The seat back of the passenger in front of me reclines so far, my laptop is living up to its name. Below, my toes scrunch the computer case I decided to bring instead of my backpack. No way my wife, Susan, and I could squeeze a pet carrier into the under seat compartment. So much for the idea of traveling with our Boston Terrier, Lilly, on this airline. Guess I’ll just use up our miles on these family missions of mercy, though God knows how many more there will be.
Turbulence over Nebraska jostles the plane and the seatbelt light pings on. Visions of how I’ll find my 91-year-old mom in the throes of dementia are tossed about in my head. The flight attendants warned us that contents in the overhead bin may shift. They have. Two nights ago, my brother told me that his kids cried the last time they visited their grandma. More often than not, she asks them who they are.
I see it every day in the hospital where I work; families watching their loved one skid on the runway as they try to land on a word or a memory. But my 18 years as a medical speech pathologist has not prepared me for my mom’s plane ride toward her end of life.
I’m still clinging to the mom I once knew. The one who reassured me that the world disappearing behind the closing elevator doors when I was six would re-appear when they opened on another floor. The one who held me tight when the astronauts who drew rings around the world splashed back into the Pacific hanging by the threads of a billion silkworms. The one who called me three months ago just to tell me she loved me and wanted to make up for those turbulent years with my biological dad.
I assured her the “debt” was repaid - many times over.
The flight path toward death is known to me. Last year, I held my biological dad’s hand as he slipped from this world. Earlier this year, I watched as my “step-up” dad slowly released his grip on his earthly achievements. Six years ago, Susan and I drove our last dog, Louie, toward his new life adventure without us. We had no solution for his fear-biting behaviors, but perhaps his new parents on the horse ranch would. It was the worst day of my life because I could not see beyond the ending of our family.
Years later, I contacted the rescue agency in an attempt to reconnect with our boy. I delayed contact, partly because I feared that thrusting ourselves into Louie’s new life would screw up his adjustment. But I was equally afraid that he would not remember us; our walks together, our playful romps on the rooftop patio, playing fetch with his Kong. The agency said they would reach out to his family and ask if we could visit. I never heard back. By default the door had closed, though I knew that our love for Louie never would.
My love for mom never will, either. I’ve been told she’s changed, deteriorated since my Papa Paul passed in May. We knew this day was coming.
We live and die a little bit every day with the comings and goings of those around us. Through it all, we fly as best we can. What memories we hold — and how well we retell them — do not render us any more or less lovable than we were back when our minds were sharp and words tumbled forth with ease.
Flight 269 lands at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and taxis toward the jetway. The seatbelt sign pings off. Along with some 200 other passengers, I unbuckle, gather my belongings and walk off the plane toward what comes next.