Sunday, January 27, 2013

Final Journeys

There are good friends, people whose company I delight in now, and then there are very good friends, people whom I might see only every few years, but who have lasted the test of time. As a general rule of thumb prone to all kinds of exceptions, the more decades I have known you, the better I love you. Of course, there are johnny-come-latelies whom I love dearly, and people I've known most of my life that I'm uncomfortable with, but those exceptions are very rare indeed.
Between 1977/8 and 1981, I used to volunteer at 2MBS-FM doing all kinds of things, and I still have some very fine friends that date from that time. (I've changed my name legally since then so the station won't have a record of this name, but the people I still keep in touch with will.) I will identify one of my friends by the initial Q, carefully chosen because it will not identify him.
Q was great. He wasn't the person there that I spent the most time with, on or off the Chandos St premises, and he wasn't one of the blokes there that I might have [gasp] slept with. But unlike many of them, he ended up being a long-termer.
He moved interstate when my daughter, now facing down her 21st birthday, was a pre-schooler. He had spent quite a lot of time with us when she was a baby - he even changed a nappy once. I used to joke that he'd make someone a marvellous mother some day.
I moved out of the city when I was pregnant, and time and attrition being what they were, we saw less and less of each other. However, by then he was already a long-termer, and thus a friend for life. We kept in sporadic touch: the odd postcard, phone call, letter, and later on when it had been developed, email. We had a history of really only telling each other the big, important things in life.
Late last year, he told me he had cancer of the pancreas. At the time I was dealing with not one but two seriously ill people, so I more or less put him on the backburner, to my shame. Time passed without my even really realising it, and he became sicker and sicker without saying anything else to me. The next news of Q that I had jolted me to the core, was only a couple of weeks ago (I suppose - I've always had a loose grip on time): a nurse rang me to inform me that he was being transferred into a palliative care unit, and that I was the only person he ever asked for. This was later that same day after I woke up after a dream of standing frozen with fear-of-heights on one of those huge inter-city cable-supports that carry electricity long-distance around the grid and look like giant robots - and he was an electrical linesman for most of his working life!
I immediately consulted with my finances. I didn't have enough cash to hire (or borrow) a car and buy the fuel it would have taken to drive there, although I love long-haul driving. I also didn't have enough cash to buy plane tickets, which would have been a similar travel-budget but would have allowed me much more time with him and would have necessitated at least some budget for accommodation - you can sleep in a car, borrowed or hired, if you're like me and can sleep anywhere.
I just couldn't see how I was going to get there. I knew I couldn't. But I had to. But I couldn't. I moaned to friends. Sadly, they were broke friends and had nothing to offer except sympathetic ears which was all I really wanted or expected when I moaned. I moaned on Facebook as my need-to-get-there-can't-get-there crisis got worse, and very quickly a certain Facebook and real-world friend offered me money to get down there.
This threw me into a dilemma: I couldn't honestly offer to repay it as I'm working just enough to survive (I seem to be happiest that way), so I didn't want to take it. I had to argue myself into accepting the offer, spelling it out to them that it would have to be a gift rather than a loan as I didn't know when I'd be able to give it back, and also arguing to myself that during my affluent decade - yes, I definitely had one - I thought nothing of throwing large lumps of money at friends who might have needed it for something (bills, sometimes, and I financed holidays, and even part-financed a fledgling jazz musical that never got off the ground for various friends). If I could give money away without strings when I had it, why wouldn't I accept it when I needed it from someone who thought they could afford it and liked me enough to want to help me out?
Put like that, I couldn't worm my way out of accepting help. And I really, really needed to fly interstate. I looked online at the prices of a few of the budget domestic airlines, and decided how much I needed, and consulted with the Generous One. A couple of days later, my bank account was suddenly stuffed with dollars. A few hours and an online booking later, my bank account dropped significantly. I got the best value ticket price there and back from Virgin, but I hadn't reckoned with their online booking fee, which seemed to be calculated only when you committed to pay. Never mind - in the meantime the Predictable Bit of my income had come in, I had paid my rent, and I wasn't going to need groceries if I was away from home. A few more dollars - not many more - to play with. But that was okay - I could sleep on a hospital chair and save on accommodation!
