I’m staring at a copy of The Nation, reading the words ‘remembering Alexander Cockburn’ and not coming to the obvious conclusion…for there is a bit of red graphic in the middle of the line of text, making me think that I am reading two headlines or somehow not getting it. Until I give up, open the magazine and see the shocking truth. He is gone. We are mortal. And who can believe any of this?
I am thinking the same thing at the funeral for my uncle. There he is, a slideshow arranged by his sons…he had five…or very possibly one of his grandkids, of which there are 13…and really he was 81 or 82 and had Alzheimer’s for over a decade, so what is there to say? Except that it’s still shocking, incomprehensible. And this may account for my fatigue as I board the United Airlines plane home, which coupled with the realization that I had just done this 24 hours before, pushes me over some critical edge in terms of general stamina. That and the fact of squeezing in a visit to one of my cousin’s kids, currently in a state of crisis. All of that. And even the one free moment, intense and tiring at the same time.
That moment being the one hour crossing from Bremerton to Seattle, surely one of the nation’s most beautiful ferry rides. This one begun shortly before 8 PM, the late Northwest sun already descending behind the jagged outline of the towering Olympic Range. And as we pull out into the waters of Puget Sound, the sky brightening into the pink, then orange of a mid-summer sunset. While the ferry waters churn, an occasional harbor seal surfaces as though in a cartoon, diving instantly to get out of the way of the massive grinding hull. Waters parting. The ferry turning this way then that, weaving between islands, each course change serving to provide another angle on the flaming sky, mountains silhouetted as in a stage set. Until there it is, the final scene in tableau, the Seattle skyline. High-rises lit up as we finally approach the 9 PM dock.
And I’m thinking that my family really deserves some credit for being a collection of good guys. The way all of us, not just me, shifted matters around so that I could get in a visit to a troubled, but extremely promising, young man, my cousin’s kid. Now it’s all over, and even the flight home is all over, and I wish the couple sitting next to me from Luxembourg all the best. I swear the Benelux region is my absolute fave, imply that they will leave their hearts in San Francisco, and that’s it. While the other passengers fill the aisles with shorts and roller bags, I grab the seatback in front of me to hoist myself into the vertical.
It is a miasma, this world of disability. The previous day’s flight to Seattle was quite an oddity. The whole event hosted by United Airlines, but actually presented by SkyWest posing as something called United Express. In short, a regional jet. The departure lounge staffed by others from SkyWest. Who actually were quite a pleasant crew, just not terribly well trained, and rather clueless about, you guessed it, wheelchairs. Mine, a fairly lightweight power chair that disassembles for fairly easy transport in my brother’s car, had the gate agent scurrying in all sorts of useless directions. Until I took charge, reassuring everyone that this happened all the time with me and my wheelchair, even detailing my own boarding procedure. Never mind. It worked, and I got there, and so did the wheelchair. Mazel tov.
Today’s southbound flight seem to go much more smoothly…but that, I will soon discover, was only an appearance. For now, the two hour flight over, I am struggling to get up on my feet. Hard to say what the problem with airline seats actually is, but something about their lowness, coupled with the cramped space and various plastic slippery strips on the carpet…well, it’s enough to make someone fall. Which I do several times in trying to get up. No big deal, just collapsing back on the seat cushion. But I know better. For the thing about being disabled is that one is naturally on display. My efforts to get up, mixed with falling back on the seat, are a bit too obvious. The struggles of the cripple in row 12. A little drama that has clearly reached the ears of flight attendants, because I can hear one of them reassuring a passenger that, yes, we know about him.
Not that I care all that much, because I am shattered. Death. Funeral. Mental hospital. Inland waterways. All of these things are draining and stimulating at the same time, sapping my body and making me want to be home. Very badly. Thus the desperate attempts at standing. I really could wait for help. Wouldn’t hurt. But there is something about help, some twist, that makes me finally pour the right degree of attention and stamina into the process of getting up on my feet. And damned if I’m not finally doing it right, grabbing first the chair back, then an armrest. Making the vertical. Just in time to see the senior flight attendant heading my way.
