Friday, March 29, 2013

I Was the Flying Purple People Eater

I was flying from Boston to Virginia Beach to be with my mother for her first radiation treatment, the second line of defense against her advanced cancer. The front line troops had already fallen when she proved unable to tolerate the chemotherapy, so she was particularly apprehensive about this new plan of attack.
I chose an insanely early morning flight so I would get there in time to help her prepare. However, my 30-minute layover in Baltimore morphed into 10 hours in the three, lousy, soul-sucking minutes it took me to miss my connection. I remember staring at the fluorescent orange and green rings alternately stacked on the gate agent’s thumb as he held out my new boarding pass, absurdly suggesting I accept the unwanted seat on the traitorous flight that would deliver me to my mother eight hours after her treatment.
I never cry in public. I barely cry in private … unless I’m watching that hospital scene in Steel Magnolias where Mrs. Lincoln reads Cosmo to her comatose daughter … or that hospital scene inShe’s Having a Baby where Kevin Bacon thinks his wife, the spirited Countess of Grantham, has died while giving birth.
Come to think of it, give me any hospital scene in a movie that’s played on the Lifetime Channel and I’m pretty much toast. But the bottom line is still: I never cry in public. So I can’t explain my reaction that day.
But I’ll try.
One minute I was wondering if colorful thumb rings were a “thing” now for guys, and the next, my body went rogue. My chin took on a life of its own. Like Jello on steroids, it wiggled and jiggled in what I can only imagine was a desperate attempt to detach itself from my face.
At the same time, my eyes blew up like twin puffer fish and started hemorrhaging the Colorado River. Flakes of my Clinique black onyx mascara tumbled in the turbulent white water as it crashed down my rapidly swelling cheeks in thick, foamy waterfalls; careened off my jawline; and came to rest in the rising pool inside the collar of my comfy fleece pullover … which, by the way, I had slept in the night before in the futile effort to save valuable minutes getting dressed that morning so I wouldn’t … miss my flight.
But I digress.
Apparently disgusted by the overblown dramatics of my face, my nose just up and left like a deadbeat dad heading out for cigarettes and a carton of milk. In its place was my bathroom faucet, opened all the way and efficiently dumping torrents of hot salty liquid onto the slope of my top lip, where it hung for a brief, hopeful moment, before bunching its muscles and launching itself at my newly emancipated chin … which by now had discovered nightclubs and mastered the Shikira Shimmy Shake. On impact, chaos rained outward in every direction and landed in slippery splats on a group of unfortunate tourists (who learned a valuable lesson that day about respecting a stranger’s personal space) and the quickly (but not fast enough) withdrawing hand of the be-ringed agent.
I tried to speak but was limited to one mangled vowel sound per expulsion of jagged, broken breath. My steamed glasses provided me a hazy view of the horrified attendants, frozen in the awesome wake of my sudden transformation from traveler to travesty. I somehow managed the words “mother” and “dying” … which now horrified ME, because “dying,” or any of it derivatives, was strictly prohibited from entering the room where my words were kept. How did it sneak in? How did it get out?  And Holy Hulking Toblerone, Batman, was I crying?
Please, Ms. Kerman.”
I turned my leaking face towards the sound.
“We put you at the top of the stand-by list on an earlier flight. Please go to gate A13.”
The “please” was a true plea, beseeching me … please, oh please, oh snot-radiating lady, please go to Gate A13 where we will have MPs awaiting your arrival.
I grabbed the ticket and made a blurry beeline, Mr. Magoo-style, towards the nearest restroom.
I stared in curious amazement at the creature in the mirror. My skin was a mottled, magenta mess covered in raised hives in various shades of white, brown and neon pink. My swollen eyes were indistinguishable from the rest of my face except for two barely discernible slashes of black, as if they were forgotten on a child’s art project and hastily drawn in afterwards with a fined point sharpie.
I was the Purple People Eater.
Perhaps I was more affected by my mother’s illness than I thought. But I wasn’t the one whose body was being attacked by damaging cancer cells and destructive therapies. Pull it together, Adrienne, you’ve got a flight to catch.
So I determinedly trudged the concourse with my bright orange suitcase dutifully rolling behind me like a loyal pet. I ignored the wide-eyed toddler hiding behind the tower of neck pillows at Hudson News, and the gawking teenager who blatantly snapped a picture with his You-will-soon-be-on-YouTube phone. I stayed focused and pointed my oscillating chin towards Mecca, Gate A13.
The agent saw me coming and braced for impact.
It turns out he was an airline supervisor and he had been forewarned. He was a slight, middle-aged fellow, with warm brown skin, black hair and earnest eyes. He came towards me with his arms outstretched and upon arrival grasped both my hands in his own. He spoke with a heavy accent.
“What is the matter,” he asked in an almost musical lilt. “Are you afraid of flying?”
No, I thought. I’m afraid of landing.
And there it was. With a physical jolt I realized I was afraid to see my mother. I hadn’t seen her in almost a month. A month where powerful poisons had been pumped up her arm and almost killed her. A month where her hair fell out and her voice grew weak and she had to be moved into a nursing home. A month where her beloved books were closed in drawers because she could no longer focus on the words.
A month where she had asked the priest to hear her final confession, and he had given her Last Rights, just in case.
The airline got me on the next available flight and seated me in the first seat in the front row so they could keep an eye on me. But I still missed my mother’s treatment. I stood in the doorway to her room as she finished her lunch, served in two army green, plastic domed dishes. She sat on the edge of her bed, braced her slippered toes against the linoleum floor, and slowly rolled the wood-veneered tray table away from her. She turned and saw me and I whispered a wobbly, “Hi Mom.”
She cried.
I walked over, bent down and hugged her. We held on for minutes and minutes, and I can still feel that embrace. The warmth of it, the shape of it, the softness of it.
It's that hospital scene that makes me cry the hardest.