A Bucket Case
I love flying into Oakland, California. On approach, the plane glides over San Francisco Bay, slowly getting lower and lower until it seems it will surely dip a wheel into the water, and as it lands, it appears to touch the earth. It is enchanting. I never tire of watching the drama unfold from my tiny window, though I admit a small knot of worry forms every time.
I was at the small airport for hours, awaiting my third flight of the day. Visiting my Dad is difficult in every way that you can imagine. There is one flight per day to the tiny town of Crescent City, about forty minutes down the coast from Dad's hometown of Brookings, Oregon. The airport is on the tip of a peninsula, which can only be reached by flying directly over the ocean and then dropping quite suddenly into a narrow runway. This often requires multiple attempts before succeeding. The wind shear is treacherous, and while the pilots are experienced in this maneuver, it makes me pretty darned nervous every time they miss the mark and have to try again. When this proves too dangerous, the plane is forced to turn tail and head back to Oakland. Better safe than sorry, to be sure, but it is inconvenient as all get out.
My day starts at 5:15 AM Central, and I will arrive at Dad's around 7:30 PM Pacific. Visiting the folks is at minimum a sixteen-hour journey. That is if one is lucky enough to descend onto terra firma on the first or second, or third try.
A friendly suggestion:
Do not retire to a place that is harder to get to than Uzbekistan.
One of my oldest and dearest pals, Michael, was meeting me in Oakland. He is a brave and generous soul. I needed Michael's help with this trip because Dad wanted to travel and see my sister's new home. This is technically impossible, given he has been blind for ten years, but he wants to "see" it. That is that. So we shall. We were going to Brookings to fetch him and hit the travel trail. Pop is ninety years old and terminal. However, this trip has given him something to look forward to for months though he occasionally gets confused and tells folks we are flying to Falmouth, Kentucky. The journey to visit his birthplace was on the bucket list before he got sick. I love him, but Kentucky is a flight too far. L.A. is all the bucket I can manage.
Dad has lost eighty-five pounds in the eight months since diagnosis but still denies he has cancer. He says old people just lose weight and that the doctor who diagnosed was looking at the wrong blood tests and MRI. Dad insists someone else has the cancer, and it's all a big mix-up. In spite of this shrinkage, Dad is still a big man, and I cannot catch him if he falls. Hence Michael agreeing to help navigate the trip. The hospice nurse said Dad could make it, but we should take care not to put too much stress on his heart. Getting into and out of Brookings, Oregon, is never easy. Doing so with a blind guy in a wheelchair with a resting heart rate of thirty-eight was going to be tricky as hell.
Dad and his wife have been somehow managing on their own with the support of the hospice health aids and household support we have arranged for them, but it is clear now that this situation is fraying around the edges a bit. Dad's wife is often in bed before dark, leaving Dad to fend for himself. It was the opinion of Dad and of the people ( my siblings and I) that he could use a break from the tedium of sitting alone in the same chair night after night listening to the same programs over and over. He needed some stimulation and a few laughs. Hanging out with family in L.A. fit the bill nicely. I have the most flexible schedule and what some might say is an over-familiarity with travel. My job has required it for decades, so I pulled the plan together, and Mike and I intended to move the big man through space and sky.
I requested wheelchairs with the airlines, and his care team arranged for a hospice to be on hand in L.A. in case of emergency. My sister Laura and her wife Sarah stocked up on champagne (Dad's favorite) and purchased blow-up beds for whatever family members decided to visit, and in case they then proceeded to drink said champagne.
Mike arrived in Oakland, and we grabbed a quick glass of wine before boarding the small plane to Crescent City. It was raining hard there. But no reports of high winds or fog, thank ye Jaysus! The weather was spooky and the ride a bit bumpy, but we made it. When we hit the tarmac, my brother was there waiting. Ben had not seen Michael in decades. The three of us were hoping Mike's presence might soften my Stepmother's often harsh tongue. With the onset of dementia, she has lost all pretending to like her husband's children. It would be nice to have dinner together without her constant complaint.
