The Journey: Part III
I had just been dropped off at the curbside at Washington Dulles International Airport with my Father who had severe combative Dementia. I was on a mission to bring him home with me to Hawai'i before a custody and guardianship battle was about to ensue. I had only one chance that weekend to get him on the plane that morning and in the air before his new wife would show up at the care home where I had just retrieved him. I knew one of my biggest obstacles was that she had all of his current identification cards as I was unable to see him for the past eight months as he was taken 5000 miles away from his home.
Begum, the airport porter, a kind woman from Bangladesh, took control of Dad's wheelchair, as he sat their unemotive and quiet. The American Airlines agent reviewed our reservations and issued our tickets. I had showed her my driver's license, and my Father's military I.D. card that I had found amongst my keepsakes at home. It had been 30 years since my Father retired in 1984, and his I.D. card was another twenty years old, so he was 50 years older than his I.D. picture. The young United States Marine Corps Captain staring back in the old I.D. looked nothing like the retired Lt. Colonel sitting in the wheelchair, but the agent didn't really seem to notice, as I was in constant prayer. I knew TSA was going to be the real challenge.
I asked Begum if she could help me get my Father all the way to our gate. I said that the airport was so big, that when I got off of the plane after arriving, I was quickly lost. I followed throngs of people until we ended up on a giant wheeled people mover that shot across the airport tarmac. I told her that I was worried that I couldn't find the gate in time.
She said that they usually take us as far as TSA then we are on our own from there to the gates. I looked at her, and said, "I really could use your help. I am worried about my Father." She looked down at him and up at me, and said, "Okay, I will get you to your gate. Let me see your ticket." I showed her and she noted the gate number.
She began pushing my Father while I struggled to keep pace while carrying his duffel bag with his clothes, diapers, wipes and a few other things, as well as my overnight carry-on bag.
We walked all over the place and seemingly in every direction before I spotted the lines of passengers in the TSA Security lines. My heart began racing as I knew this was a critical juncture. If I couldn't get my Father through TSA, we would miss the plane. His new wife would wake up and find out he was missing. She would call the police and lawyers and they would probably try and block me from taking him home. Her lawyer's physicians would examine him, declare him incompetent, and go to D.C. Court to have her gain Guardianship over him. It would be all over. I would probably never see him again. She would sell all of his property, and all of our family's personal property and memories would probably be sold off or discarded. I wouldn't be able to fulfill my promise to my Mother to bury them both together for Eternity. There was so much pressure riding on this trip.
I followed Begum closely, as she slowly walked past each line, determining which one to get into. I was praying hard and talking to God directly the whole time quietly under my breath. Then I saw Begum suddenly look up and beeline it straight towards the very end of the row of TSA lines. It looked like a closed area that may have been for airplane personnel only as the line was empty and we both went through what looked like a closed swinging barrier.
There sitting all alone at the podium, was an older white gentlemen who looked stern. My heart began racing because this was the moment of truth. There was no backing up or changing my mind now, as any panic or hesitation would only make me look suspicious and draw more attention and scrutiny.
Begum spoke to the man and he looked up at me and then to my Father. I glanced down at his name badge, and was momentarily horrified to see that his badge stated, "Chief, Transportation Security Administration." I nearly threw-up from nervousness. What were the chances that I would end up with the Federal Director of Security for Dulles Airport? My heart was pounding.
He motioned me to step-forward. I pulled out my identification and my Father's old card as well and handed both of them to him after giving him the warmest and most genuine smile I could muster under the circumstances. I looked down at my Father and rubbed his upper-back a few times then looked back up at the Chief. He shined his little light on each I.D. while looking them over and glancing alternatively at my Father and I. Begum just stood there quietly. I was holding my breath that he wouldn't speak to my Father as who in the World knew what my Father's response would be. One wrong word and I saw myself being escorted away in handcuffs while an investigation ensued.
I watched the expressions on the Chief's face, trying to guage the outcome, until he reached over and handed me back one I.D. which I was so sure was mine. It was my Father's I.D. and I was somewhat relieved. He seemed to scrutinize mine a little longer. Finally he handed me back mine, looked at me and then at my Father, and said, "Thank you for your service." to my dad, and then, "Have a safe trip." while looking up at me. I said, "Thank you sir!" My Heart wanted to burst.
