Editor’s note: The Virus Diaries is a series in which Mainers talk about how they are affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

After it became clear just how serious the coronavirus pandemic was going to be, I warned my parents that they might not see me for a while because it seemed just too dangerous to fly the 1,200 miles from my home in Maine to theirs just outside Nashville, Tennessee.

Then my father died.

Press Herald reporter Meredith Goad at the Portland International Jetport, waiting to reunite with family in Tennessee after her father died in early May. Photo by Meredith Goad

We were, in a way, expecting it. He was 92 years old, and while he was in good shape for his age, every passing year brought more troubles – failing eyesight, more difficulty walking. But, as my sister-in-law recently said to me, he always seemed like one of those people who would live forever. Or maybe that was just our denial.

One of my first questions after my sister broke the news to me was “Will we even be able to have a funeral?” Just a few minutes later, though, that question didn’t matter anymore. Even if we couldn’t say a proper goodbye, there was no question in my mind that I would be flying to Tennessee to be with my mother, brother and sister.

I was the one who had been lecturing everyone, from my siblings to my nieces and nephew, about the seriousness of the pandemic and the steps we needed to follow to protect my elderly parents. But once my father died – peacefully, in his sleep, thank God – it astonished me how quickly concerns about social distancing flew out my holier-than-thou window. Nothing could keep me from my mother, who was the one who had discovered her husband of 69 years and now faced living the rest of her life without him. Something deeply human – something primal – inside of me took over.

The Portland International Jetport was like a ghost town on May 4. Photo by Meredith Goad

Within a couple of hours, I was on the phone with American Airlines and throwing a few things into a suitcase. The next day, I took a cab to the Portland Jetport, wearing a pink polka-dot mask a friend gave me (with another homemade mask, a gift from a neighbor, tucked away in my purse).

All the lights were off in the lower level of the nearly-empty airport, and there was a single employee behind the check-in counter – not just the American Airlines counter, but all the counters. American was apparently the only airline with flights leaving the city that evening. When she saw me come in, she got up from a chair and walked behind the counter to help me. I was the only customer on the entire floor. I knew there probably wouldn’t be a lot of people there, but I never expected the place to be so deserted.

I was also the only person in line at security. I always seem to get singled out for a thorough patting down, and this time was no exception. I joked later that the TSA employees must have either been bored, or trying desperately to meet their quota.

Only two other passengers sat at my gate, surfing their cell phones. As a handful more arrived, the airline employees called them up to the desk to change their seats and improve social distancing. Just 10 or so passengers were on the first flight to Charlotte, and about the same number on the connecting flight from Charlotte to Nashville. Nearly everyone, but not all, wore masks. On the second leg, a woman traveling with her daughter wore both a mask and gloves, and before we deplaned she put on what looked like a hospital gown, as if she were preparing to remove someone’s appendix. Overall, I found the experience almost calming – very strange, to be sure, but less stressful and so much better than being treated like cattle in “normal” times.

By the time I arrived at my mother’s house in Smyrna, Tennessee, it was almost midnight. She had waited up for me, but we did not hug.

Ray and Wilma Goad were married for 69 years until his death in early May. This photo was taken at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park two years ago, at a celebration for Ray’s 90th birthday. Meredith Goad photo

My sister and mother went to the funeral home the next day to go over the arrangements and the changes that had to be made in this COVID-19 era.

My father didn’t want a big funeral, but he was fine with a big visitation (perhaps for my mother’s sake) and had suggested we throw a party afterward. We could do neither. CDC guidelines required that we have only a small graveside service, with no more than 10 people present. No hymns, no in-person condolences from friends and family. The pastor performing the service and the funeral home director took two of the 10 slots. The rest were taken by my mother, me, my siblings and their spouses, my mother’s sister, and an uncle. My father’s five grandchildren, their spouses, and two of his great grandchildren would have to stay in their cars and watch from a distance.

The funeral home had offered us an hour-long, indoor visitation with my father’s casket in the room. At first we declined – we didn’t see the point if there were no other mourners there – but then decided to accept so the grandchildren, who were very upset that they couldn’t attend the service, could spend some time saying goodbye. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a weird experience for them – just a handful of them in an empty, cavernous room that had been packed with mourners just a few years earlier when my aunt died.

The (otherwise very helpful) funeral home told us we would not be allowed chairs at the graveside service because they couldn’t be sanitized. We would have to stand through the entire service. This was unacceptable. My grieving 88-year-old mother said she would be fine standing, but there was no way we were going to make her do that. So we packed our own chairs in the trunks of our cars. When we arrived at the funeral home, my sister asked why we couldn’t use the cloth-covered chairs the grandchildren had used at the private visitation – why was it OK for them to sit in them, but not the rest of us? It was one of those regulations that just didn’t make sense. The funeral home agreed and brought them to the gravesite.

By the time I flew home two weeks later, American Airlines was requiring that passengers wear masks on all flights. But this time the second leg of the trip, from Philadelphia to Portland, was a nightmare. It was one of those 50-passenger airplanes with two seats on one side of the aisle and one seat on the other, with a tiny aisle in between. I chose the one-seat option, but it didn’t make much difference as far as social distancing was concerned. There was none. And the plane was packed. I felt much more nervous on the return trip, and decided I won’t be flying again anytime soon.

The thing is, I grew up flying with my father, who had a private pilot’s license and flew us around in small, single-engine aircraft all the time when we were kids. We’ve taken rides together in tiny, experimental aircraft that were much scarier than any virus. I imagine him now happily flying off into the sunset – the universe? – having “slipped the surly bonds of Earth.” And I am grateful that his final journey was a peaceful, COVID-free one, no mask – or ventilator – required.

Do you have a story to share about how you are affected by the coronavirus outbreak? Email us at [email protected]

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