Work was a problem when choosing my dates: I work a day here and a day there normally, and while I was trying to line everything up, I was offered an extra day's work that I really couldn't afford to turn down, stymying me and putting back my departure date. But from last Friday morning to this Monday night, I was utterly free, so that's when flew. An early enough morning-flight that in order to check in before the flight I had to set my alarm for 4.00am (which I never do - I object to round numbers, so I set it to 4.02am). Shower, dress, pack the last-minute stuff, jump on a bus, a train, another train, and I was there early enough to check in for my flight. I was planning to fly back late Monday afternoon so that I could sleep in my own bed and be ready for a day's work on Tuesday. 
As I did the commute down to the city airport, I had time to really think. It had been a good twenty-five years since my last flight, and if it would be a similar time to my next, I would be lucky to even fly again in my lifetime. I'm an Earth-person, really wedded to the ground under my feet. Ironically, my memories of flying previously were memories of pure joy: I hate sleeping "upstairs" anywhere because I am too far from soil and bedrock to be comfortable and relaxed, I have a fear of heights when I am in any way connected to the ground - cliff-edges, staircases, high buildings and the like are torture to me, and my muscles are reluctant to work on the second rung of any ladder and lock up permanently on the third. Yet in my twenties I absolutely adored hang-gliding at Kernell and the few flights I had taken in my lifetime were also wonderful. I figured that this was because I had a grave lack of trust in things that might - or might not - collapse under me, but when I am supported only by the air, there is nothing to collapse. Commuting down, I decided that as this trip might be my last chance to fly and as I had booked window seats both ways, I was really, really going to let myself enjoy the flight.
On the flight out, check-in was crowded but uneventful. After that I drank coffee, smoked cigarettes, drank more coffee, and got ushered into a plane. My seat was just behind the left wing, which was great: I would get a good view both above and below me, and I would be able to see the ailerons working as well, which pleased me. Sadly, the left ailerons were rather dented and battered, which didn't. We had a very long taxi out to the end of one of the runways. Safety demonstrations haven't changed in all the time since I last flew - the only thing that had changed was that now lifejackets are hidden under the seats instead of above them. After that, the pilot spoke to us, telling us that we were going to swing out over the Pacific Ocean, then make a right-turn over land.
My fear of heights seems to be specific to this body, associated with no particular memories. My fear of drowning isn't: I have long-ago-and-far-away memories of being drowned at least twice: once when I was thrown off a riverboat and once when someone held me by the shoulders in shallow water. Water is for drinking, cooking and showering in - I dislike baths and if I find myself having to swim (which I regard as a safety-skill not a pleasure), I make quite sure never to immerse my face, snorkel or no. I surruptitiously felt around under the seat, making sure I could find the life jacket.
We reached the end of the taxi-way, did a left turn into the runway, then the pilot throttled up and we started racing over the tarmac. I could hear the salamander (magical Fire Elemental) in the engine closest to me, roaring with sheer pleasure at being able to feast on all that air and all those hydrocarbons. I could feel sylphs (Air Elementals) sliding around, under and over the surfaces. It felt much like "borrowing" the body of something big and ferocious in meditation, feeling its muscles powering up for the kill.
I was waiting for the sensation I could remember from previous flights: that instant when the rear two wheels pick up off the tarmac. As an Earth-person I am rarely ungrounded: the only times I ever get ungrounded are when I get totally immersed in books, and pretty much as soon as I stop reading I am fully plugged-in to the Earth again. I understand that at the beginning of meditations and magical work other people need to ground - but it boggles my mind having to do so, with its implication that they live bits of their lives ungrounded. I really can't imagine it. And aside from reading, the only times I get ungrounded are in those very rare flights. That instant when physical contact is broken with the earth is a rare and precious moment for me, one to be savoured.
And it happened. It was every bit as delicious as I remembered. The nose of the plane went up, and I watched the ground fall away from beneath me. That, too, was delicious, not terrifying. I think I might take up parachuting in my old age! Buildings became smaller, the beaches scallopped the coastline, growing smaller and more detailed like intricate fractal art. And then we were out over the ocean.
I had a quiet chat to the salamander in the engine closest to me, telling it to keep on firing up the engine and to talk to its buddy on the other side of the plane. I had a quiet talk to the sylphs all around, asking them to be gracious enough to keep bearing the weight of the plane for a while. Magic works - we didn't crash into the ocean, and I never had to grapple with my lifejacket.
Looking down at the sea, I felt my horror of drowning recede. The air was clear, and I could see the different textures of the water's surface: where it was shallow, where it was deep, where it might have been over a shoal of fish, where it might have been roiling with invisible, unbroken waves. Fascinating. Then the aeroplane banked, which I saw as you might in a computer game, without feeling it, and we came in over land again.
