It was supposed to be a ten-day trip, but I’m stranded in Ireland.
Worse, two of my daughters have Covid. My husband wanted to cancel, but the pull was too strong for me. Like all Irish emigrants, I’ve been stuck in the wrong country during the pandemic. I wanted to be a real aunt at Christmas, not a face on a screen.
My phone pings. It’s a text from a friend in New Jersey.
"They can test positive for three months," she says.
I want to strangle her.
The Covid test center is a newish building in a business park on the outskirts of Dublin. I squeeze a glob of hand sanitizer and follow the familiar floor markings that lead to the check-in area.
In the test room, an overzealous technician snaps his blue rubber gloves and gives a little speech on how everyone is doing the home tests wrong. He points to a line on the long stick and says it has to go up as far as here.
He sticks the swab so far up my nose that I grab his wrists. He’s lucky I didn’t slap him. My eyes water and I have a sinus headache for several minutes.
The girls both do their tests, then we get a taxi to a local shopping center, confident everyone is Covid-free. We’re buying a discounted chocolate Hogwarts Castle when the results ping. Three separate emails. The middle child is Covid-free. The youngest still has it, dammit.
I hold off on reading the third email. After all, I’ve done twenty lateral flow home tests, a PCR at the Randox airport site, and two official antigen tests. I’m always negative.
I click on the email – SARS-CoV-2 positive (detected).
We’re in a shopping center chock full of people. We’re now those people we’ve been complaining about for two years.
We make our way outside immediately.
At my brother’s house, I sip my Guinness by the fire, dejected.
You got the booster, he says. You’ll get over it quicker than the kids.
I’m not convinced. Nothing about Covid is predictable.
It was spectacularly stupid to fly ‘home’ in the first place.
When I first arrived in Ballinasloe, my older brother was skittish. He stood ten feet away, fully masked. His kids weren’t allowed to see mine until everyone was tested. I set up a home antigen Covid site in the dining room to set him at ease.
One by one we proved we weren’t infected.
Everyone relaxed. Masks were lowered. A deck of cards appeared.
We’re playing a round of 25 when bad news rolls in. The younger brother in Dublin has Covid. I’m gutted. I won’t see him at all.
On Christmas Eve, I’m picking up the turkey and fresh thyme for the stuffing when I run into an old school friend.
He says we’ll all get Covid before Christmas is over. The only escape is to stay home and see nobody.
I think of the blue flames of the Christmas pudding flickering on our wine glasses, of my teary-eyed Mam telling me how special it is to have us home.
Was my middle daughter infectious then?
By St. Stephen’s Day, we’d bailed for my husband’s side, leaving an asthmatic brother, a mother in her seventies, and a family bound for Switzerland in our wake.
I was pulling a gift-wrapped cashmere sweater for my mother-in-law out of the suitcase when the first set of double lines appeared.
"Mam and Dad are negative," said my husband, looking at his phone. "We can head over."
I bit my lip and showed him our middle daughter’s home test.
"This is a disaster," he said.
After a day of humming and hawing, he met them outdoors. His Mam had cooked a turkey, a fruitcake, and our favorite stuffing. Nobody ate any of it.
I tried switching our flights, but I needed a negative test within 24 hours of departure. Every test appointment in the country was booked solid for days.
The day before our scheduled flight, we joined the line snaking around the airport Randox building. An hour and a half in the spilling rain, even though we had an appointment.
The results are disastrous. The middle child is still positive. Worse, the youngest is positive too. I’m now the designated Covid parent. My husband and eldest daughter fly home as planned.
Accommodation options for the remaining three are limited. We can’t infect the Covid-free family members. We can’t stay in a hotel.
I text the younger brother who has Covid. I feel bad asking. His wife is recovering from Covid and has a broken foot and tailbone.
He picks us up immediately.
"Just a couple of nights, right?" he asks.
"Or we could stay till my birthday," I joke.
We crack up laughing. That’s two whole weeks away.
In the meantime, the kids have pool tournaments and epic card games. Everyone is delighted.
