The holiday season, 2021, will go down in history as stressful and disappointing for millions of people on the planet Earth. Actually “disastrous” is not an exaggeration for some. Only weeks ago, it seemed that the Delta variant was showing signs of waning, and then out of South Africa comes Omicron. The Howell/Ellis clan were among millions of Americans whose lives were touched by this hideous virus. Here is our story:
To say that I had been looking forward to Christmas 2021 is an understatement. It was two years in the making. In 2020 I had reserved a 51-foot sloop in the Sunsail charter fleet in the British Virgin Islands for a week-long cruise for Embry, me, our two children and their spouses and our four grandchildren —10 of us in all. In the first year of Covid, when vaccinations were not yet available, we were forced to postpone for a year, to Christmas week, 2021. In early December of this year, we were all fully vaccinated, boosted and set for what was billed to be “The Last Hurrah BVI Cruise.”
My sailing days are nearing their end. I will turn 80 in three months, and this fall sold “Second Wind,” the last of the six sailboats Embry and I have owned beginning in 1968. This weeklong cruise starting on Christmas Day was not just another BVI cruise—and there have been many—but the end of an era and celebration of a lifetime of serious sailing and cruising. What could be better than to have all the family together in what many describe as the most ideal sailing waters on the entire planet? The BVIs are legendary for consistent trade winds of 12-18 knots, azure waters, and Carolina blue skies with welcoming, protected anchorages. And the grandchildren, now all teenagers or close to it, are now old enough to enjoy the experience of sailing – a pastime which has meant so much to me, starting when I was a teenager myself.
A week ago, following months of preparations, we were all set. I had planned out the cruising itinerary, reserved a kayak and a paddleboard to go with the boat, and Embry had purchased over $1,200 of food to be delivered to the boat and sent out a list showing who was responsible for cooking which meal. I had purchased all the ingredients for the legendary, tropical rum beverages of the BVIs—”Pain Killers” and “Dark-and-Stormies”. Though it was becoming apparent that the new variant could be a problem, at the beginning of the week we were all feeling well and eager to go.
Like many countries, the BVI has established Covid testing protocols for visitors that are not entirely straightforward. To be allowed to enter, you have to have a Covid test showing negative results within five days of entry and show the results to the airline before you can board. Then once you arrive there you have to take another test; and if that is also negative, you are home free and allowed to enjoy nature’s sailing paradise. If the second test is positive, however, you have got a problem. You are not allowed to enter without a 14-day quarantine. Also, at the end of your wonderful vacation, to get back into the U.S. you have to have to show another test with negative results within 24-hours of reentering the U.S. This posed a bit of a challenge, but I thought I had it figured out and made reservations for testing at the local hospital for tests on our day of departure. Anyone testing positive would not be leaving the BVis for two more weeks, the details of which were not exactly clear. I agree that thinking about what could happen was a bit unnerving, but, hey, early in the week we were all well, eager and chomping at the bit.
The warning shot across the bow happened on Monday, December 20, five days from the start of the charter. Andrew called us that evening with a worried tone. Andrew’s wife, Karen, had tested positive for Covid. What to do? Call the whole thing off? Go without Karen? In her typical, calm way, Embry suggested Karen should get another test. False positives were happening all over the place. That was the plan as we let the Ellises, our daughter Jessica’s family, know. We all grimly buckled down for the next two days awaiting the results. This event triggered an existential moment for me. I suddenly felt my stomach churning, triggering the fears that I had been struggling to suppress. For the last week or so when the headlines were all about Omicron, I had a premonition that we would not be able to pull this off.
Nail biting time.
Two days later on Wednesday, December 22, Andrew called back and joyfully announced the second test had come back, and it was negative. Trip on again! I could almost feel a collective sigh of relief from the entire family.
At the same time, tempering my enthusiasm was the false positive of Karen’s first test. That raised some what-if questions. What if someone else’s test came back positive or false positive? The Ellis family had not gotten their tests yet. Neither had Embry or I. What if trying to get into the BVIs the negative test in the U.S. was followed by a positive test at the airport in the BVIs? What if someone tested positive on the BVI exit tests before coming back to the U.S.?
Then I thought about the last few days when I had had the sniffles, a sure sign of “mild Covid” for someone with two vaccines and a booster. I was convinced that I would be the one with the positive test. On Thursday, December 23, Embry and I got our rapid PCR tests at CVS; and with fear and trembling, I waited in agony for the email to come in posting the results. I held my breath and clicked the email: “Test Negative.” Eureka! Embry got the same results. We were going to go after all! All we needed now were the results from the Ellis family, who lived a pretty secluded life in Portland, Maine, and took extraordinary precautions. Jasper, our oldest grandchild at 16, was rumored to double mask in his sleep.
Jessica called us around noon on the 23rd. Jasper had gotten his booster shot that day and was feeling terrible, but not to worry. It was probably just a reaction to the shot. She would let us know about his test results later in the day. Time was running short, however. On Christmas Eve morning, they were to drive from Portland, Maine, to Maplewood, New Jersey, where they would spend Christmas Eve night with Andrew’s family, get rapid tests for the rest of their family, get up at 3:00 AM to head to Newark Airport where both families would board a 6:00 AM flight to San Juan, and then would take a puddle jumper to the BVIs. It seemed to me to be cutting it a little close, but that was not unusual for the Ellis family. Uncharacteristically, I remained optimistic and assumed that everything would fall into place.
Until the second call came that evening: Jasper had tested positive for Covid.
