The perfect day
The fortunate part about not knowing what lies ahead of you is that sometimes, not knowing makes it possible to muddle through a difficult situation. Sometimes foreknowledge only makes what is coming more difficult to bear.
I spent the last two days of my West Coast Beach Vacation curled up under a blanket, sleeping between apologies from David and Noah for 'getting' me sick. A reckoning of fingers and thumbs left me doubting they were the true source of my illness. I was more inclined to blame multiple airports, airplanes, and significant climate changes for my current upper respiratory infection.A Decembertime visit to the airport, followed by the vastly different climates of Alabama, Phoenix, the Grand Canyon, back to Phoenix, another airport visit, then oceanside Redondo Beach left infinite possibilities for the acquisition of a random little bug that would cause some illness.
That morning, the week-ago-stranger David looked at me with concern and said, "Perhaps you shouldn't fly, Amy." Noah, further away and perched on the couch, nodded agreement. "It's okay. You could stay a few more days until you're well. We wouldn't mind."
My right hand tickled the contents of my right coat pocket - tiny, perfect seashells gathered from the shore two days before - and they whispered to me that it was time to go home. Time to fly home to a place where the land didn't come to a wave-crashing stop on the other side of the street.
Besides, my tickets weren't refundable. The change fee wasn't pretty. It would completely blow my discretionary-funds budget for my trip to Colorado.
"I'll be okay. I promise."
"You sure you don't want to take any cookies, or anything like that for the trip?"
* * * * *
David drove us to LAX in the burgeoning sunlight, and they both hugged me curbside, hoping perhaps in the last few moments I'd change my mind. Instead, I slung the straps of my high school backpack over arms and coat, tightened the straps, and took my soon-to-be-checked baggage.
"I'll call when I get home. Promise." I turned around and walked into the terminal before they drove away. A personal quirk, that; always be the one who leaves, and not the one who waves goodbye. I had my confirmation numbers and my knitting; the rest, I believed, would take care of itself.
The vagaries of airline travel often dictate less-than-optimal routes home, and this day's flights would be no exception. For my two-destination trip, it had been easier to book two separate round-trip flights (Birmingham to Phoenix, and then Phoenix to LA) instead of a single round-trip with an extra destination. It meant that I would have to pick up and re-check my bags in Phoenix, but I'd planned for that circumstance.
I pulled out my confirmation numbers again and made sure. I had more than a two-hour layover in Phoenix, and the weather there was perfect. Smooth sailing. Take the commuter flight, pick up the bag, recheck it, find the new gate, and sit there and knit for a couple of hours until it was time for the next flight.
Except that my flight leaving LAX was late. I watched forty minutes slide by in a haze of wristwatch-watching disguised as sock knitting, and eventually boarded the plane. Ok, perhaps a little less time than I would've liked, but this was why I gave myself extra time. Things happen. You zig, you jog, you go on.
Once buckled, lectured on safety, and prepared for a bout of in-flight knitting, we took off, and I got my first indication of what my day was really going to be like.
I'd taken my share of decongestant medication before leaving Noah and David's apartment, but it only took a few moments into the ascent for me to realize that my ears were not popping with their normal readiness. I kept working at it, and eventually they did pop, but with that thick, viscous feeling that meant they weren't clear.
A flight attendant asked about my knitting project. I pulled out its mate - the sock I'd completed a few days before - and explained that I was knitting from the toe up. I stowed it in my bag and resumed - just in time for two sharp twinges of pain to flash through my head.
Oh. Descent. I tried to make my ears pop. Nothing happened.
I kept trying. Nothing happened. Each time the pilot began a new descent, the pressure in my ears intensified. I ate the peanuts I'd been given, deliberately, slowly; nothing happened. It was only when I was done eating the peanuts did I realize that an unnatural hush had fallen over the cabin.
I looked around, and the hush was mine alone. There were people rustling newspapers, talking aloud, shuffling belongings. It wasn't that I was having difficulty comprehending sounds through the flashes of pain in my head - it was that I simply couldn't hear anything.
I landed in Phoenix to the sound of my heart thudding in my badly-pressurized ears and a goodbye statement from the flight attendant that I could not hear.
I walked the people movers of the Phoenix airport in a daze. I picked up my bag and returned to the Southwest counter, where I managed to check in to my flight without being able to hear a single word said by the clerk. She wrote my gate number on my boarding pass, and I used it to get me through the silence of terminals and security.
I sat down by my gate and tried not to panic.
I conned an extraordinarily nice lady out of a spare piece of gum, and very nearly cried when it didn't work. My ears simply wouldn't pop. They were so tender that I could barely put headphones on, but I could hear a bit of the music if I concentrated. (Barenaked Ladies' Stunt got its most attentive listen, ever.)
As I waited, a bit of hearing began to filter back into my right ear. Not much, and nothing clear, but enough that I could check messages on my cell phone and hopefully hear -
- my flight is what? Delayed by 45 minutes?
