Stay, let go or both

by jexmas on January 1, 2011

I went back to Australia several times before my mother died and we continued to talk frequently on the phone when I was not there. Her cancer returned during that time and there was little to be done, since the efficacy of Tamoxifen had worn off and there were no other alternatives.
Every time I went back to Australia, the lesions on her body had spread further and had become more and more difficult for her to manage. She continued to have chemotherapy treatments and dealt with her worsening condition the way she dealt with everything she either did not like or of which she was afraid. She let herself fall into comas. My father complained to me about it bitterly. I tried to talk to my mother about it but it was impossible. She refused and shut me out the way she had always done. She also did not want to talk about her death. The only reference she made to life after her death was when she saw me wearing a pair of her slippers I had borrowed when I was staying with them shortly before she died. She cried and asked me if I would be reminded of her if I was wearing her slippers “when I’m not here.” I cried, too, and hugged her.
When I left Australia at the end of that visit, the last visit before my mother died, I look back and see the entire world was telling me not to leave her, but I could not hear it. She was very sick by then and had lost her hair with the last round of chemotherapy. She was wearing a wig and it had an unnatural coarse and heavy texture, unlike her own very fine, thin cropped hair. It was also ill-fitting and, although you would not necessarily know it was not her hair if you did not know her, I did and it looked strange as if she was someone else.
In my mother’s case, her breast cancer became a kind of skin cancer and it spread across her chest, torso and back in large, red and puffy scab-like lesions that seeped and bled. She had packages of large soft bandages and I helped her change them all the time as they became soaked. When she died three months later, she died of anemia and it did not surprise me because she was always losing blood.
I left because I did not know enough then about her proximity to death to guess when she might die. Her doctor and her brother were telling me it was still months away, she had regular daily nursing care and I had to pay my rent and meet other obligations in the United States. I had no savings and no way of generating enough money to stay. I flew back to the United States in the middle of January 1996 or, at least, tried to.
I leave Melbourne Airport on a United Airlines flight on a Sunday at about noon. The route is first to Auckland, New Zealand, for a fuel stopover and then directly across the Pacific to Los Angeles where I will change planes and fly to San Francisco. We land in Auckland and hang around in the airport for two hours on a cool, rainy afternoon. We re-board the plane and take off. After we have been flying for about 15 minutes, the captain makes an announcement: “I have good news and bad news. The good news is it’s stopped raining in Auckland. The bad news is we’re going back.” He tells us a tire burst on take-off and one of the engines has stopped working, possibly because tire rubber was thrown into the engine and has jammed it. He says, although it is probably safe, international regulations prevent him from flying across the Pacific on three engines, so we are going to fly around for an hour dumping fuel and then return to Auckland.
I have a window seat just behind the wing on the left side of the plane and watch as a valve opens and a plume of jet fuel pours out in a stream from the wing tip. I can see boats down in the water below and wonder if they will be rained on by aircraft fuel. I ask a passing flight attendant and she assures me rather patronizingly, “It evaporates well before it reaches the ground. Don’t worry. It’s perfectly safe.”
We fly around in this enormous aircraft with four hundred people on board, spraying aircraft fuel wherever we go for another half-an-hour and then another flight attendant makes an announcement. I do not know if her voice was normally shaky, but she says very shakily to a stunned captive audience, “The captain has just informed me there are additional complications and we would like you all to assume crash positions.” There are immediate gasps and I hear someone say, “Bloody hell!” Some people start to cry. The flight attendant asks everybody to stay seated and describes the procedure for crash landing. It is surreal, since there are no objective signs anything is wrong. I sit by the window, watching as we make our way back to Auckland airport. There is no turbulence and I am completely calm. It feels as if we are drifting, slowly floating down. As we come in to land, I can see the runway is lined with vehicles with flashing lights: fire engines and ambulances.