It looked as it does through google-earth, and it looked entirely different to how it looks through google-earth. Through google-earth, you see the buildings, the vegetation, the rocks, all that stuff. You don't see depth. Through a plane window, you see all of that, but you see heights and depths as well. The courses of the rivers are embedded in the land deeply to some distance on either side - they aren't embedded in high-altitude photos. Little towns are connected to each other by little ribbons of trees following the roads through agricultural land - the overall impression I was left with was how little of our supposedly wildest continent in the world was still wild. The land has been thoroughly harnessed to produce meat for McDonalds patties and grain for McDonalds buns. This thought occurred to me with some sadness. The idea of wild versus domesticated land had previously occurred to me via out of body work and via google-earth, but it really hit home with the physicality of air travel - obviously, even at those altitudes I was still grounded to some extent.
I enjoyed every moment of the short flight, so engrossed in the view from the window that I wasn't even aware when the attendant came along to offer me a coffee. She persisted, though, and I refused and went back to my view. We passed a stage where there was some cumulus cloud far below us, dense and white, and with huge vertical columns being forced upwards by thermals from the heated ground below. And between us and the cumulus, some scrapings of thin cirrus clouds, below us but a lot closer. I was aware and thankful, again, for sylphs: supporting us under the wings, and simply playing for the sheer enjoyment of it in the cirrus.  All too soon, over agricultural land the plane started powering back and dropping. I loved the low-gravity feel of each drop in height, then the substantial thump of wheels on tarmac, the roar of reverse-thrust jets slowing us down, and the taxi to the docking-point. I was suddenly grounded again.
In an airport I had never visited before in a state I had only ever driven through at high speed avoiding the capital city, I found my luggage without difficulty, then went in search of a smoking-spot and a coffee. Replenished, I had to find a given hospital. This took me time: eventually I resorted to the time-honoured technique of asking a taxi-driver. He gave me what I needed to know. I took pity on him and asked for his rough quote on how much it might take in cab fare: his eyes lit up. My heart sank. I had little enough money for food and unforeseen costs. He was quite civilised, though, and told me where I needed to go and what I needed to ask for to access cheaper public service infrastructure to take me close to (but not right to) the hospital.
An hour later I was dumped in a leafy street, and started walking. It took me a long time to work out that I had walked in exactly the wrong direction, turn around, and retrace my steps. Hospital receptions are the same Australia-wide, it seems: a nurse with a computer terminal gave me long and complicated instructions on how to get to the palliative care unit, which I supplemented every time I caught the eye of someone wearing a name-tag. My luggage bumping behind me and my carry-on laptop heavier and heavier on its shoulder-strap, I ended up where I needed to be in the early hours of the afternoon.
Q was asleep. He looked like crap-on-legs. The only medical technology he was hooked up to was a pulse-monitor on a finger and a single tube into an arm-vein for his hydration needs: he evidently wasn't on the edge of death yet, as far as technology was concerned. I pulled up a chair and sat quite near him, and held his hand. After what seemed like quite a long time he woke up, smiled thinly at me and tried to speak. Nothing came out. So I talked. I talked quietly and evenly, long-term memories of things we had done together: the Mike Willissee incident at the 729 Club on Sunday in our 2MBS days, drunken Sunday Afternoon Tennis, slow-waltzing up and down a staircase together to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington when I was younger than my daughter is now, a sex-free weekend away sharing a hotel room in the Southern Highlands, him teaching me the only possible way to make meat pies edible and how many inside-out pies I've eaten since. When I ran out of shared memories, I picked up a two-day-old local newspaper and read aloud to him, with my own brand of unique political commentary added in. I regretted not bringing a Pratchett book with me to read from.
All this time, he drifted in and out of morphine-induced dreams. I like to believe that when he was conscious he knew who I was the whole time, but I doubt it. He certainly seemed grateful to have a friendly voice making steady, calm noises with occasional bouts of laughter, whether his eyes were clouded and distant or whether they were focussed on me, following me carefully. After that first attempt at speaking to me he never tried again, and no one ever heard him say anything again.
I escaped a couple of times for fresh air, a nurse made me coffee (she said I was doing her job, so it was a fair trade), and the sun set - or at least, the room got darker and colder. When he started shaking, I got a blanket off the table, doubled it up, and wrapped his skinny little body up carefully. His bag of saline got replaced, and a shot of morphine went into the thingie hanging below it. The nurse told me he'd probably sleep most of the night, and there was nothing more I could do. I didn't go away: instead, I slept in the bedside armchair, my big purple winter-wrap being used as a blanket. It was a fitful night: I tended to wake several times an hour spontaneously, as well as when staff came in to check on him. In the morning, I was woken by more coffee, this time poor quality instant coffee, but what the hell - it was wet and hot.
