There is a large monitor poised behind my laptop. A picture of the four of us is displayed as the monitor’s background. I stare at this image every time I sit at my computer. In the photo, I still had braces. Kyle is wearing a pink shirt. Dave and Eli are both wearing baseball caps. The picture was taken the day we drove from Nelson Bay, New South Wales to Sydney, Australia. We stopped to hike around Ku-ring-gai National Park. We stopped to hike off the road. The area where we stopped was a little inland. It was wet, a little muddy and there were little waterfalls everywhere. We climbed down a muddy trail, where we found a narrow bridge and an area covered in graffiti. I love graffiti. I suggested we take a family picture. Dave, Kyle and Eli obliged. It was a wonderful and magical day. It was April, 2019. It was a different time. It feels like we were different people.
I think I went to Australia on a dare. Many friends had told me they hated Sydney, that Melbourne was much better. But, if I was really going to the bottom of the world, I should stick with New Zealand. They were not wrong about New Zealand, It is also where we were when the pandemic began. And when quarantine is too much, New Zealand is where I travel in my dreams. We visited New Zealand twice before traveling to Australia. New Zealand is amazing and tracks with the landscapes pictured in the Lord of the Rings movies. Kyle made friends with a curious octopus there. Eli proclaimed it is actually a place he wants to go back to and when Covid intruded on our planet, New Zealand is the place I wanted to hide.
Dared to be there and determined to make it the very best experience, in April 2019, Australia was where we were. Kyle met us there on his spring break, flying direct from Abu Dhabi. Before we left Utah, I did oodles of research on Sydney and its surrounding areas. One thread on one travel blog recommended we use the Sydney Ferry system:
“You must use the ferry system. It will change your world.”
They were right. Taking a ferry from destination to destination completely revolutionized our trip. Traveling by ferry was like traveling in a postcard, feeling the wet wind on our faces while looking to the left or to the right (depending on which direction you are traveling), blazing under the Sydney Harbor Bridge and seeing the spectacular Sydney Opera House. My mind was blown every single time.
Sydney was fantastic. More things were free than we expected. Food was fabulous and walking through the city was intriguing.
Near the end of our Australia stay, Kyle, Dave and I walked along the water near our AirBnB in the Birchgrove neighborhood. We knew Kyle had the opportunity to do a study abroad the following year. NYU has campuses all over the world. During the week we talked about the pros and cons of Sydney versus other campuses like Shanghai, Florence, or Buenos Aires.
“Mom, Dad, I think I want to do my Study Away in Sydney,” Kyle said.
I tried to tamp down my exuberant excitement and responded in such a low key way,
“Kyle, I think that is an excellent idea.” I blurted and (then probably jumped and high-fived Dave).
It is now January 2021. One year ago Kyle left for NYU Sydney, where he began his study away. Immediately he made an excellent circle of friends. (Kyle is great at meeting people.) On our video chats he told me how easily he connected with his fellow students.
“Mom, I feel more connected with my peers here than I did in Abu Dhabi. I love my Abu Dhabi friends. Sydney has just been so natural. I have friends. They are so easy. I really needed this experience. I feel good about myself. I am so glad I am here.”
Each time we talked, Kyle eagerly told me about how he was connecting to his new town. One call he told me how he was intent on taking different modes of transportation each day so he could learn the city. He bought a skateboard, learned the public transportation system and loved to walk. I felt like I was learning the city on a deeper level. Because we had been there the previous year, I felt like I could see the stories and experiences Kyle was telling me. As his mom, I loved that Kyle was having this moment.
Then the pandemic hit. Even though the world was shutting down, Sydney seemed safe and less impacted. NYU Sydney assured us that the students would stay in school. We felt so confident that everything would be ok with Kyle that on March 13, 2020, Dave and I flew to Queenstown, New Zealand where Kyle would meet us for his spring break, and Eli would meet up with all of us the following week back in Sydney. Eli was excited to do his first international trip without us. Kyle made his first international trip alone at the same age.
Until 7:00PM on Friday, March 13, 2020, that was our plan.
As we were packing to leave for the airport, the Salt Lake Schools shut down school. At the time they said school would only be shut down a week. We felt safe going and Eli was still planning on meeting us the following week in Sydney.
Dave and I were now in San Francisco on the long flight to Auckland, New Zealand.
From the time we were in the air until the plane landed, the world changed. We landed and immediately told that we had landed a few hours before the enforced incoming-traveler quarantine would take effect.
Things just got worse — for the entire world.
Now safely in the country, Dave and I flew from Auckland to Queenstown where we met up with Kyle. Within a few days his dreamy perfect study abroad was canceled. A few days after that he was abruptly told he could not get back into Australia, to leave his belongings in Australia and to go home. Of course we canceled Eli’s flight. Then it took some finagling to get Dave, Kyle and me out of New Zealand. We decided to spend our last few days hiking, healing and enjoying the amazing Queenstown area. Most travelers were already gone so we felt like we had Queenstown to ourselves. Again, it was magic. New Zealand was a gift, a respite from the pandemic storm. I will always be grateful.
We made our way home. Kyle finished his semester online. It was painful. I am not sure he has recovered. I am not sure any of us have. And when I say any of us, I am speaking of everyone on the planet.
I still long for Australia. I still fantasize about finding our way back. Our time together feels unfinished and incomplete.
For now, I will have the picture on my monitor screen.