Dad is in the hospital. He is as safe and comfortable as the staff can make him. Mom visits every day, goes home for lunch and a brief nap, then returns to spend the afternoon with him while he alternately dozes off or wakes up and talks, sometimes coherently. This has been going on for a couple of weeks, until yesterday, when mom slipped from a curb and fell in the parking lot of the hospital and broke her shoulder.
My sister Carole (who was in Florida two weeks ago) will be there by noon today. I will follow tomorrow. We do not know when we will be returning home, there is much to do. Barbara and Harry will be showing up within the next few days and for a little while, we will be one family, under one roof.
I woke up last night, as I do every night, with my mind juggling thoughts about the day before and the one ahead, when I remembered an encounter I had during one of many trips to Florida over the 30 years my parents have lived there. There was a time in August of 2008, when mom had been hospitalized with a mysterious illness and there was a similar scramble to show up. After the sibling changing-of-the-guard, I was on my way back to New Jersey when one of those everyday moments in a crowded airplane suddenly transformed itself into something beyond itself.
And yes, I wrote about it, and yes, I knew at the time it was a foretelling.
THE INTIMACY OF STRANGERS
September 2, 2008
Mom is home from the hospital. My sister, Barbara, flew down to stay awhile. Barbara got off the plane; I got on the same one to fly home.
The mortality bullet was dodged. This time. I am aware.
It was an uneventful flight back to NJ. With only an hour to go, the cabin grew too chilly, then too warm. It was like being baked in an oven.
“This is why I don’t live in Florida,” I joked to the two women sitting next to me.
They smiled. The passenger in the aisle seat was a polished, attractive woman with shoulder-length silver hair pulled back with a clip of pearls. She wore an expensive red and gray blouse that accented her creamy skin.
“It’s good for getting away though,” she said, and then added, “I was there for two weeks after my parents died within 30 days of each other.”
“Oh! I’m so sorry….”
The woman in the middle seat looked thoughtful but said nothing.
I thought of my own parents, whose home I had just left after a week of being present through a sudden and severe illness that had hospitalized my 84 year-old mother. She is okay now; but we all wonder, for how long?
The gray-haired woman told her story, then added:
“You do what you think is right at the time. But I don’t think I would make some of those same choices now.”
The woman in the middle seat nodded. Her faded blond hair was pulled into a bun. Like the gray-haired woman, she also wore a pearl, a single stone of palest pink held in place by a gold chain around her neck. She looked up at the ceiling of the plane and said:
“My father is dying. I am on my way to Dublin, Ireland, where he lives with my mother. The hospice is trying to keep him alive until I get there.”
“My mother is upset that they took him from the house, but he was climbing over the bed rails and falling. She couldn’t handle him anymore, so the hospice staff insisted he be admitted to their facility to protect her. But she had promised my dad that she would not let that happen.”
Her face crumpled. She did not cry.
“Your father would not have wanted that for her,” I offered.
“No. Absolutely not.”
She sat back and closed her eyes.
“I am a three-time cancer survivor myself.”
The gray-haired woman on the aisle and I glanced at each other, then leaned forward, instantly forming the intuitive bond of support women can be so good at.
“When I was sick, my father sat by my bed and told me he wished he could take the cancer away from me; that he would be sick if he could, instead of me. Now he is dying of esophageal cancer. It makes me wonder.”
It makes me wonder. I kept looking for the guy behind the camera that prepared this organized scene. It was so tidy. Three women, strangers to one another, sitting in a row: Gone through it, going through it, and looking at going through it.
“How did you, uh, get yourself through all of this?” I asked them.
The gray-haired woman responded immediately:
“You know that picture of the single set of footprints in the sand? I knew I was being held up by something beyond myself, and that same something is part of the place where my mother and father are now. I still know I am being carried.”
I nodded. I had just installed that very picture as the wallpaper of my new cell phone 12 hours before.
“I believe that too,” the woman in the middle seat agreed. “With my whole heart, now more than ever.”
I sat back against the narrow seat of the plane. During the last half hour of an anonymous flight that I have taken dozens of times, three strangers were talking about illness and death and faith. There was no messing around, no nervous jokes, no apologies for discussing topics that are usually taboo among people unless they have known each other for a long time. We were each on the same scale of the intimacies of the heart.
For Audrey: May your father rest in peace.