COVID-19 and the Cursed Princess by
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Last week, before the lockdown, I went to Oakland to check on my mother and make sure her senior residence was taking appropriate precautions (good news, they were). My mother lives in a high-rise building in her own independent apartment on the 16th floor, looking west over the city to the bay, and on a clear day, to San Francisco and Mt. Tam. When I entered her apartment, she said, “Come over to the balcony, you need to see something.” There, in the port of Oakland, was docked the Grand Princess, with most of the passengers still quarantined on it.

What a bizarre intersection of a vacation from hell with a pandemic-stricken ship.

Some degree of PTSD quickly kicked in before my rational brain took over and I exhaled, considering how lucky we had been. You see, my partner Dick and I were on the Grand Princess in November, on the exact cruise to Hawaii where the COVID-19 virus hit. My story originally would have been entirely about the traumas of Dick getting very ill on that cruise and how we ultimately made it back. However, given where we are now, we were so fortunate to have returned safely. What a bizarre intersection of a vacation from hell with a pandemic-stricken ship.

We had been on about 10 cruises over the years and enjoyed them all. With Dick 20 years older than I and having difficulty walking, plus heart and lung issues, we hadn’t taken a vacation in a while, and we were tired of dealing with airports. So, when the opportunity to take a cruise from San Francisco to Hawaii and back presented, it seemed like a very safe bet. After all, we’d be relaxing back and forth on the calm Pacific Ocean, have a few trips on the islands, and then cruise back. What could go wrong?

Turns out things immediately began to go wrong. Our room, which we’d selected because it was close to the aft elevator to help Dick’s walking, was the smallest I’d ever been in, with extra beds with metal edges attached to the side walls. Almost immediately, I stood up into the metal edge of one of the beds and hit my head so hard I saw stars. The ship was three hours late departing because of a supply delivery problem, so instead of being on deck looking at the horizon to get my sea orientation, we were at dinner by the time we sailed. The captain accelerated the speed to make up time, and the ship began to rock.

The next morning I woke up feeling sick and thinking I had a concussion. Turns out that about half the ship was down in sick bay by the time I arrived with what was seasickness. I’d never been seasick on a cruise ship before. The nurses handed out medication like dinner mints, and we were advised to stay low and midship, so I spent most of the next two days either asleep on a sofa in one of the bars, or ordering ginger ale.

The middle of the trip proceeded without major incident, and we did get to go to Pearl Harbor and enjoy the other islands. The evening after we departed from Maui, Dick started becoming feverish and was shaking, and was so ill that the next morning I called the EMT to take him down to sick bay. There I spent most of the rest of the cruise with Dick while the doctors tried to figure out what was wrong. We’ll never know exactly what caused the problem except that he got some sort of bacterial infection that then taxed his heart.

The young doctor, who at first was arrogant, began to warm up to me because of my extensive familiarity with all of Dick’s medical conditions and medications, which helped in his treatment. Orders were that when we made a short stop in Ensenada, we had to get off the ship and be transported via Mexican ambulance to a hospital in San Diego. That trip is a story in itself, but eventually we were transferred to an American ambulance at the border and finally made it to an excellent hospital.

There Dick underwent a full cardio exam, and after a couple of failures, a third antibiotic worked on his infection. I was at a hotel about five minutes from the hospital. After three days, Dick was released from the hospital, and we spent another two days in the hotel before the travel insurance cleared us to fly home to San Jose, accompanied by a nurse. We arrived home three days after our scheduled arrival in San Francisco.

None of what happened to Dick, or even the COVID-19 epidemic, was the direct fault of any individual, the Grand Princess, or the cruise line. But, seeing that ship in the port of Oakland symbolized the end of an era–one that was manic, overstimulated, and took too much for granted.

So now it is spring, and in this shelter-in-place world, each day is different. Here in Santa Clara country, we have been at the front wave of this virus for some time, so what’s happening doesn’t seem as shocking as perhaps others are feeling now. The virtual world is very helpful. My poetry group is migrating to Zoom meetings. There are ebooks, audiobooks, and streaming. Yoga and exercise classes are on YouTube. The Retrospect community has taken on deeper meaning. We can get through this time financially, but I’m worried about others–our gardeners, our house cleaner–and am trying to figure out what I can do to help.

