Travelling during a pandemic

This past Saturday, we left for Calgary with our two teenagers, not for a vacation, although it was the start of spring break, but for our son's regularly scheduled checkup at Alberta Children's Hospital for his heart defect (hypoplastic left heart syndrome - look it up).

On Saturday, the world still seemed normal, if a little on edge.

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That night, from our hotel room, I posted this on Twitter:

"Driving through the Icefields Parkway today was like driving through Earth's smile - huge white mountainous teeth, grinning cold - beautiful, awesome, terrifying - a speck in space and time passing through."

Over the next 72 hours, everything changed.

While his ultrasound appointment Monday went ahead as scheduled, his Tuesday appointment was canceled. By the time we headed to Alberta Children's on Wednesday morning to see the pediatric cardiologist (who had canceled all checkups except for the two patients that had come from out of town), we were in strange, unsettling waters.

The traffic on 16th Avenue, one of the busiest main throughfares in central Calgary, was minimal. There was parking right at the hospital door. The nearby shopping centre, Market Mall, was deserted except for the Safeway store, where my daughter and I grabbed some snacks and drinks for the drive home. We hadn't planned on leaving until Thursday but the idea of staying in a hotel for one more night was out of the question for all of us.

The staff remained friendly and courteous but they were clearly nervous. The restaurant remained open for the free breakfast that came with our booking but the buffet was canceled in favour of menu orders only. Guests were taking turns using the elevators, instead of going up in groups.

With a free day on Sunday, we ventured to Cross Iron Mills shopping mall and were relieved to see how quiet it was, although all the stores were open. We carefully maintained social distance, paid with plastic instead of cash and went in to wash our hands every time we passed a washroom.

Then Calgary declared a local state of emergency on Monday.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi issued this wisdom: "Don't act as though you are trying to prevent getting the virus. Act as though you already have it and you're trying to prevent spreading it and act as though every single person you meet is your 90-year-old grandmother."

Great advice for meeting strangers but harder to do when meeting dear friends you only see once or twice a year. In our case, we met Monday night at a nearly deserted restaurant still serving dine-in customers with friends also touched by childhood heart disease. That kind of bond is not easily ignored, so the emotion of seeing each other, particularly in such difficult times, took over and we found ourselves hugging one another.

We knew it was wrong thing but it also felt like the human thing to do.

We ate together, we laughed, we caught up on our lives, we tipped generously and we had the sense to skip the goodbye hugs.

On Tuesday, the kids heard the school year was on hold indefinitely and they cheered.

The heart checkup Wednesday went well as usual and to our great relief but we couldn't leave for home fast enough.

The kids couldn't wait to get home to hang out with all their friends and maybe go to a few spring break house parties. Their day-before cheers turned to outrage when they were informed none of that would be happening. As teenagers, they're still learning about broader consequences and how the devil is always in the details.

The sun shone as bright and clear on the Rockies Wednesday afternoon as it had on Saturday, the sky a rich, endless blue. That mountainous smile seemed less sinister than it had a few days earlier because this time we were heading in the right direction and we knew things were still good with our son's half-heart.

We were together, joking, complaining, arguing, being a family, knowing whatever happens next, we'd get through it together somehow, just like we always have.

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