Monday, February 15, 2010

Tears On A Plane


I woke up from my mid-flight nap because my seat was moving… by itself.

Sara had accidentally pushed the buttons on my complex business class lie-flat seat and my seat belt was quickly tightening around my hips as I elevated back to an up-right position.

“Ouch! Hey, not your seat controls, yo.”

“I’m so sorry, Suze, I woke you up!”

I didn’t mind being woken up because it’s fun to be awake in business class. It’s a multi-media playground with dozens of still-in-theater movies to watch and newly released music to hear. There are so many choices that it can be difficult to make a movie selection. The flight from Moscow to New York was going to take 10 hours, though, so if I got half way through a dud of a film, I knew I could start another and even another.

Each of these airplane seats has its own TV that pops out of the armrest. The TV has a touch screen menu where you can flip through all the movie, music, and radio station choices. It’s interesting – On these flights I have had no need for my iPod. In fact, I basically pack a book that never gets cracked because the constant flight attendant service, complicated lie flat seats, and endless entertainment options are entirely distracting.

I scanned through the movie titles on my little TV. There were some alien movies and horror movies that I could immediately weed out. There were some movies I had already seen on previous business trips (no, not in the movie theater with buttered popcorn and Coke, as I prefer). I came across a title that looked familiar. It was a movie with Jennifer Aniston and Aaron Eckhart called Love Happens. Yeah, it sounds like a total chick flick, right? Well, feeling nostalgic to be leaving the beautiful mystique of Russia behind, I decided to pick the chick flick. Sara decided to watch the Michael Jackson movie, This is It.

Right of the bat, Sara was dancing in her seat to This is It, and I was sitting in my seat with my head rested on my fist, perplexed by Love Happens. You learn by watching the trailer that the movie is about a self-help guru who motivates people through the grief of losing a loved one. His career began when he wrote a self-soothing book to ease himself through the death of his wife. He wrote the book to ease his own pain rather than for the sake of his readers. He did not spend much time thinking about the other people finding comfort in reading about his personal struggle to achieve happiness, but they found their own comfort in his personal experience.

(Hm. Sounds familiar.)

About a half hour into the film, the flight attendants walked by with warm chocolate cookies and hot tea.

(If I have not made it blatantly clear in previous posts, I am so unfathomably grateful to get the privilege to have such nice accommodations when flying internationally for work. I just want to clarify that as I continue to pepper this story with the ever-delightful luxuries in Delta business class. I would never get this opportunity in my personal travels.)

As watched the movie, I enjoyed the flirty dance going on between Jennifer Aniston and Aaron Eckhart, but I was getting a little edgy watching the self-help guru scenes. The film takes place in Seattle and the storyline follows a weeklong workshop with participants coming to terms with their emotional pain in losing loved ones.

This one guy lost his son in a freak accident on a construction site. The loss left the father emotionally paralyzed and he was no longer able to work as a contractor. He could not even walk into a hardware store without completely falling apart. The exercise to aid in healing his grief involved the entire workshop group hand holding him through a trip to Home Depot so that he could get new tools. Aaron Eckhart’s character walked with the man, slowly pushing the bright orange shopping cart down the aisles as the man gingerly picked up a new hammer, a new tool belt, a new level, and dozens more tools needed in order to find his way back to his passion – Building.

By the time the man got to the cash register at Home Depot, the whole self-help group was there supporting him. I started to lose it. My unraveling began with my eyes tingling, but this soon developed into a bit of an unexpected scene.

Sara stopped her dancing and got up out of her seat. She walked up to the galley and grabbed a ginger ale. As she walked back to our seats, Sara stopped short when she saw the mess occurring on my face. I had multiple tears streaming down both cheeks and my nose was completely snotting up. By that time in the movie, Aaron Eckhart’s character was receiving a major embrace from Martin Sheen, who plays the father-in-law of Eckhart’s deceased wife.

Here I was, completely exposed in Business Class, where it’s easy to be intimidated by the uber wealthy and the business elite, and I was completely, audibly sobbing.

Poor Sara silently offered me her can of ginger ale and I nodded my head up and down quickly and then did the International Girl Sign of I’ll Be OK I Just Need To Cry This One Out (head down, shaking ‘no,’ right hand up in a stop sign).