If technology is removed from this equation, the world here seems as if it strangely has gone back 50 years or more. The ambient noise from cars and airplanes has nearly vanished. When I walk outside, to the levy above the nearby river, or even around the neighborhood streets, I hear birdsong that previously would have been drowned out. We are eating more fundamentally and mindfully.

Although I have weeks of projects I can do, I am becoming more comfortable with just “being” at a slower pace and not doing that much. Maybe there is a lesson in that and some good that can come out of this situation. And, most important, even though we can’t see friends and loved ones in person, we are connecting with them more and don’t take a single person for granted.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Marian, your cruise does sound hellish, between your seasickness, then Dick’s ill-health! But thank goodness you got off before COVID-19 hit! With Dick’s heart problems, he must be at very high risk, so I assume you are being very cautious. We are all worried about all the small businesses we support and trying to do our share to help them, but life has been turned upside down for all of us. Glad your mother is well. And yes, having the Retrospect community is certainly a blessing.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Betsy, hang in. Sorry about your daughter in SJ and hope she’s OK. We are all adjusting, and the communication, in any medium, really helps. It’s surreal to have a freelance project writing up my client’s response to COVID-19, but it does make me feel more useful.

      • Marian, I’m moved by how your story flows from the worrisome facts if Dick’s illness, to a peaceful and hopeful end.

        My friend’s husband was actually on the Grand Princess for that fateful trip. Thankfully he tested negative and will be home in a few days, certainly with lots to share (via Zoom).
        Stay safe everyone!

        • Marian says:

          Oh, my Dana, at least I’m so glad your friend’s husband will be home soon. I think one of the reasons I got PTSD was the thought of being cooped up in a tiny room (I’m mildly claustrophobic under normal circumstances).

  2. Suzy says:

    Marian, I knew a little bit about your cruise from talking to you when you came back, but not all the hellish details. This prompt (as originally formulated) was perfect for you! And you have tied it in so well with the pandemic. It was that very ship that you were on! Thank goodness your cruise was back in December and not in late February!

    You write so clearly and beautifully about both your cruise and the current situation, it is a pleasure to read! Thank you for this story and for all you contribute to the Retrospect community!

    • Marian says:

      Thanks very much, Suzy. At first I thought it would be too “whiny” to tell the vacation part of my story given the COVID-19 pandemic. But the connection was too close to pass up. One of these days I’ll elaborate on the 90-minute trip from Ensenada to the US border in a Mexican ambulance. The driver spoke no English and my Spanish is lacking. I did get to see Rosarita Beach at sunset and freaked out over how large the border crossing was.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    This is a beautifully written story, Marian. I love how you were able to combine your recent “vacation from hell” during which you had to deal with Dick’s illness with the current COVID-19 crisis. The image of the cruise ship is haunting. Like you, I was struck by how much life has slowed down and how things feel like 50 years ago. I’m trying to hold onto this when I’m not feeling overwhelmed and anxious.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Laurie. It’s very schizophrenic with some of the old basics combined with new technology. Every little physical quirk in my system makes me anxious at the moment, so I share your feeling. Trying to do my breathing frequently. At least I feel fortunate that I’d mentally recovered from Dick’s incident before this hit, because I want to be resilient and not be too freaked out for him and for my mom.

  4. Marian, this story made my jaw drop! It’s as if this prompt were tailored just for you, and of course I know it wasn’t. What a nightmare cruise, and how it ties in with the present…just remarkable! I’m struck by your strength and resilience in such difficult circumstances, and I’m actively rooting for you. In reading your reply to Laurie above, I can relate to those physical quirks that make you feel anxious. I have them, too, pretty much every day, and I remind myself that all of them were transient and so the current one probably is as well. So wonderful to have this community!

    • Marian says:

      Thank you, Barbara. Yes, I found it hard to believe that I saw the Grand Princess from my mom’s balcony. Ironically (or maybe not), it helps me to keep strong for Dick and my mom at this time. I am off to watch a program about reducing stress through breathing and yoga. Very well timed!

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