There were four flights in total: Ranong to Bangkok, Bangkok to Tokyo, Tokyo to Chicago and Chicago to Albany. More or less 10,000 miles, backwards across the International Date Line and 12 time zones. Grueling seems too soft a word to describe the trip home. I left my hotel at 4:30 AM, needing to be at the airport three hours before the international flight. There was last minute repacking at the check-in counter and the exchanging of Thai baht for US dollars. I was already feeling exhausted and numb anticipating the next full day of travel and the unknown of what awaited me. I don’t sleep on airplanes so the longest leg, the twelve hour hop to Chicago, was the most painful. With each successive flight the seats narrowed and the legroom diminished. Between movies I spent my time watching our progress on the screen in front of me, the slow arc from Tokyo out over the North Pacific, following the coast of Alaska south, crossing over land at Vancouver and then the slow trek over US airspace; the names of islands, bays, mountains and cities alternating between Japanese and English.
I numbly maneuvered through long lines and security checkpoints. I toted my luggage and unconsciously emptied my pockets and removed my belt without being asked. I was scanned and wanded while trying to figure out what time it was where I had just come from and where I was going next. Once home jet lag and cultural readjustment assaulted me. I quickly bought a car and remembered how to use the stick shift and stay on the right side of the road as I took off across New York State to see my ailing father.
When my father was younger he traveled a bit. He was in the army and was stationed at various bases around the US, in Oklahoma and Washington. Next he was off to Korea for a war where he was wounded, a bullet through the knee. He was shipped back to Long Island, NY for a while where he mended. Near the end of his stay at the army hospital there he ventured to New York City a few times where he boasts of having drinks with Frank Sinatra. Later he was off to Germany to serve out his commitment and it was there he met my mother.
Dad doesn’t travel anymore and most days he doesn’t feel like doing anything. His world has shrunk to the mobile home he and Joyce have been living in for the past decade. Nowadays he travels from the bedroom to the bathroom, the bathroom to the kitchen, the kitchen to the living room and the living room to the patio when the weather is nice. More or less fifty feet through the house. Each leg is grueling. He shuffles around with his cane and has difficulty getting himself into and out of chairs. He totters from the bedroom to the kitchen in the morning balancing himself as he passes the stove, inching along the kitchen counter to the table where he empties the first compartment of pills for the day, drinks his juice and eats his cereal. He methodically checks his weight and his blood pressure and records them on the calendar. He then scuffles out of his kitchen chair and cautiously inches his way toward the living room. He pauses and calculates, gathering courage and steam before the final assault toward one of the recliners at the far end of the room. There he arms himself with the TV remote. He puffs. There are no deep sighs or inhalations only quick gasps of breath. A weakened heart and fluid buildup around his lungs make breathing difficult. Under each breath come breathless expressions giving voice to his frustration and unease, Jeez or Shit. He’s tired. He’s restless. When he has the energy, when the weather is favorable—not too hot, not too cold, not too muggy, not too windy—he sits outside under the carport. He struggles with the screen door and the step out of the living room. He prudently depends on his cane and the hand railing to maneuver the three stairs down to the covered patio.
Over the course of a pleasant afternoon all four chairs on the patio get occupied, each in turn giving him a different view of the road, the house, the yard. Those times he’s not outdoors each chair inside is visited for a time: both recliners, the wingback chair and the sofa. When night falls and Joyce joins him in front of the TV, the sofa is his preferred resting place where he curls up and drifts off, exhausted.
All day long he is unsettled, tired and frustrated, pained and disheartened. He questions the effectiveness of his surgeries, his heart procedures, his medicines and his recovery. He wants to be well, like the man he was a few years ago. He wants to mow the lawn and wash the car. He wants to be able to walk without a cane, to take strides instead of shuffling. He wants to drive himself and putter. But those days, like the days when he was bending elbows with Old Blue Eyes at a club in New York City, are gone.