Home Coming

After a month of rigorous rehab, Dad is finally deemed well enough to travel. It’s time for us to go home. For me, that means returning to my apartment and life in Newport Beach, CA. While I have been trained in “proper transfer technique”, I am nervous about transferring Dad in and out of his wheelchair and the taxi, not to mention how I am going to manage the airport and the plane.

This is the first time either of us has flown first class. Unfortunately, it is out of necessity – his wheelchair will not fit in the narrow economy aisle and it would be impossible to transfer him to a seat there.

I wheel Dad onto the plane and pause for a moment as I try to figure out the best transfer strategy. A magnificent, muscular mountain of a Hawaiian man appears out of nowhere like a genie and asks me if he can help. I look up (and up) and gratefully nod, “Thank you.” He instructs me, “Take your father’s feet.” I’m not sure what he has in mind-this isn’t what they taught me, but I do as I am told. From behind, the gentle giant puts his hands under Dad’s armpits and asks him if he is ready. Dad nods. In one smooth, easy motion, the man lifts him up and over the wheelchair and the top of the seat and sets him down as if he were just a feather pillow. Dad is 6’ 2” and used to be 200lbs. He’s lost a bit of weight these past few months… Before I can thank the man again, he’s vanished. I turn to Dad and start fastening his seat beat for him, “Big guy,” I say, Dad nods, his eyes wide.

As we prepare for takeoff, I shut my eyes and think about when I was a child  and I thought of him as the strongest man of all.

We had our own language and counting system based on my toddler misspeaks. Counting went one, two, three, eleventy-seven. We used to count together one, two, three, “upadad” and he’d lift me high up above his head then set me on his shoulders. With the sun on my face, my hands clasped on his forehead and my heels tapping against his chest, I couldn’t have been happier. Remembering how he used to push me on the swing.  I’d be soaring so high with my feet waving at the tree tops. And the adventures we had like the time we forged our way down the Connecticut River on “dadmade” rafts of air mattresses and wood – one, two, three, row .

Dad has not recovered his swallow reflex so he will not be able to partake in the complimentary first class beverages and meal service. He insists that I eat. I have no appetite. All I can think about is how much my father loves to eat and how he’s been deprived of this simple pleasure for 3 months. He commands me in his typical 1 word directive, “Eat.” Sitting beside him, I obediently and mechanically bring the fork to my mouth, swallowing hard and washing a few  mouthfuls down with water.

We land in LAX where my brother and mother (she’s has flown in from the East Coast for Thanksgiving) meet me. I explain the transfer and diapering process to my brother and let him take my father to the bathroom when we arrive. He spent some time in high school working as an orderly so I figure it won’t be too difficult for him. It still feels awkward to me. Next stop is a rehab hospital in Long Beach.  Dad went completely without food or water while we traveled. Suffice to say that it was a very long and challenging day. When we arrive at the rehab facility that evening, I brief his care team and set about the task of settling my father into his new room. My brother and mother wait in the background as I finish unpacking Dad’s things and decorating the room. While Dad naps, they tell me they are going to Palm Springs for the holiday weekend and ask If I’d like to join them. I decline. I can’t imagine just dropping Dad in this new hospital and leaving him— even though it’s only a few days. Besides, after 3 months of unplanned life hiatus, I’m eager to get home myself.