we overnight on one of the boats, which sails through parts of Milford Sound, a place where hikers and people from all over the world come to see the magnificent fiords.
The trip in Milford was everything I thought and more. The beauty of the waterfalls and the misty clouds seemed surreal.
In the back of my mind, I remember thinking, while we are experiencing this beauty while the rest of the world is in a worldwide pandemic, experiencing life as a different kind of surreal. This is the time when people are overcoming all kinds of adversity.
Thom and I talked about the possibility of being exposed to the virus on the boat. Once again, we decided to not worry and experience the beauty surrounding us.
We sailed close to a gigantic waterfall and watched seals on rocks and dolphins swim alongside us.
After the trip, we rented a car and made day trips from the Dairy.
We listened to the international news which was becoming more troubling by the hour.
Family and friends in the US warned us that things were getting worse. “Stay there”, they said. “It’s safer in New Zealand.” At this stage, it was business as usual in New Zealand and so we felt safe in continuing on.
We decided to have a ban on mentioning the “C” word for the day to reduce our fears.
Big decisions always make me crazy.
We agonized over what to do.
The following day the US State Department put out a warning: All Americans should stop all international travel and return home immediately.
Okay, freak out time. What to do?
We went online and discovered that our airline, Fiji Air, had suspended all flights. Panic was beginning to rise inside of me.
We searched for flights and found two seats on Air New Zealand…the last ones listed on their website. It was a direct flight from Auckland to San Francisco.
We grabbed these last seats despite having to plunk down a chunk of change. We said, “it doesn’t matter, let’s just get home.” I kept thinking, we will be highly exposed on the plane in the airports.
There’s a nerve-wracking feeling running in the background of your head when you don’t know what’s going to happen.
The next day we went on a hike that was stunning. As I walked, I kept fretting while the what-ifs took over…
As I perseverated on all the things that could go wrong, I became more and more worried. The thoughts were harder and harder to silence.
And then, I said to myself: STOP. Wait a minute. What about all this scenery around you? You’re in one of the most beautiful places on earth and you’re going to miss this and why? Because something MIGHT happen?
I talked myself down off the ledge.
I used the tools I teach my clients. I got present. I became aware of what I could see all around me and what I could hear. I even noticed what I could taste and smell in that moment. I used all my senses to ground myself.
I told myself, "you can handle hard times, Jo, and this is one of them."
My body began to calm down. I breathed in the fresh, clean air. I looked over the huge ridge we had just climbed and watched the birds soar. I was back to myself.
And in the blink of an eye, the thing we hadn’t thought about happened, catching us completely off guard.
We were having lunch, shortly after arriving at a magnificent beach, miles away from anywhere. We overheard the news “New Zealand is now in level 3, going to level 4 in 48 hours of total lockdown.” It was March 23. I tried to push the worry out of my head of what this all meant.
Thom said, “we need to get on that ferry as soon as we can and get back to the North Island.”
We were 8 hours away with no ferry reservations. Messages began to pour in on my phone from family and our Kiwi friends… either leave immediately or prepare to stay in New Zealand indefinitely.
Everything shut down except gas stations and grocery stores. We had enough gas but no food.
I frantically tried to call the rental car company who had promised to make our reservations for the ferry. The phone lines were jammed. We talked to our Kiwi friends who suggested getting to Christchurch to catch a flight back to Auckland as there were no ferry spaces left.
When your husband drives like a bat out of hell on the left side of the road as fast as possible, you hold your breath and trust that the gods are watching out for you.
We got the last room at a hotel at the Christchurch Airport. Already the hotel restaurant was closed due to the new requirements of level 3.
Fortunately, there was room service.
We decided to see if we could get on an earlier flight and walked over to the airport, waited in line for an hour at the Air New Zealand counter. The kind agent said, “don’t tell anyone but if you can be ready to board in an hour, you can have the last two tickets on this flight.”
We were getting used to the term “the last ones.” And were supremely grateful for our good luck.
Without hesitation, we said, “yes, we’ll be there.”
We ran instead of walking back to the hotel room. I rushed into the room and madly threw everything into my suitcase. Thom was doing the same. I managed to call the hotel desk to say we were checking out.
There was no time to return the rental car so we left it in the parking lot with the keys inside.
Hearts beating fast, suitcases dragging behind us, and adrenaline coursing through our bodies, we got through security and to the gate with 10 minutes to spare. Holy cow.
On the flight, I remember reading a text from my sister in the US.
“Jo, you are going to get out, you are the luckiest person I know.”
Those words comforted me and soothed my harrowed mind. I thought I hope you’re right, Maie.
Part 2: stay tuned for the next part and how we got back home. Here's a little preview:
"After the third time through every suitcase and backpack, my heart sunk and my fear went into orbit as Thom’s passport was nowhere to be found..."
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