Philadelphia – Boston – Dubai – Islamabad
I was in tears while on hold with Emirates. During a span of 48 hours, I had gone from reassuring fellow international students at UPenn and saying we should stay put in Philadelphia to changing my flight ticket twice. First, I bought a ticket home for the end of the week. I needed time to wrap up, and I wanted to submit an assignment on time. This was a full month before my initial plan. Countries were closing down borders and Qatar Airways was randomly cancelling bookings. Then the Pakistani Government released a notification that said starting 21-March midnight, no one (not even citizens) would be able to enter the country without a negative COVID19 test in their hands. Even people with symptoms were having trouble getting tested – this was as good as a border closure. My flight landed at 01:35 – a full 95 minutes too late. So, there I was – on hold with Emirates for more than two hours, the tears finally starting to roll down my face.
I managed to get a ticket that would get me home in time. I had 12 hours to pack my things and leave Philadelphia as an inhabitant forever. Graduation was just a few months away, but I knew I wouldn’t be walking any time soon. One of my friends grumbled that she didn’t have time to finish the beautiful embroidery she was making for me. The other said my real goodbye present had not been delivered yet but she still had snacks and bangles for me never-the-less. A friend of a friend volunteered to help drive me to the airport. In a whirlwind with no time to feel, we packed, sorted and made piles of things for the thrift store. Leaving behind a great pair of boots I found on sale and several other beloved things was not hard. They were things. The world was shutting down and all I wanted was to be home with my husband and cats. Nothing else mattered.
The airports were apocalyptic. Non-essential businesses were closed, the smell of disinfectant was seeping into my lungs (with their own special type of damage) and everyone was washing their hands for a full-20 seconds. My prayer mat did not make the final cut of things, and I was too afraid to pray on the airport carpet. I saw people arguing with airline personnel because rules had changed in the few hours they departed from their homes, got their boarding passes and made it to the departure lounge. At least 150 passengers were off-loaded from my flight. I had an entire row to myself and we were definitely socially distant. But I did not feel relief. My heart was breaking for the people who would not be making it home any time soon.
Four airports, a 10 hour layover at Dubai airport, a pack of Lysol wipes and a full coloring later, I was home. My husband gave me a mask and drove me home. It would be a full ten days before we hugged. At least our long-distance marriage had a smaller parameter now.
We are all living through our struggles. I waited five years to apply for graduate school in a society where women apply for their masters immediately after their bachelors to make sure they are done and dusted before marriage. I applied to my dream schools and scholarships – much rejection, heartbreak and mini-triumphs later, I was studying Social Policy at UPenn.
I will not be walking with my classmates in May. After maintaining a solid 3.9 GPA, I struggle to write out assignments and I submit them right on time. Not a minute earlier. I had to redo two of these assignments. I miss my friends, but I do not have the energy to reach out to them. Each day goes by quickly, I scramble to do everything I need to do but I feel like time is standing still. I feel like I am living the same day over and over again. I see-saw between gratitude (making it home in time, cute cats, cuter husband, garden, beautiful weather, financial security, etc.) and hopelessness.
I prayed a lot when this started, but in between the news, graphs and assignments, I faltered. Perhaps tomorrow, I will start again.