That Time My Husband Joked About Having COVID on a Crowded Plane

There was so much we didn’t know

Photo by Tanathip Rattanatum

My husband, two kids, and I excitedly took our seats on a non-stop flight to the happiest place on Earth (Disney World). The date? February 18, 2020. My daughter had a cold. And like most 8-year-olds, she’s not the best at covering her mouth when she sneezes — at least she wasn’t before all this happened.

She sneezed her way down the aisle, and my husband nervously laughed while saying it’s only a mild case of COVID. To his credit, he immediately said he was kidding, and the people within earshot stifled grins. COVID was mostly a far-off possibility. The first outbreak in Seattle didn’t happen until the end of the month. At this point, the joke was nowhere near tantamount to yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre.

Not so anymore. Almost a year later, a couple was arrested for boarding a plane after positive COVID tests. The memory of that flight makes me cringe. Sitting close to strangers, sneezing freely, faces uncovered, did we really do those things? Will we ever do them again?

Later as we strolled through Universal Studios and Disney’s theme parks, I mostly remember the crowds. I thought February would be a good time to go. We took the kids out of school for a week. I didn’t anticipate the thousands of strollers blocking my way to the bathroom or the long lines to refill my son’s popcorn.

I complained. Not because there might be a deadly virus running rampant through a crowd of unmasked families dressed in matching t-shirts and Mickey ears. I complained because my feet hurt while my daughter climbed on me like a human jungle gym. I complained because we had to wait — in line, for a meal, for the bus, all of it.

I complained about over-priced trinkets. At one point, I caved and bought a bubble maker that my daughter instantly pointed in other people’s faces and wouldn’t turn off on the bus ride to the hotel. When I took it from her, she crawled under a seat and cried loudly. We bonded with other parents over a look that said, “we’ve been there too.” We bonded with strangers.

Don’t get me wrong. There were moments of pure joy, like when we turned the corner and watched a light show followed by fireworks at Hogwart’s. Once, I glanced back to see my daughter, dressed as Cinderella, giving the Queen’s wave to the crowd passing by. At eight-years-old, I knew I might never see her inner princess again.

Mostly, the trip was normal. Filled with laughter and excitement, but also with snippy moments only those who love each other can get away with. We flew home happy and blissfully unaware of the unfolding crisis.

Disney World closed two weeks after we returned home. Like a magician who makes his partner disappear, poof, no more people. I imagined the employees sitting at home with no one to cheer up. What happened to the Storm Trooper who teased my son about being from another planet? Chewbacca? The princesses who made my daughter’s eyes light up?

Crowds may be annoying, but there’s a buzz to them, especially at a place like Disney. Families gather from all over to suspend belief for a few days. We saw reunions and kids from the Make a Wish Foundation. My daughter learned to say Zedd (instead of Z) when a family from London shared a seat with us.

It’s been a year since our trip. Many times over the last few months, I’ve longed to feel comfortable in a crowd. To crack jokes with strangers (even not-so-funny ones on an airplane).

Disney re-opened three months after it closed. Lines are forming as I type. People are laughing. Families are bickering. Will I ever complain about crowds again? Yes, I will. But there will a voice on my shoulder telling me not to take it for granted. Life will go on, but it will never be the same.

I write about health and fitness through exercise and non-restrictive eating. Sometimes I write about my kiddos.

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