I fasten the seat belt low and tight across my lap and wait. I know what is going to happen. It's the same every time. In minutes, my chest floods with sadness, dense and heavy and dark. It presses hard against my ribs and squeezes my heart until it aches. As soon as the jet-way disconnects, signaling our separation from this place, I start to cry.
I fly this route every month, between New York and Washington DC. It's a short flight, only 50 minutes each way. Fifty minutes is not nearly enough time for what I have to do.
I flew back to DC last night just as the sun began to set. My mother drove me to the airport an hour early; my father rode shotgun, chattering in the front seat. She came around the car to hug me and thank me for visiting. We stood clasped together, listening to the chimes from the open car door, neither one of us willing to let the other go. After a long time I opened the passenger door and leaned down to kiss my father, still secured in his seat belt.
"I'll be back to see you soon," I said. "Be nice to Mom." I jostled him and he smiled.
He looked at me through glassine eyes. "I'll have the egg salad," he said, nodding with emphasis. He winked, and I winked back.
I had an aisle seat on the plane. The umbilical jet-way detached and my eyes filled.
I never used to cry. I'm not good at it: my face swells and splotches, my lips and nose turn nearly purple. Sometimes the sadness is so heavy I have to lean forward and rest my elbows on my knees.
The man across the aisle tapped me on the shoulder. "Are you alright? Do you need anything?"
I shook my head, trying to smile. He reached forward to the beverage cart coming our way and snatched a stack of napkins from the open bag. "Here. These are on the house."
I balanced the pile of napkins on my knees. "My father is sick," I said eventually, peeling off a square to wipe my nose.
I don't mind the long drive from the airport. I need the extra time. I plug in my hands-free phone device even though I am too sore to talk. I drive slowly, hardly noticing the cars speeding past and blowing their horns in irritation. The traffic soothes me.
I merged onto the Beltway last night, blending anonymously. I heard the cell phone ring through the thick fog of anguish settling in my head.
The voice came over me like a warm compress. "How was the visit?" My husband was in our kitchen, making dinner and waiting for me. He, too, appreciated the hour's drive from the airport. By the time I got home, I would be able to accept a hug and hear about his work, the mail, the dog.
He didn't recognize me at all," I sobbed anew. "He looked right at me, but nothing flickered in his expression. He doesn't know who I am. It's too late. He doesn't know me. His mind is gone." I cried and cried.
He listened and waited. "Are you driving in the right lane?" he asked.
I nodded. The sound of his voice calmed me. I blew my nose into an airplane napkin.
"Did you remember to bring tissues?" he shouted with feigned alarm. On the drive home last month, I'd had to wipe my nose with notebook paper.
I almost laughed, but not yet. "He sounds the same," I said. "When I call out, "Dad!" he answers every time. If he were dead, I wouldn't be able to hear the sound of his voice. Right?"
"That's right." We've had this discussion many times before: Death vs Dementia. After a while, he asked, "How's the traffic?"
I keep my overnight bag half-packed in the closet. I never remove the travel toiletries kit or the Ziplock bag of medicines that I need to have with me. I unpack only the clothes worn the day before, and any food my mother manages to sneak into the bag when I'm not looking. Most often, I find Hershey's Kisses or Skor candy bars, two of my favorites. I will need this overnight bag again in just a few weeks. For now, I kick it under the dresser and join my husband for dinner.