The second day was more of the same, except that I was smelly and itchy from not having showered and changed my clothes. I really don't think Q noticed. His dreaming spells became longer, and his periods of consciousness became shorter and even cloudier. Did I get recognised? I don't know, and I don't think it matters all that much. By now I was here for my own benefit: he could die with or without me, but earlier in life I was a bit ungracious to dying friends, and treating him properly was a part of my making amends to them.
I never saw a doctor (and I wasn't his next-of-kin anyway), but at some stage a very kind nurse I hadn't seen before came by, introduced herself as the one who had rung me up weeks ago, and told me he was now in a coma he was unlikely to ever emerge from. I didn't comment, I just thanked her for her tact, and made to leave. She allowed me to use the nurses's station internet connection to get onto Virgin and change my flight time (for another fee), then I left the hospital.
I wasn't all that sad - I was much sadder when I first heard. In fact, I had had the sensation that he was more-dead-than-alive from the moment I walked in: the moments when his eyes were open and actually focussed and aware were moments of effort on his part, dragging him back to his body. My primary concern was for myself, now - I became aware of how desperately I needed to shower and lie down. Thank the gods for pubs-with-rooms-above, I say.
After a fabulous shower and a change of clothes I ate the best pizza of the last fifty years, made at that same pub. The crust was so thin that it had the texture of crackers topped with prawns so fresh that they were nearly swimming, the garlic was treated properly - that is, it was treated as a separate ingredient and not a spice - and the tomato base was obviously someone's Italian grandmother's secret home recipe. Perversely for those who colour-code wines and foods, I opted for a glass of Merlot, though after the first sip I'd wished I'd gone for the Cab Sav. Never mind - at least it was red.
The flight home was interesting. Remember I brought my internet-booked ticket forward also on the net? I had scribbled the new flight number, time and reference number in the margins of my original paperwork. So I rocked up at the airport in plenty of time to check in. Reached the head of the queue, and told the guy that I was booked on the flight to Sydney at something-o-clock. He told me there wasn't a flight at that time, and had I booked with another airline? I suggested that his own website would be reluctant to book flights with other carriers, and he looked again. Nope, I was booked nowhere. So I told him what flight I had come in on, and he looked it up. Yes I was there and I had paid for the return flight, but there was no trace of a return seat for me. I threw myself on his mercy and asked him to get me on a plane back. He offered me a flight an hour after the flight-time I had booked online, and again, a window seat. I accepted. So he told me what departure gate to take, and told me to be there in time for the original flight-time! I offloaded my bag, and was at the proper gate at the earlier time, getting my carry-on and my body scanned. Waiting, waiting.
Then there was an announcement, telling everyone boarding flight number whatever at gate X, to go to Gate Y, right down the other end of the airport! A planeload-ful of people sighed, stood up, and went on the long walk to the other end of the airport. It took us ages to get down there, and only one of their scanners was working. Even though we had just been scanned we had to go through it all again, with only one scanner. It was after takeoff time before we had all boarded. Then the pilot made an announcement that he had decided to refuel, and it would be another twenty minutes. It was a lot longer than that. After the refuelling was completed he said that he had done a walk-around and discovered damage to a tyre, so could we all disembark in an orderly fashion so that the engineers could change the tyres. We did so. By now the smokers amongst us were all collected in a nervious little pile of twitching people, sniffing each other's breath and clothes for any trace of Queen Nicotine that we could get. Then after a wait, the staff got us back in.
Again, I appreciated that delightful moment when the tyres left the ground, and the rapid rise away from the earth. This time there was a lot of cumulus cloud around, and the pilot cleverly navigated a route through it so that the windows didn't white-out, but instead I got a grandstand view of the constructions of the cloud, the towering columns of twisting shapes from the inside of the cloud-layer as well as when we rose above it. We came back to Sydney not from the ocean but over the Blue Mountains, and once again, it amazed me how clearly I could sense heights and depths of mountain ridges and valleys. Landing was uneventful; my bag didn't come out on the right carousel but on one that apparently was dedicated to a flight from quite a different part of the continent, and before I knew it, I was on the simple surface commute towards my home.
It occurred to me, that just as I was probably taking my final journey on a plane, Q was taking his final journey in this body. Farewell, old man. In my strange, perverted, non-sexual way, I loved you.