We do home antigen tests daily. Swabbing, swirling, squeezing the drops into the indentation. The lines on the middle daughter’s test become fainter. The lines on the youngest’s stay stubbornly solid. My tests are always negative.
My third brother drops over chicken broccoli bakes and brownies from the Avoca café. He tells my sister-in-law the whole extended family will be staying with her soon. She’s not amused.
Two days later, the littlest cousin’s birthday rolls around. He’s delighted to have a party with the Americans. None of his friends can make it because of Covid.
We’ve never been in the same country for their birthdays; it’s an unexpected treat.
Texts ping from my asthmatic brother, my Mam, and the family in Switzerland. They’re all Covid-free.
We’re now six days past our scheduled departure date. I double-check the requirements. A PCR test isn’t required, only an antigen. Maybe we’ll get a different technician.
The door opens and the same overzealous guy snaps on his blue rubber gloves.
My daughters laugh as I sit on my hands.
The results are back within minutes. The girls are Covid-free.
I call the airline and make arrangements for the girls to fly home on their own.
At my brother's house, I play cards with my niece and nephews and ponder why we didn’t all get sick at the same time. I shouldn't be the sole family member on the wrong side of the Atlantic.
I’m sick of the double lines that taunt me every morning. Sick of hearing about Novak Djokovic. He’s not the only Covid refugee in the world.
I check my texts and Facebook posts and try not to feel sad when I see the heart emojis.
Eleven days past my scheduled flight, I do another home test. I set the timer for fifteen minutes. Clear. Still clear. Only 30 seconds to go. A beautiful blankness instead of a positive line. I imagine the plane lifting off the runway. No. It can’t be. A hairline crack on the test. I want to smash something.
Mam wonders if she can visit.
"No," I say.
"But you’ve no symptoms," she says.
The absurdity of the situation is not lost on me. Still, she’s in her seventies and might get a bad dose, so I beg her not to come.
I steel myself and go to the test center again. "First time?" asks a young technician.
I shake my head.
I’m halfway back to my brother's house when my phone pings.
SARS-CoV-2 positive (detected).
Oh for the love of God.
I remind myself I’ve only had Covid for eight days.
Still, almost two weeks have passed and my birthday is tomorrow. I want to celebrate 'mo bhreithlá’ a day early, so I invite my brother's family to dinner.
We order spicy chicken wings and burgers at a local restaurant. I don’t feel guilty. I’m past the five-day quarantine period the CDC recommends. I’m also past the UK seven-day isolation period. Only Ireland requires ten full days. It’s ridiculous. I guzzle a glass of Wicklow Wolf IPA and wonder how many empty pizza boxes are stacked in my New Jersey kitchen.
I’m a little tipsy going for the test.
At the center, last night’s technician is tonight’s receptionist. Only the passport checker is the same.
I admire the new technician’s Converse high tops. She’s distracted and delighted, telling me that all her friends bought a pair. She gently inserts the swab, angling it so that I feel a soft tip in my sinuses rather than a jab in the middle of my brain.
I want to hug her for being so careful.
I’m sipping a hot mug of Barry’s tea and nibbling a homemade brownie when my phone pings. The words in the email are so unfamiliar it takes a minute for me to understand.
SARS-CoV-2 negative. Not detected.
Negative! I’m going home.
I switch my flight to the next day. I’ll be leaving the house at 5:30 am.
I send a text to the family group chat, and I’m distracted by the pinging messages.
"The best birthday gift ever," they say.
My niece and nephews hug me, but I see the wobble in their smiles. I’m part of their family now. They’ll miss me. We’ve had some good belly laughs over the past two weeks.
Maybe the ‘best birthday gift’ isn’t the flight. It’s this magical connection with my brother’s family. It’s this bonus time that I’ve had with them.
I hug them tight, promising I’ll call them when I land. They’ll be home from school by then.
*This column was submitted to IrishCentral by Marlene May. Have a story you want to share with us? Sign up for our contributors network IrishCentral Storytellers here!