Here is Chapter 19 of Dreaming Out Loud, the book about my mother’s stroke.
After Shirley feeds her, bathes her, and dresses her, mom spends most of her days sitting in her wheelchair or lying on the bed in front of the television set. She was never much of a globetrotter even in her salad days — she never had the money for that — but she enjoyed an outing when an opportunity arose. Paula and I do what we can to organize expeditions so her horizons are not limited to four walls and a squawk box.
We see endless movies at our local multiplex cinema. Mom especially enjoys action films if they are not too bloody or violent. She craves the visual stimulation of movement and the broad, easy-to-follow plot lines of standard Hollywood fare. The typical action film we see during this period involves slight variations on one of three set pieces: A man naively stumbles into the middle of a violent confrontation between two opposing forces and must become even more ruthless than his opponents if he hopes to survive. Two cops with different attitudes, lifestyles, or races begrudgingly come to respect, nay even love, each other. A young ne’er-do-well with the heart of a lion learns the value of hard work and persistence and, in the closing minutes of the story, gives the film its climax when he rises to the occasion and saves the day.
Gone are the times when mom sought out complicated thrillers with labyrinthine twists and turns straining all forms of logic. She has little patience for talking and slow-moving scenes. If the action flags for even a brief, flickering moment, her interest wanes and the producers have lost a viewer.
Paula and I have to be careful about what mom watches on TV because she mimics what she sees and hears. One evening as I enter her apartment after Shirley has departed, I am surprised to find her watching a “gangsta rap” movie on Showtime, not her usual choice in entertainment. She probably has been flipping channels and stopped there when something caught her attention. In any case, she appears mesmerized by the violence and epithets emanating from the screen.
“What are you watching, mom?”
Without raising her eyes from the movie, mom speaks in a very clear, menacing voice, almost a guttural growl. “I’m gonna fuck you up real good!”
We take in a few plays, including a musical version of Mel Brooks’s “The Producers” and the old chestnut “Our Town.” During the latter, mom seems to like the outing well enough — responding “oh, yes” when asked if she is enjoying herself — but she spends much of the time while the play unfolds examining the ceiling lights, the people around us, and the wall decorations. It is difficult to know what goes on inside her head.
Some of our day trips into the north Georgia mountains to view the flora and fauna are pleasant, but we are always cognizant of her impairment. Hiking trails or scenic attractions far removed from asphalt or concrete are out of the question. Extremes in temperatures or gusty, windy days are to be scrupulously avoided. Crowds present problems with mobility and maneuverability. I have never paid attention to how many shops, stores, and restaurants have a small step up from the curb, an impossibly narrow doorway, or a winding, twisting passageway that is hardly navigable in a wheelchair.
Wherever we go, we also need to get to a bathroom fairly quickly if an accident occurs, which is about a third of the time. At that point, Paula must take charge. To Paula’s credit, she never complains. I would. I cannot help but think of the burden this requirement places on Paula whenever we venture far from our home base.
The day comes, though, when we decide to be especially adventuresome and accompany mom on her first post-stroke airplane ride. We have discussed a trip to San Diego for years, but for various reasons we have delayed our journey. Mom visited Berkeley in 1970, during the height of the hippie movement, and she attended a wedding in San Francisco in 1983, but otherwise she has never visited the Golden State, certainly not as far south as San Diego. When we mention the possibility of a visit to California, she beams. That is all it takes for us to call our travel planner and set the wheels in motion.
Mom takes the news with wide eyes and a slight shaking of her head. “Golly. We are going to San Francisco.”
“San Diego, mom. San Diego. It’s a city south of San Francisco. South of Los Angeles, too. It’s almost in Mexico.”
“Almost in Mexico? Golly!”
“You’ve heard of Tijuana, haven’t you?”
She nods vigorously. “Tee wana. Yes. Tee wana.”
“That’s where we’re going, San Diego, a city near Tijuana.”