She is getting the aisle chair, she tells me, just wait. It is this latter command that galls me. Wait for what? I suppose it is the image of me in a confining wheelchair, more like a boatswain’s chair, narrow enough for the aircraft aisle, requiring me to pull in my elbows as someone wedges it between the seats…well, I don’t like it. Which is why I am now working my way toward the front of the aircraft. Row 12 not being exactly am Olympic event. The flight attendant looks alarmed. Wait, she tells me. Making me flounder all the more aggressively down the aisle. Fuck this woman. More alarm from her face and urgings to get me to sit. Meanwhile at the front of the aircraft, someone is fumbling with an aisle chair. Thing is, I recognize the fumblers. They work for the subcontractor who handles cripples. Flight Services Inc., or some such. And having already something of a rapport, I tell them what to do. Which is nothing. Where’s my electric wheelchair, I ask the flight attendant. This is my party, not hers.
I stand, politely arguing with her. I want to know where my power chair is, really want to know. Wheelchairs have a way of getting temporarily lost. They first go to baggage claim, then return to the aircraft, and if the passenger has been scooped up by Messrs. Flight Services and now rolling in one of their push wheelchairs…the silliness can persist for an hour or more. The last time this sort of thing happened was in June and, it must be admitted, United Airlines gave me a pleasant $300 coupon. The likes of which I am not seeking now. I don’t want bucks. I want home. I want out of this aircraft, it is true, but only with my own wheelchair.
Meanwhile, the flight attendant is obsessed with the idea that I must sit down. I’ve been sitting for two hours, and that was enough, I tell her. What is her problem? Because she says, in almost these very words, I can barely walk. This can hardly be news to me, so I shrug and demand news of my electric wheelchair, the one I checked in Seattle and the ground crew stashed, presumably, in the aircraft’s hold. And hold is what we are on. She wants me in this aisle chair, this flight attendant does. I demand that she ascertain the whereabouts of my power chair. We just need a sighting, an approximate location. More with the aisle chair. Which now has me exasperated almost to fever pitch, placing me quite close to the edge of contemptuous.
She elaborates on the ‘you can barely walk’ vision. It seems that ‘you had to hold the shoulder of a flight attendant’ to board the aircraft. Which is essentially, or superficially, true. In a technique never before employed in my airline life, one of the crew offered her shoulder as I made my way down the aisle. Why not? Not the best technique, but cozy enough. Thus we proceeded, she walking just ahead, her shoulder functioning as my crutch in the narrow space. Something I would not do again. Naturally, this makes me argue with her all the more. Insisting that I didn’t ‘have to’ hold anything, particularly an airline shoulder. But I quickly fall silent, realizing that one can easily protest too much in such situations. It’s a lose-lose option, this one. I simply state the obvious, that she wants me off the plane, which I must try not to take personally, for another flight is trying to board. Anyway, I am with my Flight Services mates, one Chinese, one Jamaican, and they are rolling me in one of their push chairs, toward baggage claim, allowing my neuropeptide level to settle back down to something like normal.
Which becomes even more normal when my Asian/West Indian support crew gets me my wheelchair. Naturally, it’s not operable. The electronic control is dead. I assure my helpers that this takes an experienced person, this matter of reconnecting the batteries…if no more is involved. Not to worry, they tell me. Been there, done that, and yes, the control lights come on, the joystick responds, and I respond similarly seeing Jane at the curb. The two of them disassemble my wheelchair, load it in the Honda. And I’m off.
At dusk, exiting my apartment to collect the mail, who is there but Karen. She tells me that the green military style jacket she is wearing comes from The Gap and was purchased by her brother. Tom’s friend, she has barely survived years of drug addiction, but barely is enough to have her here, tottering, but standing. She tells me that the military-style jacket honors Tom. He was in the military. I don’t know what to say about her attire. Tom, she reminds me, was a veteran. Well, I mutter, good luck. I make a point of turning my wheels tothe apartment.
I have an aide, Karen says, just like you. No, I assure her, I don’t have any aides. Oh, okay,she says. As soon as I am inside, it hits me, how false are my words. Of course I have aides, a team of them, in fact. Team Filipina. In my rush to draw some distinctions between Karen and myself, I have drawn a false picture. Just as a false picture has reigned throughout this trip. For I am not only tired, but old. I need more help than ever. I have more in common with Karen then I choose to admit. And it is okay, this admission. It is all okay.