What to do? The Ellis family was now out. Jasper was sick and all others in their family exposed—probably to the highly infectious Omicron variant. Should we cancel the whole trip? After reviewing the pros and cons—actually mainly cons: getting a positive test at the BVI airport, coming down with Covid on the boat, not being able to get out of the BVIs after the cruise, and mainly just not being the same without the whole family—the decision was starting to become obvious. All of the signs were bad, but to cancel what had been billed as the “Last Hurrah BVI Cruise” and probably my last shot at sailing the blue waters and fair winds of this magical place? Not an easy call. We agreed to think about it and talk early Christmas Eve morning.
There was one other complicating factor. We had gone to great lengths to get someone to cat sit for our aging cat, Queen. The person who finally volunteered was a cat lover and planned to bring along her mother and sister, who were visiting from out of town for the holidays and had no other place to stay. It was one of those rare win/win situations, which made it very difficult for us to say sorry, the situation has changed, you are not needed, and now are on your own. This was a non-starter. Starting Christmas Day our apartment would be occupied for five days by strangers. We would be homeless unless we could come up with an alternative.
Andrew called around eight Christmas Eve morning. He had a new idea. Forget the BVIs. Too much risk and not feasible. Without his sister’s family it would not be the same anyway. But since all our flights went through San Juan, why not just spend the week in Puerto Rico? He had done some research and found a terrific deal, renting a three-bedroom apartment overlooking a marina and only a five minute walk to a gorgeous beach.
Sounded like a great plan. We would miss Jessica’s family, but it would salvage a pretty woeful situation. Spending nights on the street for seven days was not all that appealing though I am sure we could have figured something out. I immediately perked up. “Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” I told myself as I envisioned sitting on a secluded beach sipping a Pain Killer and feeling the warm breezes, maybe even renting a sailboat for a day from the marina. I told him to book it and breathed a sigh of relief.
I returned home from running some errands around four when Embry asked me if I had heard the latest news. The Puerto Rico trip was off. Andrew could not get the flights rebooked, and the apartment rental turned out to be double-booked.
Back to square one.
Now I must say that the Lord works in mysterious ways. As a last ditch alternative to becoming homeless on the cold, dark streets of Washington, we decided to drive to New Jersey to spend Christmas week with Andrew’s family in Maplewood. This change of plans would allow us to take Embry’s older brother, Mike, up to Princeton where he would spend Christmas with his daughter, son-in-law, and his two teenage granddaughters. Mike is 85, a poet and artist, now living in a HUD seniors’ building in Washington and not able to travel easily on his own. This reunion had been planned but cancelled a few days earlier because of Covid risks associated with Mike’s riding the train. His daughter, Eva, was delighted when Embry asked her on Christmas morning if the new plan would work. Eva—whom we are very close to, along with her brother, Alex –had suggested that maybe we could stay for a “bite of lunch” before going to Maplewood. When I told her that we could only stop for a few minutes because we were expected for a full Christmas dinner with Andrew’s family around five, she held her ground. “No worries,” she said, “I just called them and they are coming too.”
The “bite of lunch” turned out to be a full Christmas feast, all delicious, vegetarian and vegan dishes, which began around three and lasted a couple of hours, followed by an evening walk through the village of Princeton and the university campus. The big question was how in the world did she pull this off. How did she prepare a meal intended for her family of four, which turned out be a delicious, gourmet feast for 11 people with ample leftovers? Maybe she went out and bought a lot of ingredients the moment she heard we were bringing Mike, but the grocery stores were all closed; and there was never any offer ahead of time for a full-fledged Christmas feast or any expectation on our part that we would have any more than a short visit and maybe a cup of tea. I found myself saying, “loaves and fishes, loaves and fishes.”
The Lord does indeed work in mysterious ways. I remember reading somewhere that “A coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
And what about the other what-ifs? What if our cruise had started on December 23 instead of on the 25th? Jasper’s test would probably have come out negative the day before, on December 22, but the next day, first day on the cruise, he would have become very sick and would have exposed everyone. Had we had started a day or two earlier, we could have had everyone on the boat Covid-infected and no idea how we would quarantine or when or how we would ever make it back home. We had dodged a bullet.
And as it turned out, our granddaughter, Josie, did come down with Covid on December 26 and her father, Peter, experienced the usual Covid symptoms—high fever, body aches, fatigue–on the 28th. Everyone thankfully is recovering, but still. Can you imagine what it would have been like on a sailboat in the BVIs with the entire crew sick? Karen also reported that the Jet Blue flight to San Juan that they were supposed to take appeared to be one of the ones that had been cancelled. I recall someone at one point saying, “Thank you, Jasper.”
The four days we spent in Maplewood with Andrew’s family were not the same as we would have had in the BVIs, but we still enjoyed our Pain Killers and Dark-and-Stormies. We drove to see Christmas lights in Newark, enjoyed sitting around the fire in their living room, told stories, played games, ate delicious food, and took walks—more or less a typical Howell Christmas, though sadly without the Ellises. We even made it to New York City to see the famous Christmas lights at the Bronx Zoo.
Our Covid Christmas story, it turns out, had a happy ending, but what about all the other people suffering through the Covid crisis, all the holiday get-togethers with family and close friends that did not happen , the family reunions that were postponed and, even worse, the Covid outbreaks that are already happening with surely many more on the horizon? Life on this planet is indeed mysterious. Times of sorrow and despair mixed with times of happiness and gratitude.
Like our Covid Christmas story.