Worked like magic! She was on good behavior, and the family dinner before the great escape was warm and almost friendly. Already things were lightening up for Pop. He was relaxed and had an appetite, something that regularly eludes him. Ben and I exchanged happy glances.
That night Michael suggested that we bring the hospice wheelchair from home to use in rotation with the chairs provided by the airlines. Thank God for Michael. This would prove to be an excellent back-saving plan as we navigated layovers and lounges.
At 5:15 AM, before first light, we loaded Dad, his white cane, and his teeny suitcase (he rarely showers and has to be cajoled into changing clothes) into his wife's car and headed to Crescent City. As the darkness was lifting and we wheeled Dad through check-in, he started to get a bit anxious. His wife was also anxious and watchful; she would wait until she could no longer see us before heading home. She still drives though that is a constant source of worry for the whole family and their neighborhood. I will not ride with her if she is behind the wheel, but I cannot control what she does when I am not in the car.
The airport waiting room was sparsely populated, and the three of us were a bit crunchy. We needed coffee and something to eat, but that would have to wait. One vending machine sells only water and is in serious need of repair. The early hour and the excitement led to some confusion for Dad, who suddenly could not remember where we were going.
"Bethy, I am not sure what we are doing. Are we going to Palm Springs?"
"No, Dad L.A." L.A. I repeated several times. "To see Laura!"
"Oh yes, yes, I see," he said. "I thought we were going to Palm Springs. Your Mom loves it there."
Mom has been dead for three years. Dad has not traveled in a long while. His mind was playing tricks on him.
"No, Pop. L.A. to see Laura. L. A."
"Oh … L.A? L. A? Well, that is just fine. That's just grand. L.A."
The crew at Contour air managed to transfer him to a tiny narrow chair and heave him up two steep ramp sections to get on the airplane. It was a tight squeeze on the puddle jumper plane, and Dad bumped an elbow, but we got him successfully seated. By this point, he was fully animated and had many questions. Where was the engine built, and what kind is it? How many passengers can it hold? How old a plane is it? Michael tried to google it, but there was no cell reception on the runway. Upon being asked, the stewardess graciously gave Dad the skinny. The engine was built in England. The plane holds up to 56 people.
"Ah, Rolls Royce then," Dad commented. "Isn't it funny that the English build motors for aircraft? The English of all people! I would not buy a car from the Brits, hell I would not buy a motorcycle from them, but they do pretty well with these machines."
The stewardess demonstrated the safety features, and the captain gave his spiel, and then the plane roared to life.
"Oh, now I can hear it … the old Roll's!" said Dad. "Can you hear all of that power? We'll go up soon."
He was smiling. He was with the program now. He knows about engines. We are flying to L.A.
Once in the air Dad was disappointed there was no bubbly on board, but the flight attendant spoiled him with attention, and he drank that in.
In Oakland, we found breakfast and, blessedly, coffee. We even managed to secure a glass of champagne for the old fellow, and now he was starting to enjoy himself. He peppered us with questions about the airport and wanted to know if there was a Sees candy store there. He remembered many years ago routinely buying chocolates after a flight to take to the gang at home, the home he built with his second wife.
There is indeed Sees™ candy available for purchase. He is partial to peanut brittle as am I. We went to the kiosk and bought several boxes. We bought the place down. He would present it to Laura bringing some home for the family like the old days, but our family this time. That pleased him to no end. He was on a roll and looking forward to our second flight.
The Delta flight went smoothly, and another glass of champagne was secured. He had the same questions about engines and manufacturing. That plane was from Brazil.
The complications arose upon landing when it was discovered we would have to descend a steep staircase due to what seemed like never-ending construction at LAX. Not doable. We waited in the front row of the plane while everyone else headed down the steps. They promised to bring in an elevator, which was a weird-looking fork-lift-like contraption, to lower Dad in his chair. While we waited, Dad was quite talkative; the thrill of the flight loosened his tongue. We were chatting away when a group of amply figured women queued up to exit, their bulk pressing in near Dad's head. He was lubricated from the champers and feeling loquacious. He is blind but can discern shapes and sense dimension, so he took note of the ladies' forms and then said loudly and well within the women's hearing:
"Well, you know what surprises me is how many women are overweight these days. I mean, really fat! Isn't that something?"