I quickly put our bags onto the TSA X-Ray machine and our shoes as well, holding my breath that the bags would make it to the other end without incident. Once we made it past TSA, I thanked Begum, and we hurried off to the gate. She took us down an elevator, and through hallways and other routes that I surely would have never known. We ended up on the giant transport vehicle which again shot across the tarmac to a gate on the far side of the airport.
Begum got us to the gate and it was empty because we were still hours away from departure. She helped me get my Father out of the wheelchair and into a gate seat. She said the plane would have a wheelchair come get my Father when we were ready to board which was skinner and could go down the jetway and aisle easier. I thanked her profusely and pulled out some hidden cash and placed it into her hand. I told her to buy something nice for her two daughters and told her how much her kindness and Aloha meant to me. We departed with a hug.
I sat there with my Father for what seemed like hours, trying to keep him busy and his attention on an iPad I brought with me. I loaded up photos of our family and of his time in the military and just about any older photo I could find.
Every time I heard loud footsteps or voices approaching, my stomach sunk and I looked up nervously to see who was approaching the gate. I kept thinking I was going to see Airport Security looking for us at the gate after getting a call from my Father's new wife or her law firm. Anyone who stared at us for what seemed like a little longer than normal, made me apprehensive as I watched the hours slowly tick away. Soon, more and more people started filling up the gate.
I remember watching four people walking past us to another gate, all speaking in what appeared to be American Sign Language to each other. Animated. Smiling. Laughing. I reflected on how truly Blessed I was, my whole Life. The Good, the Bad and even the Ugly. What an Amazing and Beautiful World it was. To see these four people with so much Happiness despite the challenges in their lives.
At one point, a bird flew up against our window from inside the terminal. Three other birds flew up to the window, right behind our seats, behind my Father's head, and the one bird trapped inside fluttered around and around, chirping incessantly, while the birds outside did the same thing. Separated by a thin pane of glass, seemingly lamenting their separation. Finally the bird inside, flew off somewhere deep inside the terminal while the three birds outside flew away. It was such a powerful message to me about not leaving family behind. I sat their in humble awe and amazement, as well as deep gratitude.
At one point, my Father, who didn't speak more than a few words at a time after long periods of silence, motioned to me that he had to use the restroom. I looked at our two big bags, and helped him to his feet. He struggled to stand up. I grabbed a diaper from his bag and tried to figure out how to get him and the bags to the restroom which was about thirty-feet away. Suddenly, an American Airlines agent, who had recently arrived at the gate desk, caught my attention. She looked at me, and said, "You know, you aren't supposed to leave your bags unattended anywhere in the airport, but I can watch them for you if you need to take him to the restroom." I couldn't believe it. As if she read my mind. I thanked her profusely and began the slow procession to the restroom with my Father as other seated passengers watched un intently. Father took slow shaky step after slow shaky step. We slowly shuffled along, and when we were crossing the main thoroughfare, throngs of people descended upon us like salmon swimming up river, while we were slowly and painfully crossing their pathway. Father would stop and look at all the people with amazement while I kept apologizing for getting in people's way.
We made it to the bathroom and the last stall and I struggled to get my Father to sit down. He wouldn't bend his legs and resisted sitting down out of fear that he was going to fall backwards. It took awhile and he finally sat. His diaper was soaked and somewhat soiled. I spoke to him constantly while reassuring him he was doing a good job. I then realized that I had forgotten the diaper wipes back in the bag. I told my Father to sit tight and I would be right back. Luckily, the bags weren't more than thirty-feet away. I quickly exited the bathroom and ran to the bags. I waved at the gate attendant and showed her the wipes sheepishly and said, "We are almost done! Thank you again!" She smiled.
I was running back to the bathroom, when I heard a voice say loudly, "Excuse me!" I quickly and nervously looked at the man seated at the gate, worrying that maybe he was looking for my Father and I. He said, pointing to the ground behind me, "You dropped your glasses." I looked back and there were my Father's eye-glasses that the care home had given me. I quickly went back and picked them up and profusely thanked the man for letting me know. If I had lost those glasses, my dad would be blind and it would take me forever to get him a new pair not having any of his prescription paperwork or insurance documentation. I was so grateful. Deeply...
I went back into the bathroom stall and was shocked to see my Father completely naked as he had taken off all of his clothes. I cleaned him up, got him into his new diaper and put his clothes back on, all the while talking to him like I was talking to one of my boys when they were about five-years old.
When we exited the stall, there was a young man, maybe in his late twenties, standing there waiting for us to exit and who I assumed was waiting for our stall as the other stalls were full. I apologized and said, "I'm so sorry we took so long in there."
He looked at me and smiled a large Beautiful smile, and said, "Oh no, I finished already. I was just waiting for you to exit. I heard you in there. I just wanted to you to know that I went through the same thing with my grandfather. I want you to know that you are doing an excellent job. I know how hard it is. You keep it up."
I was in shock. I couldn't have heard more Beautiful words at that time than this. I thanked him for his kindness and let him know how much it meant to me. We said our byes and I proceeded to get my Father back out to the gate. I was on the verge of tears.
I waved and smiled to the gate attendant who was watching our bags and sat my Father back down. The gate was filling up to capacity and the sight of Hawaiians and locals headed back to Hawai'i in the crowd was a reassuring and calming scene.
I was still nervous and every time I saw a man with sunglasses, or dressed like undercover law enforcement, I watched intently to see if they were watching us. Paranoia abounded. The gate attendant Angel, and the other agents who joined her, would every so often call out a passenger's name to report to the desk. I held my breath every time worried that our names would be called. I was so relived when we finally began to board the plane and I was able to get my Father on early and into our First Class seats.
When I made the last minute flight reservations the week before, that flight was almost full. The only seats left, less than four, were all separated from each other in single seats. I knew I wouldn't be able to sit apart from my Father, as he would probably touch other passengers or create a disturbance in his confusion, absent me, and possibly jeopardize our whole trip. We were Blessed that there were only two seats left right next to each other, but they were in First Class.
I put my Father into the seat next to the window so I could block him from getting up and out, especially if I passed out from exhaustion. I didn't know what he might do. He was still strong having lifted weights in his teenage years and all throughout his Marine Corps life. He might try to open the Emergency Exit in his confusion. When he was in a care home that his new wife had put him in before, he had broken their door down trying to escape. They couldn't handle him so they dropped him off at the hospital, and then I was able to get him into another care home until I was able to figure out how to get him home.
As we were settling in, I felt so out of place amongst the rich and famous in First Class. I couldn't rest until the doors were closed and we were in the air. I kept thinking that police were going to come onboard and we would be pointed out, and they would escort my Father and I off of the plane for questioning in front of everyone. I had all of my legal papers with me, the medical directive, the Trust, the Power-of-Attorney, etc. but even if we were questioned or interviewed, and I could eventually prove this was a civil matter, not criminal, we would miss our early flight. I would be stuck in D.C. with little money and high-powered lawyers filing papers to prevent me from taking my Father home while the Guardianship case was initiated. I wasn't sure if once the Guardianship suit was filed, if there was a D.C. law that would prevent me from taking my Father out of the jurisdiction. I was so worried.
While the plane was still loading with passengers, I stood up to adjust my seat and put a bag in the overhead bin. I saw a woman approaching and she sat in the seat right behind my Father. I was a little in shock because it was Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. I quickly sat back down. My heart started racing. A United State Congresswoman on our flight and sitting right behind my Father. What if he started a commotion. What if he tried to get out of his seat and seatbelt and had to be restrained. What if in the altercation, the Congresswoman was hit accidently. I kept thinking, as I prayed hard again, that I would somehow end up on CNN Headlines with a story about how my Father, a U.S. Combat Marine, and Vietnam Vet, attacked at Congresswoman on a flight which had to be diverted back to Dulles. I was freaking myself out at the possibilities.
It took almost an hour waiting for the flight doors to close. I kept watching the airplane stewards and stewardesses walking back and forth, talking on the airplane phone, looking out at us, the passengers, and every time one of them, or someone I didn't recognize, picked up the phone and looked throughout the cabin, I was so sure it was the D.C. Police asking about my Father and I on the plane. I thought they might be DEA. I thought they might be an armed Air Marshall. Everything was going through my head. I held my breath as a male steward approached us, until he asked what we wanted to drink.
Finally, after what seemed like Eternity, the airplane doors closed after many announcements. It took awhile to get going after that, with a long taxi to the runway. Once I felt that familiar lift of an airplane leaving the ground, I grabbed my Father's hand, and quietly let the tears fall down my face in humble gratitude and outright relief. It didn't matter what legal battle lie ahead. We did it. Thank you God and Angels, we did it.
I had to keep my Father occupied the entire time. I was hoping he would sleep, but I had picked him up in the early morning and he was still wide awake. The airline attendants brought food and I had to order for dad and feed him like a baby too. I didn't mind. He was passing gas every now and then. modesty was no longer a concern of his. It was comical at times and he would laugh as would I. I thought of CNN's headline that morning. "Aircraft Diverted Back to Dulles Because Combat Marine Farted on Congresswoman."
At one point, he had to use the restroom. I stood him up. The Congresswoman was fast asleep thank God with her eye mask on. My dad walked so slowly down the aisle, pausing to look at each passenger with great curiosity. I had to make sure he didn't pat anyone on the head as he often liked to do. We made it to the restroom and my Father and I both had to squeeze into the little bathroom. The flight attendants watched us with both concern and amusement, as they helped close the door behind us packing us in like sardines.
I couldn't even turn around as I helped to get my Father onto the toilet seat and then realized that I needed to get him another diaper. I quickly exited the bathroom and retrieved the diaper from his bag in the overhead bin. I went back in and to my horror, my Father had removed his diaper and was trying to flush it down the little tiny toilet. I quickly grabbed it out and let the toilet flush, before putting it back in for now. I put another diaper onto my Father after cleaning him and opened the door. The flight attendant approached me with a little trash bag and said, "You might need this." I was so thankful for her intuition and kindness. She distracted my Father by talking with him while I retrieved the diaper from the toilet and put it in the bag. She kindly took the bag from me when I exited saying that she would take care of it. I was so grateful and humbled again.
I got my Father back to his seat. My strategy was to have him watch three movies, at roughly two-hours each to burn up at least six hours of airplane time. We had both started to watch movies when I soon realized that his headphones weren't working. Nothing we could do could get them to work. Even the flight attendant tried to fix the port but it just wasn't working. So while my Father was watching The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, something I chose for him, I was watching 300: Rise of an Empire. I actually plugged his headphones into my headphone jack, so while he was watching The Hobbit, the dialogue and soundtrack was from my movie, 300. I felt bad but he didn't seem to notice as he was engaged in watching the discombobulated movie. I could only imagine Gandalf yelling, "This is Sparta!"
For the next two movies, I tried to start the same movie on both of our screens so my soundtrack would match his movie, albeit, slightly sounding like a badly dubbed movie with lip-synch issues.
At one point, two-thirds of the way home, my Father became agitated and tried to remove his seat-belt. He was trying to stand up and pointing out the window, saying, "I need to get into the car. The car is parked down there. I need to get into the car." I was worried and trying to calm him down when the flight attendant came over and spoke with my Father. He tried to calm him, and told him that we were almost there, but that he needed to stay seated until we landed. My Father kept saying he needed to get off and into the car. I finally was able to distract my Father with some food that the flight attendant quickly brought him. That was a tense moment where I truly thought my Father was going to create a scene, as my heart pounded again.
We finally made it to Honolulu. When we walked into the familiar Honolulu Airport terminal, I felt like I was walking on clouds. It was such a relief. I found a place to plug in my phone because it was dead. As soon as it had enough of a charge, I called my wife. "Where are you?" she nervously asked. I said we were home. "Father?" she asked. "He is with me. He is home." I said.
"I'll come get you now" she said on the verge of tears as her voice cracked with emotion.
I looked at my Father sitting in his wheelchair as he looked up at me. I said that was my wife and she is coming to pick us up. In his broken stuttering sentence, as if his head searched for the words and thoughts his brain no longer allowed him to speak, he slowly asked me, "Do....I....have a...wife?"
I looked at him, and said, "Yes Father... You have a Wife... She passed away.... She is my Mother... She Loves you more than Anything in the World..."
And with that, little did I know, the biggest battle of our Lives was just beginning...