“That is good for you and good for me?”
“That is good for your soul?”
I chuckle. “Yes. Good for you and me, and good for our souls.”
We inform Delta Air Lines we will be traveling with a lady in a wheelchair, and arrangements are made to accommodate her needs. The Delta representative assures us that the airline will reserve a place for mom near the front of the plane so she will not have to navigate the aisles past row upon row of hefty passengers crammed into their coach seats. With Paula in charge of the plans and a travel agent assisting us in locating suitable accommodations, we are prepared for a restful, relaxing West Coast vacation.
We arrive at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport two and a half hours before our flight. I have learned from long, bitter experience that Atlanta’s airport can be dreadful. The long lines, especially after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the throngs of travelers are taxing under most circumstances, but we expect the worst thanks to mom’s infirmities.
We are not disappointed. Right off the bat we meet an unexpected challenge. Dropping our luggage at the curbside baggage check-in, I am astonished at the number of people waiting for assistance. The harried skycaps are running back and forth as swiftly as possible, but they are adrift in a sea of bodies and American Tourister luggage.
Thankfully, Shelby is in one of her helpful moods. That is not always the case when dealing with an adolescent. “Nana and I can wait in line while you park.”
Paula speaks up. “We’ll all wait in line with the suitcases while daddy parks the car.”
I pull to the curb, unload my passengers and luggage, and shoot off through acres and acres of parked cars in search of a slot. With such a long line at the curbside check-in, I fully expect parking to be a chore. I am pleasantly surprised. I find a spot not quite in record time, but it is not nearly as difficult as I had feared.
Twenty minutes later, I return to find my party barely inching forward among the multitudes of people. Shelby has parked mom’s wheelchair inside the door to the terminal so mom will be shielded from the wind whipping around outside where everyone stands in line.
Paula frowns as she consults her wristwatch. “I don’t know if we’ll make it.”
I watch mom as several people walking inside to the terminal stop to speak with her. She smiles, nods, and points outside to us. I have no idea what she is saying — I doubt the people kneeling to speak with her know, either — but somehow she communicates to the concerned citizens that her family is nearby and she is in good hands.
“Do you think I should go stay with Nana?”
I am touched by Shelby’s offer, which also may be a ploy to escape the elements. In any case, I tell her it is a good idea. “But you need to wheel her over here when it’s our turn to check in so they can see her driver’s license.”
She leaves us to stand next to her Nana.
In the meantime, Paula and I lug the suitcases forward about three inches every three minutes. I, too, have begun to fear that we will not make our flight on time. I constantly glance at my watch and grow more concerned as the time slips past.
Finally, after what seems an interminable time, we reach the front of the line. A harried skycap approaches us. We try to smile.
“Where are you folks headed today?”
He takes our driver’s licenses and heads over to his computer. Paula waves and catches Shelby’s eye. A moment later, she wheels Nana over to where we stand in line.
“Hey, mom, I saw you visiting with the other passengers. How was it?”
“How was it? It was good. How was it?”
“You made a lot of new friends, I think.”
“A lot of new friends, yes. I think so, too!”
The skycap returns to us, and I can tell by the look on his face that the news is not good. Returning our driver’s licenses to us, he sighs. “You missed you flight, folks. Sorry.”
Paula frowns as she gazes at her wristwatch. “How can that be? It’s not scheduled to take off for another 45 minutes. We should have plenty of time.”
The skycap gently corrects her. “No, ma’am. Under the new regulations, you have to be checked in at least 45 minutes ahead of your scheduled departure time. It’s 43 minutes now.”
I throw in my two cents’ worth. “We’ve been standing in this line for close to an hour.”
Paula hates nothing so much as stupid regulations, of which there are many. “Can’t you just override the computer? What difference do a couple of minutes make?”
The gentleman shakes his head, no. “The computer won’t let me do that. Forty-five minutes is the cut-off time, and there’s nothing I can do about that.”
