“I humbly ask you to forgive decisions that are borne of my heart and not my head.”

Such was the plea Denver Mayor Michael Hancock made after it was revealed—despite urging Denver residents to stay home for the Thanksgiving holiday—that he traveled to Mississippi to be with his family. When it was reported by 9News the Wednesday before the holiday, the vitriol directed at the mayor was as swift as it was justified. He didn’t follow his own COVID-19 guidelines, which was widely considered a failure of leadership. If anyone should have stayed home that week, it was him. But he was not alone: Millions of Americans boarded flights across the country ahead of Thanksgiving to see loved ones and reclaim some sense of normalcy they’d been missing for the better part of a year. They all made decisions that were, as the mayor put it, borne of the heart.

I know the feeling. Earlier this fall, I made a similar decision: to board a plane and fly across the country to visit my family, who I hadn’t seen in nine months.

I’m accustomed to the separation. I’ve lived far away from my parents for almost 10 years, and though I’ve tried to make frequent visits home to New England, I’ve missed too many milestones to bother counting. Already this year, I’d tabled plans in April to celebrate my grandmother’s birthday with her—an annual tradition for us. My parents canceled their July trip to Denver for a family reunion. I didn’t fly home to help my dad build a new deck in August.

In September, though, the world felt more approachable than it did during the early days of the pandemic. I missed my family and I wanted to see maple trees burst red and orange along the rocky coast. Was my longing to go home selfish? Probably. Did I rationalize it by letting waves of nostalgia wash over me like a strong Atlantic tide? I did. I booked the flights and planned a multi-week trip back home—a luxury I could afford thanks to our current work-from-home culture.

As my trip neared, I tried my best to account for public health protocols; I tried to avoid contact with other people and tested negative for COVID-19 before flying. And just to be safe, I didn’t go to my parents’ house, where my grandmother also lives, until a few days after arriving, hoping I’d stay symptom free in the interim.

That didn’t work. Shortly after landing in New England, I became exhausted and began to feel chilled, which I attributed to lack of sleep and travel. It was probably a cold. Until it wasn’t. I got a rapid test the morning I was set to arrive at the house where I grew up. The physician’s assistant who administered the test wore a surgical mask when she swabbed me. When she returned 20 minutes later with my results, having added a gown and face-shield to her ensemble, I knew the outcome.

I was told to leave the urgent care facility immediately with little information on what to do next. In the parking lot, I called my dad to explain the impossibly awful circumstance. When you’ve tested positive for COVID-19, you don’t really have “good” options. But when it happens 2,000 miles away from home, the options are even worse.

My parents vacated their upstairs bedroom—the only one in the house with an attached bathroom—for me to begin isolation. To be extra cautious, and make sure my germs didn’t escape my area of quarantine, they taped plastic sheets over every vent and put a rolled towel at the base of the door. They moved into the guest room on the main floor and my grandmother stayed in her basement apartment. We lived on three different floors, communicating only by phone so they could deliver food to a neutral site on the stairs leading to my quarters. One day, they allowed me a buffalo ranch pizza—a small victory.

I had traveled across the country to spend time with my family. Instead, we shared only anxious passing glances while I isolated in too-close proximity in the same clothes day after day. What’s worse is that I put them at such risk. Since March, they’d taken nearly every precaution possible to keep COVID-19 out of their home. Even in New England, where cases were lower than in most parts of the country, they have been extra careful because, rightly, they feared the virus. They weren’t very enthusiastic about my visit to begin with, but I was stubborn about coming anyway.

It would be a gross understatement to say I brought stress into my parents’ home. I brought something much worse, the coronavirus. To their credit, they did what they’ve always done as parents: They made sacrifices. Even though they were petrified the pathogen might escape my chambers and infect them, they hunkered down and kept danger at bay. Maybe COVID-19 just thought better of screwing with my fiery Italian mother holding vigil below, but neither my parents, nor my grandmother got sick.

When the CDC guidelines permitted my travel, I returned to Denver. The anxiety lasted for weeks, if not months, and followed me back to Colorado—and kept me there.

Two months later, on the day I sat down to write the first draft of this story, I was supposed to be at Denver International Airport—just like Mayor Hancock was. I was supposed to travel east again, flying across the country on Southwest flight number 1901 from Denver to Boston. I canceled my plane ticket for that flight, which I had booked months earlier, marking just the second time in 28 years I didn’t spend Thanksgiving with my parents—which is also their wedding anniversary. Soon, we’ll celebrate Christmas apart for the first time, too. We can tally these on the list of missed milestones that pile up when you live so far away. We can blame the pandemic, but that doesn’t make the losses much easier.

We wanted to be together for Thanksgiving. And we desperately want to be together for Christmas, too. But now isn’t a time to let those wants obscure our better judgment. Trust me, I wanted to be with my family earlier this fall, so I made a mistake borne of the heart and stranded myself across the country, putting my family in an unfair and dangerous situation. I won’t see my parents again until a vaccine is widely available—which I hope comes in time to celebrate my dad’s 60th birthday next summer. If it doesn’t, we can add that one to the list, as well.

Just like at Thanksgiving, millions of Americans will travel again in the coming weeks. So if you absolutely must, follow state and CDC guidance. Otherwise, ponder the home you are living in safely right now, be grateful for your health, hang a stocking, and make plans to stay put. Trust me, it could be worse.

Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard is a Denver-based writer and a former editor on 5280's digital team.