I pulled out my trusty itinerary and verified that my layover in New Orleans was only 30 minutes. Houston, we have a problem.
* * * * *
You can learn a lot about people by how they treat you when you're 'different.' The people at the Southwest counter had no idea that I was only deaf for what I hoped was the day. When I showed them my itinerary, the woman behind the counter immediately recognized the problem with my New Orleans layover. She looked at me, waited until I was looking at her face, and said very slowly and clearly,
"If we can get you in the air by five till the hour, we will call New Orleans and have the plane held for you."
They were the best words I hadn't heard all day.
She suggested I grab some lunch and check back with her in about fifteen minutes. By the end of that period, she confirmed we'd be taking off in what would hopefully be just enough time for me to catch my next flight. "You'll be landing at gate B4 right at 6:00, and your next flight is supposed to take off from B8 at 6:00. We're going to hold the flight for you. Short sprint. Want to give it a try?"
"Here's a preboard pass. Get in the first row of seats, and tell the flight attendant what's going on. They'll make sure you're the first one off the plane."
After doing so, I sat in my preferred seat (window, right side of plane, so that this right-handed knitter can prop her knitting wrist against something) and waited. As the plane ascended, I realized that my ears were popping a bit, and with each pop, I was able to hear. The pops hurt, but by the time we reached cruising altitude and heavy snacks were served, the pain was gone and I was able to respond to conversation from my seatmates.
I'm okay. I can hear. It was just transitory, I thought.
A thought which died a quick and ugly death when we left 30,000 feet and began to descend. I knew it in my ears the moment we began diving toward ground.
By the time we landed, I was in tears. I ate my fruit chews with a teary, single-minded intent, trying vainly to clear my ears before landing. Not only were we late, the pain in my ears was just as bad as it had been on the LAX->Phoenix leg of the trip. I yanked off my seat restraints and was out the door with my backpack and my knitting three seconds after the door opened. Sure enough, I was at gate B4.
For all their noise, my steps were silent in my ears - and the plane was gone. The attendant at the next gate down moved her mouth in motions that looked suspiciously like "They waited for you," but I was never sure. She printed a boarding pass and said many words, few of which I caught, but eventually I understood enough to gather that I was on the final New Orleans -> Birmingham flight, which would be leaving in an hour from the far side of the concourse.
I walked to the far side of the concourse, put my bag between my knees, and cried, not caring who saw me. They were just airport people. They would never see me again after this day, and what would they care of a silent woman crying in an airport? Probably happened all the time.
Somewhere along the way I realized that I would have to get on another plane and do this dance yet again, and it was a few minutes before the heavy pre-packaged snack settled back down in my stomach, grumbling all the while.
I realized that if I turned my phone up to its loudest volume, I could make phone calls. I called Jeff to tell him I was okay - a blatant, but reassuring, lie - and asked myself who on my call list would understand what was going on with my ears? Who might have dealt with something like this before?
I called Brian, if the conversation we had could have been described as a 'call.' (I would tend to describe it more as near-hysterical snifflesobbing.) He counseled me as best he could, and we hung up.
I called several other people and got no answer. By the time I reached the last person on my list, I was an absolute mess. I said words I don't say lightly:
"I don't know if I can do this."
I could barely hear the voice on the end of the line, but either it said "You can do this," or I imagined it and I'm just going to give him credit for it anyway.
I got on the plane, which was mostly deserted. Not many people feel the need to fly from New Orleans to Birmingham late on a weeknight. I sat in the back of the plane, nearly alone for the first time all day, and I cried for most of the trip.
I ate the peanuts at 30,000 feet, knowing that the hearing I had at that moment would go away and, by the time we descended, I would be deaf once again. As the lights of Birmingham grew closer and closer, I grew more certain that I would not finish this trip without gifting the already-eaten peanuts onto the seat in front of me.
Knitting didn't work. As we descended, I latched onto the idea of the local grocery store I like. Mentally, I walked the aisles, trying to occupy my brain by trying to name every item of every aisle of the store. We landed between the cold and hot cereals and coasted to a stop by the milk and eggs, and I grabbed my bags and ran out of the plane while mentally plotting the items in the frozen-food aisles.
I ducked into the bathroom and leaned against the cold tile, willing my breathing to calm and my stomach to settle. Jeff would be just on the other side of airport security, and I could sleep on the way home. He knew I wouldn't be able to hear, and we'd figure out a way to work around that until things got better. He wouldn't care how ghastly I looked. He'd just bundle me up in the car, take me home, and put me to bed, and everything would be okay.
* * * * *
Except that, of course, my bags didn't make it past New Orleans. The perfect end to the perfect day.
Southwest brought my bag to Huntsville the following afternoon, a few hours after I went to the doctor and received antibiotics, a steroid shot, and anti-inflammatory medication to try to ease the swelling in my ears.
But, hey, I was home, where my very lovely spouseling could (would, and did) bring me soup, blankets, kitties, and a humidifier. Everything else - well, we'd manage.