My father would have been astounded at how gently the pilot lands that thing. It is as if the aircraft softly kisses the runway. Nothing happens. The pilot takes the entire length of the runway to come to a stop and the passengers erupt into applause and cheers. We sit there for more than an hour. Outside, the plane is thoroughly inspected. Inside, the passengers laugh loudly and talk excitedly and then slowly the anxiety abates, giving way to a kind of hushed awe. The airport has been closed to all air traffic for several hours and flights are diverted elsewhere.
By now, it is late in the evening and volunteers have been on the phones finding hotels in Auckland where we can all stay. By the time I go to bed in my hotel room, it is about one o’clock in the morning and I am aware of how tired I am.
The next morning, I wake up and see a letter has been pushed under the door. I get up and read it. It says the airline has been working all night trying to track down another aircraft so we can complete the journey but it looks as if we have to wait a full day and leave tomorrow morning. In some ways, I do not mind since, although I have to get back to work, no project is pressing. Since my father is from this area, it is an opportunity to explore a little. I take a ferry across part of Auckland Harbor and wander around a tourist area, feeling strangely disconnected and lost. Somehow I seem to expect I should feel more at home, but I have never been here before and I am nothing but a stranger in a strange land.
The next morning, I am shepherded onto a bus with the passengers who have not already left on other flights, and we are driven back to Auckland airport. There are still about three hundred passengers and, after we are all strapped in, a flight attendant makes the following announcement: “Since this is a smaller aircraft than yesterday’s craft, we cannot fly the same distance non-stop, so we will be stopping in Fiji to refuel before flying on to Los Angeles.” Some of the passengers groan, but the general feeling of bonhomie is strong and we take off heading east to Fiji with many of the passengers chatting and laughing. I am sitting next to a family who have been visiting relatives in Australia for Christmas. The couple has two young children who tell me excitedly they live in Chile, although their parents are American. I am thinking they have a very long way to go home.
We land in Suva, Fiji, and unbelievably one of the engines sticks in reverse thrust. Instead of a forty-five minute fuel stop, we sit on the runway for four hours while engineers attack the engine with large spanners as I watch them out the window. We are not allowed to leave the plane and, after a couple of hours, some of the passengers are complaining loudly because the air in the plane is so hot and stuffy. Eventually, we take off again and after a while there is another unbelievable announcement: “Because we had to stop for so long in Fiji, the maximum time the crew is allowed to work will have expired before we get to Los Angeles, so we have to stop in Honolulu and change crews.” Some of the passengers are enraged and start shouting their displeasure at the flight attendants who try to calm everybody down. Eventually, they announce that drinks are on the airline and, because I now think drinking on flights is a really bad idea, I watch while several people proceed to get plastered and rowdy. Over the next few hours, the passengers slowly fall asleep and, eventually, the cabin is quiet and dark. I am feeling as if I am in aircraft limbo and am destined to never get off this flight. Then I have an epiphany and realize it is pointless to be upset or try to change anything or make anything go faster. I may as well let go since everything will happen in its own time and there is nothing I can do.  It is a huge relief to realize this is true and I sit back and let myself be carried along by events over which I have no control.
We land in Honolulu, switch crews and keep going, arriving in Los Angeles at eight o’clock in the morning of the third day since we left Australia. It is the middle of winter on the West Coast and am I surprised to find San Francisco Airport is closed because of storms? I am so tired and dizzy from lack of sleep, I cannot even evaluate this news. I sit stupidly in a chair and wait. After about four hours, San Francisco opens its airport again and I board a flight to take the last leg home. It is a longer flight than usual because planes are still landing on a slower schedule. We land in the pouring rain and I take an airport bus to Larkspur and then a taxi from the bus station to my apartment building. While I was away, the landlady hired contractors to repaint the building. The contractors conscientiously lock all the front doors when they are done and, because I have two locks in my front door but have taken only one key with me, I cannot open the door to my apartment. I am standing on the landing in the pouring rain late in the afternoon at the end of three full days of traveling in airline hell and laugh.
I call my close friends who have spare keys and they come over and let me in. My first inclination is to handcuff myself to the handle on the fridge door but I put down my suitcase, take a bath, go to bed and sleep. For hours.

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