I made it through the end of the movie, then bolted up out of my seat and dashed to the bathroom in my complimentary padded Delta socks. I could not bolt the door fast enough. I was literally choking as I endured a crying spell that felt unexpected, tortuous, and graphic. I was glad that the noise of the engines drowned out the sounds of my extreme sadness.

I stared at myself in the harshly lit airplane bathroom mirror. My face was pocked with red splotches and my eyes were lined with tiny red blood vessels. My nose was raw and my hair was a mess. (Although my hair has often looked like a mess lately, even when everything is all right).

I sat on top of the closed toilet and took a few deep breaths. After taking some moments to think through my messed up state, I was none bit perplexed as to why this breakdown had occurred. Watching a film where ordinary people are struggling with the pain, grief and paralysis from the death of a loved one must have opened up a soft pink wound that had temporarily grown a protective film over it.

I am flying home to the USA to the pain of my dad’s crippled, quadriplegic state. Tonight when I land, I will visit my dad in the nursing home where he moved while I was away, and frankly, I am terrified.

My dad is alive and I am deeply grateful that in this past half year, he has made it through the cancer, the sepsis, and now is enduring through the Critical Illness Polyneuropathy. But that does not ease the pain of what feels like the death of the life we knew before.

One morning in Moscow, I half woke up from a dream and I thought I saw my dad standing by my hotel room desk. I was in one of those weird dreams where you feel like you are awake, but you cannot move. My dad was wearing his favorite striped yellow and blue Polo short, khaki Nautica cargo shoes, and brown leather Docksider shoes. He was tan and his hair was blonde. He was grinning at me, like he had just taken a boat out for a spin on Lake Minnetonka.

In the next moment, I realized where I was and I was so depressed when I thought about my dad lying in his nursing home bed, stiff, scared, and suffering. I thought about his mouth, which has been unforgivingly stuck open with paralysis. Sometimes I think it looks like a silent scream. His hair, normally gleaming gold from the sunshine, is now a dull shade of grey and white wheat.

My dad cannot talk and his facial expression is limited, but we still have this deeply united bond in our communication. I feel so close to him when we cry together. My tears drip on him while he lays looking up at me. His tears form pools on his cheeks, and then it is my job to soak them up with the scratchy hospital tissues.

I wonder if the nursing home will have softer tissues than the hospital did?

My dad comforts me when we cry together. Even though he can’t hug me or comfort me the way he used to, the presence of my dad is still surprisingly Dad-like. He has not lost his ‘parenting power’ with me. I can sit by his bed and ramble on about my young adult life worries, and I can feel comforted by watching his listening navy blue eyes. Of course, these comfort sessions cannot happen in the same venues as they did before. I cannot take my dad to Perkins restaurant and eat slices of banana and coconut cream pie with him while drinking black coffee together. I remember doing this in college with him. He would drive over to my campus in St. Paul, and we would spend hours chatting in a booth at Perkins. Long after the pie and coffee were consumed, I would pluck at napkins and make little paper balls while I listened to my dad’s worldly psychological wisdom.

I have been out of the country for three weeks, and my sense is that it is time for me to step up to the plate and bring a heap of comfort home to my dad and to my mom. I got my dad a music box of St. Basil’s Cathedral by the Kremlin. During this flight, I have pictured myself walking into my dad’s room tonight, and presenting this Russian souvenir to him. Will he look happy? Will he cry? Will I cry? I worry that I will shudder into the kind of breakdown I had on the airplane today.

I think what happens when you experience a major life tragedy is that your conscious cannot hold onto that raw pain 24/7, so sometimes you temporarily forget about it. The pain absorbs into your subconscious, only to resurface at odd moments, like when you are flying home from a business trip and you are watching a seemingly innocent in-flight movie.

If God is gentle, then my dad has the ability to experience this same phenomenon, and sometimes his pain, fear, anger, and hopelessness seep into the background, allowing him a temporary reprieve.

I want to be strong for my dad tonight. I want to walk into that nursing home with an air that says this is only temporary, and we can make the best of it. I hope I can act the part of the jet setting successful daughter, if that is what my dad needs, or I hope I can fall apart and cry on his chest, if that is what my dad can handle.

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