I wanted to crawl under the seat. But, thankfully, no one turned to glare at us. The gals seem to take it in stride. He was clad in old sweatpants, white hair disheveled, with a spot of champagne on the shirt I had insisted he change into. He was really not in a position to criticize appearances, but he is also ninety and has no filter now and no intention of installing one. Blessedly, the captain was sympathetic to our long wait. He appeared at Dad’s side and would stay with us, chatting him up and answering his questions until the means of our exit could be secured.
Fly Delta. Trust me on that one.
My cousin and my Uncle Ted had arrived by the time we got to Laura's new house. Michael took a tour of the new digs and headed home. His work as a co-traveler was done. My gratitude is never-ending. The family settled in for a good long catch-up. Dad and his brother had not seen each other since Dad's 90th birthday when we all moved heaven and earth to bring his four siblings together in the impossible to get to in Brookings. Excepting the cancer Dad does not believe he has, his siblings are all rolling along in their late 80s, still awash in champagne and rife with stories of days long gone by.
Dad and his brother shared a bed that night. Laura reported she could hear them chatting and giggling until the wee hours. That alone was worth the trip.
Dad's appetite was in high gear as we ate our way through Indian, Asian, and Italian dishes unavailable in his small town. The champagne flowed day and night. Stories were told and memories shared. His granddaughter Meghan came to visit, her voice reminding him of her mother, my sister Kim, who has passed away. He was happy to see her, and he found that comforting. Laura and her wife Sara had the brilliant idea of taking Dad to the automotive museum. He cannot see but could wheel up close enough to take in the forms beside him. He regaled the staff with stories about these relics in their heyday. He had owned one or the other of the models at some point. He loved it.
"Wasn't that something?" He said as we were between flights on the way home. "Getting to see everyone. "
"And you loved the auto show, yes?" I prodded him.
"Oh God, yes. That was well- you know, I drove a lot of those cars at one point, if you can imagine. When I could see I was a car man. Knew everything about them. Not so much now. Not sure what people are driving now."
"You can get champagne in this lounge Dad. "
"Oh, oh wonderful. Let us have some."
The staff at the Escape lounge was terrific, all of them with women of color with vibrant hair-dos and watchful eyes. They kept his glass full. At one point, he leaned over and said confidentially but at full volume.
"You know, I don't think I saw one black person this whole trip."
I shook my head. You cannot make this stuff up.
"Dad, Laura's neighbor is black. She came over for 'yappy hour' every day while you were there. One of our stewardesses was black. Everyone who works here in this lounge is black. You saw tons of black people - you just didn't see them. Because you are blind, goofball."
"Oh well. I guess you're right. Everyone working here is black? "
"Yes, Dad. "
"Well isn't that something. Doing a good job too."
It was just the two of us in Oakland. I was confident that I could handle getting him safely on a plane to Crescent City. I placed a note in his pocket with instructions to call my step-sister if the flight got canceled or delayed. She stood by in Berkeley, tracking the weather, ready to step in if anything went wrong. I was heading to my second flight. There would be three total to get me home. I had to get home.
The Contour aircrew knew us by now, and they assured me he would be fine. They had the note. They had his back. It was time to say goodbye. I went to hug him; my throat caught.
"Oh my God, Dad, I am crying."
This was a surprise. I wasn't expecting to. He suddenly looked distraught and was holding his head at a strange angle.
"Dad, are you okay? "
Then in barely a whisper, he said-
"I am crying too."
We clasped hands for a moment; words escaped us. Then he waved to the attendant. I had a sinking feeling I might not ever see him again. More tears. Of course, this is true of every heart we hold dear. No one is guaranteed this life but, he is my Dad.
It would be eighteen hours in all before I crossed the threshold of my Austin home. Exhausted. Grateful. Blessed. What a journey this is. Thanks for being part of it.
On we go …