Waiting at the Gate

“The world is a taut line stretching from the place where my mom sits in her wheelchair in Las Vegas to the bed the Pennsylvania hospice workers have already set up in the spare bedroom of my house.”

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My mom and her cancer sit in a wheelchair in the Las Vegas airport. She wears a black terrycloth sweater and a t-shirt and sweatpants. She looks small and frail. She doesn’t talk much, but the familiar timbre of her voice comforts me. I try and listen for it through the coughing.

There are things about her that have not changed, and I cling to them in my mind. The crook of her nose. Her jawline. She has the same brown hair she always had, except for a brief time after her first round with chemo years ago when she stopped coloring it.

My grandmother used to tell a story about a dream she had before my mom was born. She dreamed of a little girl with brown hair, and that’s why she named her Pamela, because “Pamela,” in fact, means “pretty, brown-haired girl.” I have since learned that this isn’t true. “Pamela” means “all sweetness” — even more fitting.

My grandmother is dead now, but my mom’s hair is still brown. She had gotten it done just before she went into the hospital, and her roots don’t show.

Four suitcases are piled next to her wheelchair. It is too much luggage, and we both seem to know it. I am restless and pace the carpeted floor of our gate, flipping through the texts on my phone. I seem to get another one every few minutes, from my wife or some hospice worker or my cousin who lives in Vegas and has been helping me get my mom ready for the trip to our home in Pennsylvania.

Public places like airports usually calm me, but I am not calm. My ill mother is entirely in my care, more helpless than a child. A child is not so aware of what is happening.

A small black plastic box with a green-lit console sits in my mom’s lap next to her purse. It has an electric plug that leads to an outlet a few feet away. Plastic tubing loops from it around her head to her nose. Sounds of mechanical grinding and compressed air pump out to the rhythms of her breath.

The process of getting this little box was more difficult than one would think possible. It represents many hours on the phone, many people saying no. Getting it was the biggest hurdle in moving my mom.

She has six months to live, on the outside, say the doctors. She’s already on hospice care. Three different doctors have said treatment would do no good and would only make her weaker. The only good to come out of it would be to placate her sense of “not giving up.” I paraphrase the mantra I have learned from journalist and cancer survivor Xeni Jardin: Cancer is not a thing she is fighting. It’s a thing happening to her body. She’s not “giving up,” no matter what her choices.

My mom has never been a fan of what my other grandmother, her former mother-in-law, referred to as “straight talk” or “just being honest,” a euphemism for rudeness. Mom has always preferred mythology. She chose hospice anyway.

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Mom’s doctors also say she needs oxygen. She can’t fly to Pennsylvania without it. But the airline, understandably, has strict guidelines about what sorts of breathing apparatuses are allowed on a plane. After all, oxygen is flammable, and in the wrong hands could be used as a weapon. For that reason, oxygen tanks aren’t allowed, though expensive oxygen compressors, like the one now sitting in her lap, are.

And after all, my mom is pretty scary, what with not being able to stand by herself. Maybe the airline is right to fear her. Maybe she’s been a terrorist this whole time, her sickness an elaborate ruse, a secret jihad.

The theme of the two precious weeks of my mother’s life before arriving at the airport is the intersection of two opposites: impossible tasks and rote procedure. Each one is completed and measured by the other.

The task of getting my mom to Pennsylvania is impossible. It is impossible, because of all the meaningless procedural tasks required to complete it — to navigate the byzantine bureaucracy of medical insurance, to have her hospice benefits transferred from one state system to another, to somehow procure the magic breathing machine so she can physically step on the plane.

It’s like being told that if you stacked a million matchboxes end to end, you could build a ladder to heaven.

Standing in the airport, flipping through my text messages, I feel a weird giddiness. She’s about to get on the plane. We did it, somehow. A Good Thing for my mom. I try not to think about how this satisfaction is really a sign of my dilettantism where Doing Good Things for my mom is concerned. And I’m also aware of my self-awareness in a recursive loop that folds in on itself endlessly, until my mom needs something — some water, a pain pill, to go to the bathroom.

I ask my mom if she’s hungry. She says no. I call my wife and pace the floor, talking. She tells me I need to talk to the airline about getting bumped up to first class. We bought a first class ticket for my mom, but a coach ticket for me. They have already put my seat at the front of coach and placed my mom in the back of first class, in case I need to adjust her oxygen or get her a pillow.

The world is a taut line stretching from the place where my mom sits in her wheelchair in Las Vegas to the bed the Pennsylvania hospice workers have already set up in the spare bedroom of my house.

An announcement about another flight bleats loudly from the airport PA. It startles my mom. She starts crying. I know she’s not crying because she was startled. I know she’s crying, because the jarring loudness of the announcement reminded her that she’s going to die.

She has cried two other times in my presence about this reality. But sitting here in the airport, waiting for her flight, this is the only time that seems to connote sadness. Before, the tears came suddenly. Someone mentioned something about her prognosis, and it hit her. Her eyes went blank, and her jaw stuck out, and she started crying silently. She looked like a deer. The reaction was animal.

But here, her eyes dart around at the airport people — people standing in line at a Starbucks kiosk, or in a hurry to get to their gate, or annoyed at an airline employee. Her tears are a human emotional response. She sees herself against them. They are living, and she is sitting in a wheelchair, unable to stand by herself, struggling for breath.

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Her fear is not that of an animal but that of a human being among other, more vital human beings.

When we board the plane, an airline employee wheels my mom down the tube, and we wait at the hatch. Then two more airline employees come and strap my mom into a skinny metal wheelchair. They take her down the aisle. She holds on to my shoulders as we lift her into her first class seat. I snap her seat belt on and adjust her oxygen tube and put a blanket over her legs and ask the stewardess if she can have some water.

After she’s settled, I find my seat and the rest of the passengers file on. A crowd of people flood the cabin in their usual rush to get to where they need to go, as all crowds have probably since the beginning of time.

I start to get nervous about the flight; I am a nervous flier. It’s the specifics of a death by falling from thousands of feet in the air that has always scared me. That death has attributes, a real character to it. It’s a possible future written in very plain terms. And the ordinariness of airline rigmarole is what usually calms me down, the routine of the drinks being served, the pilot’s banter. The rest of the world is calm enough to be in a hurry, so why shouldn’t I be?

Now, I’m calmed by my mother’s apartness against other people. I appropriate this apartness. What had frightened her calms me. What is fear of flying versus fear of cancer? What is the fear of any particular death against the reality of death itself?

We travel without incident to Pennsylvania, a place my mother has never been. Her oxygen cuts out halfway through the flight, but neither of us notice. She breathes easily.

Photos courtesy of the U.S. National Archives

Nathan Pensky is a writer and editor living in rural Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter.