This is a hard story to tell, and the fact that it’s taken me five years to do so is testament to that. But I’ve come to think that the reason it has taken me so long is because I want to tell it from a place of joy. Now, before you go further, gentle reader, don’t feel ripped off if suddenly you get to a spot and think “HEY! I totally know this story!! SHE’S TOTALLY told it before!!” because I have, I have told bits and pieces of it over the years, but while I’ve started to, a few times, I have never fully committed the story to “paper”, as it were.
Recently, I was teaching a class in Learning Theory at a local university, and I was encouraging my learners to not disregard intuition. I told them the story of the Lost Dog Poster and how I rarely think something is *just* a coincidence. I do believe the universe works in magical ways.
Five years ago, my dad was still alive. Five years ago, I knew he had had a recurrence of lung cancer, but five years ago I thought I still had some time. Five years ago I was about 2 weeks away from seeing my kids with him for the last time, eating a meal with him, hanging out with him. I knew I didn’t have a lot of time, as soon as I saw him that last time, but I thought I still had some.
After our traditional summer visit, when I realized how much weight my dad had lost, how laboured his breathing was at times, and heard the dreadful rattle in his too-frequent cough, I decided I’d best not wait another year to visit, and planned to come back for the long weekend in October. I booked my flight and hotel and looked forward to a meaningful, if difficult, visit.
My flight was booked for early Saturday morning of Thanksgiving weekend. On the Monday before, Dad called me to find out what time I’d be arriving and what I would like to do. I gave him the information, and said I’d fit in with their plans, but that I was renting a car, so I could drive them around, whatever they wanted to do. He sounded…. like Dad. Thursday evening, he phoned my big brother, just to chat, and mentioned that I was coming in two days time. The very next day, Friday afternoon, the day before I was to arrive for the weekend, I got a call from my step-mother. “Lisa…. you if you can get here sooner, come…. your dad is dying”. He’d collapsed that afternoon, and while he did go briefly to the hospital, he had a DNR (do not resuscitate) order, and he was brought home to his own bed. My brother and sister-in-law had also gotten the call, and they decided to jump in the car, pick up their daughter, and make the drive (it’s about 8 hours from where we live, including a ferry ride). I don’t remember, now, if I looked to see if there were any earlier flights or not or what, but I remember deciding that it didn’t make sense to try to get there any quicker, I’d only save a few hours, and my flight was already booked. And I had my kids to think of, and I didn’t want to make a rash decision, and…and…and…. Had I made a different decision, I’d have a different story to tell today, I suppose, but there it is.
At the time, I had an android phone, and I had set it to receive text alerts from the airline. Usually, I left the phone in my car, but this night I brought it in so that it would be fully charged and I wouldn’t accidentally forget it in the morning. At some time around 3 or 4 in the morning, 3 rapid-fire texts came in. I awoke from the sound, if I was actually sleeping, and got the phone, and revealed that, no explanation given, the airline had cancelled all my flights. I went to my computer, navigated to the site, and saw all flights out of that airport were cancelled. Thinking it was weather-related (I would later discover that the weather had also determined my brother’s ferry was the last one to sail that night, all the rest had been cancelled). I quickly found flights from the other airport, woke the husband, and got underway.
It turned out that a computer malfunction had mistakenly cancelled every flight that airline was scheduled to make that day. It meant that not only did passenger flights get cancelled, so too did incoming crew flights, and all across the country, people were stranded. I wouldn’t discover this until I completed the first leg of my journey, Victoria to Vancouver. Somehow, miraculously, that flight went… and it was the last one, for a long time. I saw the plane I was supposed to take to Penticton, saw my distinctive zebra-striped suitcase loaded on… phoned my brother to say it looked like I was just going to get out…. and then all the suitcases, zebra included, came off, one by one and two by two. And then the announcements started. Apologies for inconvenience. Passengers wishing to connect to Greyhound bus lines. Passengers needing a meal voucher. Passengers who had given up all hope, head to the courtesy desk.
I could have rented a car at the airport and driven the 5 hours. I could have taken the bus. But all I could think was that a plane was the fastest way, and I had to get there. So, I headed to the courtesy desk. This is where bizarre coincidences and beautiful stories start to unfold.