Paula is incredulous. “Nothing you can do? Really? I thought computers were supposed to help us out, not run our lives.”
He ignores the barb. “I can try to schedule you on the next available flight.”
“And when does that take off?”
The skycap steps back to his console and we watch his fingers dance across the keys. He leans down and squints as he consults the monitor. “There’s another one at three-oh-five.”
Paula sighs. “Two hours and fifteen minutes, give or take.”
I see an opening, and I charge into it. “Can you get us all on that flight?”
He is still squinting at his computer screen. “I can, but you won’t be sitting together. I have two seats together in Row 38 in coach. A middle seat in the very back row, and….” He slaps a few keys. “Are you J. Michael Martinez?”
“You are a Gold Medallion member, so you get a free upgrade into First Class.”
I smile. “Oh, yeah, that’ll work.”
Paula wipes the grin off my face. “Laura will have to use that one.”
Mom has been looking around at the throngs of people waiting to step up for their turn in line. They appear unhappy with the disproportionately lengthy time we have used in our transaction. At the sound of her name, however, she whips her hand around. “Laura will have to use that one?”
Paula nods. “You get to ride in First Class, Laura. The rest of us will be in the back of the plane, and you can’t walk all the way to the back rows.”
Mom breaks into a big grin. “Golly!”
“Have you ever flown in First Class before?”
“Ever flown in First Class before? Golly, no!”
“I think you’ll like it.”
Taking our boarding passes from the sky cap, we escort mom past the curbside check-in counter through the airport. I have never seen it busier, which is saying a great deal. I have been to the airport many times, and it is always packed with people. This throng is unlike anything I have ever encountered.
Mom, too, finds it overwhelming. “Golly, this one is nothing to yourself!”
“I know, mom; it’s a lot of people.”
Fortunately, we bypass the regular lines and find ourselves in a line for people in wheelchairs. One lady in a wheelchair is ahead of us. The Transportation Security Administration authorities step over to help her out of her chair and through the metal detectors. If anything, she is even more frail and unsteady on her feet than mom.
Something about the process is upsetting. I see a frown snake across mom’s brow. Her left arm gyrates frantically, a sure sign she doesn’t approve of the situation.
Paula notices it, too. “Laura, what’s wrong?”
Mom points and her herky jerky movements continue.
I pick up on the problem as I watch the old lady in front of us flounder about through the x-ray machine. “You’re worried about the metal detector. You also think it’s too far to walk.”
She whips her head around and looks at me. “Yes! Yes! Too far to walk. Lord, yes!”
“Mom, I don’t think the metal detector will hurt you. If you had a pacemaker, that would be one thing, but you don’t. As for the walking, we’ll ask if Paula or I can accompany you through the line to help steady you. Would that be okay?”
She looks to Paula for confirmation. Paula nods.
Mom shrugs. “Okay. You can say something for yourself.”
I explain to the airport screener that mom would prefer to stay in the wheelchair. When I am told this proposed course of action cannot be allowed, I ask if Paula or I can guide her through the security checkpoint. Again, I am told that such audacity is beyond the pale. I find myself growing angry, but I realize I have no choice.
We wheel the chair as close as we can to the metal detector. “Mom, this is as far as we can go. You will have to get up and walk on your own, although this nice lady here is gonna help you.”
We turn in unison and examine the bored-looking young lady smacking her gum and intently inspecting her cubicles. Perhaps my characterization of her helpful nature has been premature.
Mom frowns at me. She is not buying my pathetic attempts to sugarcoat the truth. “I have in mind sats good ladies for the baking.”
Paula steps forward. “I know it’s a hassle, Laura. It’s what you call ‘merciless bullshit,’ but there’s no way around it. Mike, Shelby, and I will wait for you on the other side.”
Mom rolls her eyes, but the deed is done. She has crossed the Rubicon. “Merciless bullshit, yes. Yes! It is merciless bullshit.”
