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“Where am I?” my mother asked. It was 10 o’clock at night and she was bathed in peach light from the walls of my office, having just dozed off on my couch. She had fallen asleep 20 minutes earlier after learning that her flight from Los Angeles to New York City had been delayed from 9:53 p.m. to midnight. Fortunately, I live seven minutes from the airport, so at 8 o’clock when we got there to check her in, we were able to head back to my house.
“You don’t want to sit in the airport for four hours, right?” I asked her, heading to my car.
“Of course not,” she snapped. Even with the Alzheimer’s my mother has a way of answering questions that implies you’re an idiot for asking. It’s impressive, in a way, knowing her own brain is shrinking and yet still finding other people annoyingly simpleminded.
“Tod will not be happy to see me, I’m sure,” she added as we headed back down the 5 freeway, exposing another vestige of my mother’s personality fascinatingly intact. When she’s not completely bewildered, wondering where she is and what day it is, she’s still just as opinionated and confident as she's always been.
The last time I wrote about my mother’s brain I compared it to an old-fashioned transistor radio, similar to the one held together with rubber bands that she plays loudly in her bathroom. It feels different this trip. More like a cell phone with a dual band system that can work on two frequencies. One is loud and clear, no dropped calls, you understand everything coming through. But when it clicks over to the other frequency, the thoughts cut in and out and words can sound like jibberish, until her mind stops completely, which also happens. Scary stuff. You can see the disconnection from time and space in her eyes. Her head makes small jerky movements, like she’s actually looking for better reception. Her eyes blank, and she's still proud enough to try to cover up her disorientation.
“You’re in Los Angeles,” my husband gently reminded her. “In Dani’s office. Are you OK?”
“What do you mean? I’m fine. But I’m not getting on a plane in a storm,” she said.
“There’s no storm, mom. We’re in Los Angeles and there’s no storm,” I said.
“Of course we’re in Los Angeles,” she said. And then paused and quietly asked, “We’re in Los Angeles?”
“Yes, mom.” I said. “But there’s no storm.”
Tod left the room and gestured for me to meet him the hall.
“Let me get you some water,” I said.
“You can’t put her on a plane like that,” Tod whispered, “What if she falls asleep and wakes up and doesn’t know where she is?”
In the next six minutes the dialogue exchanged between me, my husband and my mother can only be described as “Who’s on Third”-esque
“I know, I know.” But I also know my mother, and I’d already checked with the airline and it would cost her over $700 to change her flight. She doesn’t part with money easily. I go back in the office, forgetting to get the water. She won’t remember.
“Mom, how are you? Are you OK?”
“Of course I’m OK. How are you?”
“I’m good. How are you feeling about flying? There’s no storm. There was some bad weather that delayed your flight, but there’s no problem. It’s coming in at midnight.”
“It gets in at midnight?”
“No it leaves at midnight.”
“What time does it get in?”
“Oh,” she said. A few seconds pass. “What time does my flight get in?”
In the next six minutes the dialogue exchanged between me, my husband and my mother can only be described as “Who’s on Third”-esque—an unintended homage to the Abbot and Costello routine. Eventually her post-nap fuzziness cleared, and we got all the information straight. She has someone meeting her on the ground in New York City, and she felt confident to get on her midnight flight. Everyone agreed that I would chaperone her to the gate. Hot flying tip: if someone’s health is compromised or the person is a senior or a minor, most airlines will give you a pass to accompany them to their gate. Fortunately, she had also arranged for a wheelchair, which airlines are now offering to seniors. It's a good plan for this flight since her gate was at the farthest end of the airport.
“Can you get me some cookies?” she asked, eyeing a cart of free snacks as we pulled up to her waiting area. It reminded me of my children when they were 3 years old.
“It’s too cold here,” she said, slipping mini-chocolate chip cookies between her lips, “Why do they keep it so cold?”
“I don’t know, mom.” I walked over and asked one of the ground crew if perhaps they could adjust the air conditioning, or if maybe they have a blanket for her, pointing to the tiny old woman in the wheelchair who is my mother.
“No, I’m sorry we can’t change the air. And the blankets are all on the plane,” the guy said.
A few minutes later, a clean-shaven man approached my mother carrying a blue trenchcoat.
“It’s not a blanket, but this might at least help keep your legs warm,” he said.
“So sweet, thank you,” I said. He draped the coat over her legs.
I must remember to be kind like this to older people. You don’t have as many opportunities in Los Angeles, no subways to give your seat up. Strikes me how much easier it is to ignore real aging in a city where you can keep putting it off with various shots and dyes.
“Anyone needing assistance is now invited to board flight 358 to JFK.”
“That’s you, mom. Let’s go.”
“I need assistance? What kind of assistance do I need?” And then a beat later and much quieter, “I guess I need assistance now.”