As travel shut down, Bozeman brothers raced home to say goodbye

Julian and Nicholas MacKay needed to get home to Bozeman.

The brothers grew up here, but have lived on and off in Russia for more than a decade, studying ballet and now working there. They usually make trips to Montana in the summer when they get time off to see their parents, Gregory and Teresa.

Last year, Gregory was diagnosed with cancer. A few weeks ago, his condition began to worsen. Julian, 22, said he and Nicholas knew they needed to see their dad “to say goodbye and to say thank you.”

And then the world shut down.

International and domestic travel has come to a screeching halt over the last month as officials try to curb the spread of COVID-19. People all over the world are being asked to stay home, schools are closing and flights have been grounded at an unprecedented rate.

The MacKays’ two older sisters, Maria Sascha and Nadia Khan, also live overseas — in London and Rome, respectively. They work as professional dancers. The two booked flights home a few weeks ago, the day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson began announcing travel restrictions for those in the United Kingdom.

“We booked tickets the next day because we didn’t want to get stuck not being able to get to our dad and our family,” Maria Sascha said.

Then came the challenge of getting Julian and Nicholas home.

Julian said there wasn’t much warning from officials before Russia began imposing restrictions. The Independent reported on March 16 that the country’s borders would close March 17, which came shortly after the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases there rose nearly 50% in 24 hours. But the ban didn’t apply to local citizens or foreign citizens with residency rights.

Then, on March 27, The Moscow Times reported that all international flights would be grounded that night with the exception of planes evacuating Russian citizens from abroad.

In a matter of hours, leaving the country seemed to become impossible. Gregory called the brothers knowing they might not make it home to say how proud of them he was. Julian said it was difficult to hear that over phone instead of in person.

“As a son, you always want to be right there to help and sometimes you can’t be,” Julian said.

The MacKays tried for about a week-and-a-half to find a plane ticket. They live in St. Petersburg and traveled to Moscow by train. Once there, they visited the office of an airline and waited for something to become available.

A breakthrough came on April 3 when a flight was scheduled. Julian and Nicholas secured tickets and breathed a sigh of relief when they settled into their seats and the plane door closed.

“Then the captain announces that the flight is canceled,” Julian said.

They had to return to St. Petersburg because they didn’t have anywhere to stay in Moscow. They were back to where they started.

In Bozeman, Maria Sascha began reaching out to anyone who could possibly help. She spent three days contacting members of Congress, former ambassadors and people who could get the message out to help Julian and Nicholas get home.

“The idea of them not getting home on time was too much to bear,” Maria Sascha said.

Maria Sascha said Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, and Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, both from Bozeman and coincidentally former high school debate partners, were quick to respond to her request for help. She said the family is grateful they offered assistance and did what they could given the circumstances.

Daines said in a statement that his staff worked with the state department and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. He said he was glad to help the MacKays and that getting Montanans home from abroad is a top priority for his office.

For Julian and Nicholas still in Russia, it was a waiting game. Being avid travelers and having lived in the country for so long, Julian said they’re comfortable there. He said this is the first time they’d ever felt uncertain or anxious about what might happen.

Finally, they got word there would be a charter flight back to the U.S. They returned to Moscow to see if they could get on the plane. When they received a message from the U.S. Embassy that they would be able to travel, they were told to run to the airport.

On Tuesday, the MacKays flew out of Russia. After a night in New York, they were able to return to Bozeman Wednesday morning after a layover in Salt Lake City. Julian said reminders of their dad were everywhere on the trip home.

Gregory, a software programmer and teacher, traveled often for work. He racked up so many air miles that he used them to take his family on vacations to places like London and Italy. When he couldn’t take his family, Julian remembers him bringing home Biscoff cookies from the plane — the same cookies offered on the MacKays’ flight this week.

The brothers put on face masks and gloves before walking in the door to see their dad. He was awake and gestured hello.

“To see him smile, it was like, mission accomplished,” Julian said.

On Friday morning, Gregory died. It was his 63rd birthday.

When describing Gregory, Julian said he thinks about the stories his dad read to him as a child about the Knights of the Round Table and tales of chivalry. He said Gregory was selfless and giving, and that he hopes to be more like his dad.

“He was a true knight in every aspect,” Julian said.

For example, Julian said Gregory took on extra work to help pay for his children’s education and ballet training. Now, all four are very successfully pursuing their passions all over the world, which is outlined in a 2016 Washington Post story. In the story, Gregory talked about the first time he saw Nadia dance professionally in Rome.

“I was just so proud,” he said.

Maria Sascha said Gregory’s support has been unwavering.

“As we get older, more and more and more, we appreciate the fullness of what he’s done,” Maria Sascha said.

With theaters closed and no work for the foreseeable future, the Khan-MacKay family will stay in Bozeman with Teresa and grieve together. Maria Sascha said it’s also a chance for the siblings to collaborate on projects, like the Yellowstone International Arts Festival.

Gregory and Teresa organized the festival last year, and it included performances by their children, Native American fancy dancers and opera singers. It was held in the Paradise Valley, where Maria Sascha and Nadia were born. Julian said it’s something they’re working to put on again.

“I hope I can continue on with dad’s legacy and become more and more like he was,” Julian said.