“Paula, watch what you say to her. She’ll be repeating it all day.”
With two TSA officials flanking her, mom slowly, unsteadily rises from her chair. One official hands her the three-pronged cane we have brought from home for just such occasions. Paula and I stand behind mom, so we cannot see her face, but no doubt it is a mask of concentration. Walking was never my mother’s specialty even before her stroke.
As they escort mom to the metal detector, Paula and I slip through another line, subjecting ourselves to the same search and analysis that all passengers at U.S. airports have come to know well in the new century. Fortunately, we slip through with no problems and stand at the exit where mom is inching through the security checkpoint.
An elderly TSA employee rolls the wheelchair over and surrenders custody to me. I thank him and wheel as close as I can get to mom. When she sees me, her face breaks into a grin. She is only a few steps from salvation.
“Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it, mom?”
She heaves a heavy sigh. “The scootch is on my nerves!”
Paula leans over and snatches mom’s jacket from the plastic bin sliding along the conveyor belt. None of us feels up to jerking the jacket over mom’s shoulder and arms, so Paula drapes it over the back of the wheelchair. We head toward the elevator that will transport us to the underground train and, eventually, our concourse.
Watching mom as we thread our way through the crowd with Shelby pushing the wheelchair, I cannot help but smile. The old lady has always enjoyed people-watching, and that is what she seems to be doing, although at this angle I cannot see her face completely.
I remember once, well before her affliction, we sat in a restaurant eating dinner and she told me to hush up. Cocking her head to one side, I realized she was eavesdropping on a conversation at the next table. She was enthralled. After a few minutes in which I was repeatedly forbidden to speak or even fidget in my seat — and the waiter was instructed to return at a more opportune time — mom informed me that the handsome couple seated behind her was suffering through a bitter divorce and this dinner was their last-ditch effort to find a amicable solution to the thorny issues of asset division and child custody. I nodded, although I was not the least bit interested except briefly to wonder how such a life-altering feud could be solved over chicken fajitas at the neighborhood Applebee’s restaurant.
“There’s a lot of people, mom.” I point at the multitudes crowding the airport.
She nods. “There’s a helluva lot of people!”
Paula, Shelby, and I laugh. There’s no telling what Nana will say.
We arrive in time for what is euphemistically labeled “pre-boarding.” This is the part of the flight where people traveling with children and the infirm are encouraged to find their seats ahead of the pushing, shoving, always-impatient crowd of travelers that normally fills the airplane. We wheel mom down the ramp until we arrive at the entrance to the plane. While I check her wheelchair into the luggage compartment, Paula and a flight attendant escort mom to the First Class cabin.
A cheery flight attendant appears. “Welcome to First Class.”
Mom grins. “Welcome to First Class. I know it! I know it!”
Shelby grins as well. It is not easy to make an adolescent grin at something an adult has done unless it is in reaction to a real or imagined foible. “I’ve never seen Nana so happy.”
After mom is seated, Paula, Shelby, and I settle into Coach for the four-and-a-half-hour flight. Most of my airplane experiences have been in the cheap seats, so I don’t mind the lack of creature comforts. It bothers me to be separated from mom for such a lengthy time, though. I worry that her aphasia will present complications. Paula assures me that she has alerted the flight attendants in First Class that mom is impaired, and all will be well.
An hour into the flight, I venture from my seat and pull the curtain back to enter First Class. An ever vigilant flight attendant — not the cheery soul who initially greeted us — rushes forward to ensure that a Coach passenger does not intrude on the sanctity of the luxury class. She greets me with a scowl and an intimidating posture — folded arms, a tapping foot, a slightly cocked head. Shaking her head repeatedly, she regards me with a bemused smirk as if I were a science project gone awry.
“Sir, this is First Class. You need to retake your seat in Coach.”
I bite my tongue. Well, duh!
“You’ll have to go back to your seat, sir.”
“I’m just checking to make sure my mother is okay.” I point.