Until then, despite the uncertainty and upheaval, I had kept my emotions in check. Talking to my brother helped, knowing he was there with Dad, telling him I was on my way. But I had to get there. The Vancouver airport is pretty well laid out, but there are areas that are confusing. Finding the correct courtesy desk is one of them. I realized it later, but instead of heading to the “Send us your tired, your poor and huddled masses” desk, I ended up at the “I’ve misplaced my sable-lined toilet seat warmer” First-Class passengers-only desk. But all I knew was I needed help, and there was no line, and the 2 smiling ladies asked me what I needed. I blurted out “My flight to Penticton was cancelled and my dad is dying and I have to get there and I don’t know what to do.” And of course burst into tears. “Oh how awful” said one of the kind ladies, and before she’d even finished her short sentence, the other one had me bundled into a chair behind the counter, had taken my boarding pass, and spoken into a phone. Next, she wheeled over a golf cart and off we went, zooming through the airport. How I wish I could have enjoyed that moment as much as I enjoy the picture of it in my head. She passed me over to another employee, who took me back through security, got me a new boarding pass for a new flight, this one to Kelowna, as the Penticton flight was not going to happen, but this would at least get me less than an hour away from Dad. I noticed various stickers and codes added to my boarding pass, telling me that I was now a Priority. The First Class Counter lady was my first gift.
Down in the departure terminal again, I received my next gifts. No one, myself included, was convinced I would get on the Kelowna flight, so I phoned and bought a ticket on another flight with another airline flying just a little later. I didn’t tell the second airline my story, but as I fumbled about for a pen to write down the confirmation number, a stranger sitting a couple of chairs away handed me hers. She was my second gift. I completed my call, returned her pen, and thanked her for her kindness. I explained why I so desperately was trying to get where I was going. She said “Well, don’t worry. If they can’t get you on this flight, I’ll tell them to give you my seat.” I mean really. She had been sitting chatting to two young nurses, and as they couldn’t help but overhear my story, the one young woman asked where my dad had been hospitalized earlier that fall. I told her, and it turned out that she not only had done shifts in that ward, she knew the head nurse who had been in charge of Dad’s care, to whom I had spoken on the phone not a month earlier. The young nurse told me that my Dad would have received the best of care from the senior nurse. She was my third gift that day.
My fourth gift was a little harder to recognize. And this is what I love about the universe. I heard my name called, and stepped forward to the check-in desk. In line ahead of me was a very polished, high-heeled, well-coiffed, highly agitated young woman. I could see she was also anxious about getting on this flight, and so we chatted briefly. It turns out that she grew up in Kelowna, and had moved to Vancouver some months earlier to take a job with a law firm– her first as a practicing lawyer. When she arrived at the airport that morning to discover her flight was cancelled, she burst into tears, afraid she might not make it home until the next day, ruining Thanksgiving weekend. Now, I’m not going to lie uncharitable thoughts did cross my mind, some of them beginning with “Wow, Princess!”, but as they say, grief does interesting things to you, and I was in a very Zen frame of mind, already aware of and processing the gifts I had received that day. And so it happened that we all made it on to the flight, and I was seated next to the young lawyer. I thanked the kind pen-lady and the sweet nurse for helping keep me together, and off we went.
The flight is less than an hour, and the time was spent mostly in silence, though I did tell my seatmate why I was traveling, and she told me that she was going to write a strongly worded letter to the airline on her company letterhead when she got back to the office on Tuesday.
The rest of the story unfolds both predictably and mysteriously, and is filled with more priceless gifts. I arrive at the Airport, collect my suitcase (how miraculous that it caught up with me, yet it did), the car rental agency to honoured my reservation at this airport without issue, and I set off for my final visit with my dad. I had stopped calling my brother earlier in the day. It was obvious each time we spoke that things were going more rapidly downhill. I let him know I was on the flight to Kelowna, and then turned off my phone.
On the drive, I started to think about the people who had shown me kindness that day, and was grateful. I thought about whether or not I had made the right choice, but like a horribly depressing retelling of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, I don’t think any other choice would have changed the outcome.
