WASHINGTON - After weeks on a COVID-19 emotional roller coaster, my 69-year old mother is happily quarantining in my basement playing Let’s Get Rich.
Until recently my mother, whom everyone calls Mami, lived alone in Wonosari, Central Java. Sadly, her village has become a "virus red zone" as people who have lost their jobs in the capital, Jakarta, returned home despite the Indonesian government’s pleas not to spread the virus throughout the archipelago.
As more and more of her neighbors fell ill, in mid-April my brother who lives in Australia and I decided we should take the risk and fly her to Washington, D.C., to be with me. Mami, the happy-go-lucky type, agreed.
Well, the universe had other plans.
On the way to the airport, she decided to stop by the hospital for a drive-through rapid coronavirus test. She tested positive.
In a panic, Mami checked herself in a hospital to be monitored even though she had no symptoms. We supported her decision – I had heard reports of asymptomatic patients suddenly falling ill and did not want to take the risk.
She spent four days quarantined in a hospital private room, bored out of her skull. She had a CT scan and all sorts of other tests including two swab/ PCR tests that turned out negative.
During that time, I heard rumors that the government may have procured faulty test kits – a rumor confirmed recently when more than 442 people from one Balinese village who had registered positive on a rapid test were found negative with PCR testing.
Once Mami had been declared virus-free, we continued our plan and rebooked the flight. That is, until President Trump tweeted that he would suspend immigration to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 21, 2020
I remember the sinking feeling as I sat in the White House briefing room while the president announced the executive order. I asked him for details, which he did not provide. But as a White House correspondent I had to file a report, which meant I could interview immigration lawyers and quickly find out that the order was very narrow and had no impact on Mami.
Still, in the few days between Trump’s tweet and his executive order, we were in distress; we had worked for years to get her an immigrant visa and it was due to expire in less than two weeks.
After we booked yet another flight, the Indonesian government banned air, ground and sea transport in and out of the capital in a bid to slow the spread of the pandemic.
I’m not religious but I do believe that when the universe sends a sign, we should listen. At that point, I felt the universe broadcasting in high definition. Mami and I surrendered to what was, and accepted that we would not see each other anytime soon.
A short time later we heard rumors about a handful of exemption flights for passengers leaving Indonesia. With the help of my resourceful girlfriends back home, we scored a ticket through Lion Air, which claimed they could make exemptions for passengers meeting certain criteria. I worked all my connections to prepare the documents proving that Mami met the criteria.
The night before Mami was scheduled to depart, the airline announced it didn’t have government approval and canceled all flights. It was at this point that I noticed I had developed a bald spot, which sometimes happens when I’m stressed.
Finally, after more detective work and lobbying, we were able to get her on a Garuda Air flight from Yogyakarta to Jakarta, then to Washington via Tokyo and Dallas. There were only four people allowed to fly from Yogyakarta to Jakarta that day and Mami was one of them.
End of story? Not so fast! Apparently, the universe decided a little more drama was needed. On the way to Dallas, a passenger barricaded himself inside a bathroom, screaming and making threatening comments. Mami thought the plane was being hijacked.
Luckily three U.S. Marines were on board and subdued him. The plane was diverted to Los Angeles and the passenger was carried off by more than a dozen police officers. Nosy Mami stayed on-brand and recorded videos.
The plane made it back to Dallas, but she missed her connection flight to Washington. I had no idea that any of this was happening; in the two days of her journey, I couldn’t contact her. My stubborn Mami didn’t believe me that airport wi-fi is free, and was more worried about international roaming charges than the sanity of her daughter, who stress-called the airline on each flight leg to make sure she had boarded the plane.
This story ended well for us and – at a time when that’s not the case for many families – we are very grateful. When she arrived at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, I wanted to hug her but couldn't. I also wanted to scold her but didn't.
This crazy woman, this truly indestructible zen-master, would only laugh me off. Besides she was too busy crowing about all the chili sauce and assorted spices that she had managed to carry through customs.
Mother’s Day was Sunday and I had the perfect present. I gave her a framed picture of my bald spot.