Mom is chatting with a companion sitting beside her. The seat mate appears to be a woman close to mom’s age. The lady has frosted silver hair, a craggy face, and a long string of pearls draped around her neck. I cannot imagine how they are communicating, but they seem to be enjoying themselves immensely. (I must confess that the well-dressed woman appears to be carrying the lion’s share of the conversation.) They ignore the beginning of the in-flight movie, which is showing on the screen directly in front of their seats.
Apparently realizing that I have not hatched a sinister plot to enjoy luxurious accommodations without paying a steep penalty, the flight attendant softens somewhat. “Your mother is fine. We’re taking good care of her, sir.”
“I see that.”
“Don’t worry. We’re aware of her condition.”
I nod, turn on my heels, and trod back to my seat. We’re aware of her condition.
Paula and Shelby are seated three rows ahead of me in Coach, so I stop to speak to them as I trundle back.
Paula lifts her headphones from her ears. “How’s she doing?”
“Fine. She’s made a friend. The lady sitting next to her is about her age, and they seem to be talking up a storm.”
Paula laughs. “Really?”
“Really. Anyway, the flight attendants are aware of her condition.”
Paula chuckles and goes back to her headphones. “I’d like to hear that conversation.”
“I just hope mom doesn’t drop ‘merciless bullshit’ into her responses.”
Back in my seat, I open a book and try to lose myself in foreign lands.
The flight, at least the first half, is mostly uneventful. I make my way up to First Class three times before we land, and each time I see mom and her new-found friend engrossed in conversation. The surly flight attendant comes to see my presence as less a cause for alarm than a minor annoyance. She even unfolds her arms and quietly waits for me to return to the Coach cabin without comment.
We land in the midst a torrential thunderstorm that sends the airplane bouncing around the sky. I vaguely recall a song with the refrain “seems it never rains in Southern California.” Once again, popular entertainment has led me astray and let me down.
The pilot comes on the intercom and instructs the flight attendants to take their seats because “we have encountered a bit of choppy air on our initial approach.” I am not comforted by these supposedly soothing words. “A bit of choppy air” ought to be called what it really is: teeth-chattering, bone-jarring, prayer-inducing, heavy turbulence. I have always been a white-knuckled flyer, and these last 15 minutes of the transcontinental flight leave me more white knuckled than usual.
Fortunately, we do not crash, despite the bumps and gyrations.
As the plane empties, Paula, Shelby and I meander up to First Class. Mom is waiting for us. Her seat mate has already departed, although she has left behind a slip of paper with her name and address written on it.
I see mom’s smile and match it with my own. “You made a new friend.”
“You made a new friend. I know it.”
“What did you talk about during the whole flight?”
It is one of those rare, treasured moments when mom suddenly becomes lucid and clear in her thought and speech. “Oh, we talked about this, that, and whatnot.”
We laugh. Paula and Shelby gush over this remarkable utterance, but I am not as encouraged as they. I recognize this as a stock phrase my grandmother, Weeze, used for many years. Mom has pulled it up from the deep recesses of her memory.
Still chuckling, Paula reaches up into the overhead bin to search for mom’s jacket.
Realizing what Paula is doing, the flight attendant appears with the jacket in her arms. “I hung it up.”
Paula nods. “That’s what they do in First Class. I had forgotten.”
“Well, mom, I’m glad you made a new friend. Of course, it will be difficult to keep in touch.” I tuck the slip of paper into my wallet for safekeeping. “But we’ll see what we can do.”
“Yes. We will see what we can do.”
Paula touches mom’s arm. “How was your flight, Laura?”
“How was your flight, Laura? This one was the best ever!”
Paula, Shelby, and I laugh. Even the surly flight attendant, standing off to the left but clearly listening to our conversation, cannot help but smile.
Paula unbuckles mom’s seat belt and begins helping her to her feet. “That’s what everyone says when they ride in First Class.” She sighs.