I pulled into my Dad’s driveway by 2:30pm. My original plan would have had me there by 10:00am. My brother had arrived around 1:00am. He told me later that when they first arrived, they thought dad knew they were there, that they felt a slight pressure from his hand, a change of expression on his face. Those were their gifts. When I walked in the door, I didn’t know what awaited me. “You made it!” was the first thing I heard, from my step-sister’s husband. She and he gathered me into the house and said to go straight through to Dad’s room. He was still alive.
I entered the room, and saw my dad surrounded by my family. Quickly we greeted each other, and they shifted seats to allow me to be at the bedside-hand-holding chair. I took Dad’s hand and said “Hey Dad! I made it! And Steve says hey… and the kids say hey…..” and then I stopped babbling, realizing that those messages weren’t going to be responded to with anything other than gasping, but still-regular, intakes of breath. His hand was cold in mine. His circulation was shutting down, blood flow leaving his extremities. We sat in silence for a moment, then I recounted my tale of travel, my brother and sister-in-law recounted theirs (no less fraught with stress than mine, as it turned out), and we just closed the circle of family and let my step mom know we were there for her, too. She had practiced as a registered nurse until she retired, and so had been allowed to provide hospice care. The attending physician called while I was there, and made sure all the meds and supplies that were required were in place. Her daughter went out to pick up a few items before the drugstore closed, and that was another gift–being allowed to just be there.
After an hour or so, my brother and his family decided that they needed to get to a hotel and get their heads down. At that point they had been up for almost 36 hours. I said I would stay for awhile, and then head to the hotel to get checked in so I wouldn’t lose my room. How silly the irrelevant things we worry about when we want to be distracted from life. “We’ll just tell them you are coming later tonight. They’ll hold your room”. This was my next gift, my big brother taking care of me, and because of that, allowing me to receive the most valuable, most important gift that day. One I cherish as a privilege and an honour to have been given.
Later I calculated that I had been at Dad’s side for two hours, with my brother and sister-in -law and niece, and then with my stepmom, as she administered pain medication, and at one point held the phone to his ear for a friend who called and wanted to offer Dad a prayer. And then we heard her son-in-law in the next room pick up one of Dad’s guitars and start to play. She went out to sit for a minute and enjoy the gentle music. And in that brief span of time, two hours after I had arrived, 5 minutes since Flo left the room, with his beloved music playing softly in the background, Dad gave two quick gasps of breath, and then there were no more.
I have no experience with the dying. My husband had given me some advice before I left, that I not imagine it is like in the movies, there are no startling bedside revelations, no deathbed secrets revealed, just, hopefully, gentle sleep.
And so it was. “Flo” I called my step mother….not sure if I was right… and then of course I was “Flo!” I called again, and she came back in with her daughter, took one look at Dad and knew he was gone. Her words then, spoken with such conviction, strength and faith were also a gift to me: “Thank you. Thank you God.” Her love for my dad was great enough that she could be thankful he was not suffering, despite not wanting to let him go.
The rest of the weekend was spent in all the ways that one expects to spend days after the loss of a loved one. Gotten through. Endured. And with occasional moments of joy in the form of a memory or a laugh.
When I flew back home Monday evening, I reflected on all the gifts I had to bring home with me, and the delicious irony of it being Thanksgiving. As we were just about to board, I saw the last passenger come through security. It was the young, high-heeled lawyer, happy and replete with her weekend amongst her family. She saw me, and made a beeline for me, and as she asked me if I made it in time, had I gotten to my dad, I realized the meaning of her role in this story– I was her gift. I was an example to her of what to value. Not to be absorbed in the irritation of being late to Thanksgiving dinner but realizing what a difference 2 hours can make.
I was able to give back to one of my gifters. A few years later I was in Vancouver airport again, going to a conference or something, and as I waited in the departure area, I recognized the first lady who helped me, the one who bundled me into the golfcart and made sure I got on that flight. I came up to her and started with “I don’t know if you remember me but I wanted to thank you for your kindness a couple of years ago….” I didn’t get very far into my introduction when she assured me that, yes, she did remember me very well, for just a few years prior to my dad’s passing, she had lost her own dad, and similarly had to make a grueling journey to the deep South, and understood how important it had been for me to get there. And she thanked me for letting her know.
And yet, I am the thankful one.