FRIDAY, MAY 14, 2010 5:50 PM, CDT
Thanks to my totally irrational insistence that I pay an obscene amount of money to fly business class on this trip (an expense which, in the future, will no longer seem obscene or frivolous now that I’ve experienced the upper .5% of the flying population’s experience,) I was finally medically released to fly home. Due to the length of the trip and the risk of clots, the surgeon had informed me that if I had been flying coach, my South Africa stay would have been significantly longer.
Travel day broke clear and beautiful out in the African bush. Jeff took full advantage of his final opportunity to spot game in the preserve while I sauntered (hobbled?) over to eat my egg and sip my hot chocolate out on the resort veranda overlooking safari plains. It was restful.
We had time for a final visit with Gerda and Emmett, passed along the pictures we had taken together and Jeff loaded up the car. Carefully I counted out my pain medicine, knowing I would be cutting it very close to having enough medicinal relief to carry me all the way home. Now familiar with the route, our trip back to Pretoria and on to the Johannesburg airport took us less than two hours. We had plenty of time to arrange a wheelchair, repack the bags with the trinkets we bought at a craft fair on the road home, reconfirm our tickets and return the rental car.
Well, Jeff had plenty of time, in all honesty. I merely shuffled from the car to the wheelchair and demand that Jeff confirm my upgrade and the flight departure time. Perhaps I was adjusting to my new bossy queen, never lift a finger, role. More likely I was a nervous wreck that something would interfere with my ability to fly home. The gate wasn’t open for check-in quite yet, so Jeff tried to appease me by confirming our flight with the Air France customer service desk. Problem was, rather than calming my fears, the customer service rep put me on high alert. Yes, I was set to fly business class to Paris, but then my records indicated a coach seat for the remainder of the journey.
Jeff promised to get it all straightened out – after he had returned our rental car – and so I sat, all alone in a wheelchair next to our luggage and carry-on bags dejected and frightened that I wouldn’t make it home today after all. The Air France agent watched my tears fall and brought me a glass of water. “You must remain positive,” he said. And of course he was right. But I was scared. And helpless. I asked him to at least check the flight to make sure seats were still available on the Paris – Salt Lake City flight in business class, and to confirm that the seats would lie flat (the doctor’s requirement for my safe travels.) Once he acknowledged that fully reclining seats were at least available I calmed myself. Jeff would get this all fixed up. He is an amazing fix-it guy.
Once the gate opened up, Jeff cleared up any confusion regarding my seats, and we used the extra time until boarding to grab a bite to eat and to check in with the kids and my folks who were holding down the fort back home.
The J’Burg to Paris flight was uneventful except that we were flying one of the new double-decker Airbus 380 planes, a super-jumbo plane that holds over 800 passengers. Jeff thought it was way cool to be part of aviation history, what with him being the first person he personally knew that had flown in the aircraft. For me, the three gangplanks leading into the two levels of the aircraft, the crowding together of so many bodies up in the sky, and the air sanitizer flares the crew sprayed throughout the cabin before we took off did nothing to ease the cramping that was occurring in my abdomen.
Jeff tucked me into my in-air lounger-recliner, checked on my comfort, alerted the flight crew to my medical situation, then headed off to his cattle car seat down the stairs and toward the rear of the plane. As I got settled, I met my seatmate, Cathy. Cathy is amazing woman from Maine, living in Paris, heading up the carbon neutral energy policy negotiations on behalf of the city of Cape Town. She is part of the global cap and trade negotiations and has lived a fascinating life. Time eased by as we shared stories of our commitment to improving the world. There was time during the 10 hour 55 minute flying time to try to eat some quite bad airplane food and sneak in a nap before the flight touched down in Paris.
At the end of the flight, I sat quietly in my seat waiting for my wheelchair escort. Jeff was loaded down with our carry-ons and we were whisked away from the new terminal that had been built to accommodate the new super-jumbo jet. Jeff practically had to run through the back corridors of the Charles-de-Gaulle airport to keep up with the wheelchair escort. After clearing security we were dropped off at the special traveler’s lounge. Here is another benefit to the outrageously priced upgrade fares. There is a hidden lounge in the basement of Charles-de-Gaulle airport. There is a banquet of food available to eat, and it might just be possible for some folks to drink up the entire cost of the upgrade in champagne, wine or liqueurs. The very best part of the lounge, for me, had to be the showers available for passengers waiting for their next plane. Tiny bottles of L’Occitane lotions, shampoos and body wash smelled of relaxing lavender. I washed, snacked and rested up for the final leg home to my family.
The four-hour layover came to an end and yet no wheelchair appeared to bring us for boarding. Worried that we had somehow missed a flight announcement, Jeff went to check on the flight. There had been a delay we were informed. We needed to be patient for at least another hour. Finally we were whisked out the jetway and onto the plane. Jeff once again settled me in to my luxe accommodation, told our story to the flight crew and headed back to his part of the plane. And then we sat. And we sat some more. Finally the Captain got on the PA and announced to the passengers that the Iceland volcano eruption was once again interrupting flights. Planes were departing, however the limited number of safe flight routes had created a huge backlog of departing flights. We were currently scheduled to depart in three to four hours. The flight back to Salt Lake would require a longer route as well, since we would need to fly north, above the southern moving ash cloud. Our 30-hour trip home quickly approached 40 hours.
I rationed my medicine and was thankful that the flight crew allowed Jeff to come sit beside me for the entire time we were grounded and they let him come up to sit with me for parts of the long journey home as well. Somewhere in mid-flight, however, my body had enough. It had been nearly two weeks since my intestines had proven that they were fully functional. Doctors get excited about farting after someone has intestinal surgery. It was explained more than once that gas is a clear indication that the digestive system works from the beginning intake of extra air, all the way through to the body’s ability to ‘pass’ that air on out. My system was handling air. Now, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, my body decided it was ready to clean itself out of everything else that had gathered over the past couple of weeks. It hurt, it cramped, and when the ‘seatbelt sign’ was illuminated I was not supposed to take care of my body’s urgent demands.
The flight crew was kind and understanding. They helped me move through the bouncing plane regardless of the seatbelt sign warning. They made me a hot water bottle and a special tray of gentle foods that might soothe my stomach. They sat with me and encouraged me through the final torturous hours when my body rebelled against the difficult journey I subjected it to so close to major surgery.
And in this way I made it home. All three kids drove to greet Jeff and I at the airport. They brought our dog, Cooie, with them, and it was an emotional and heartwarming reunion. We had to stop several times along the route home. My body was not happy. But we made it home to the banners and balloons, to the comfort and hugs that being surrounded by loved ones provides. I was finally home in the place my body needed to be if it was to heal. And I made it home on Mother’s Day.