It’s a gray rainy morning when I get to the Brussels airport. I arrive at 9AM - plenty of time to catch my 1:30pm flight to Miami. I ask the lady at the counter how early I can check-in. She tells me 10:30 and points to the counter I should go to. I go to get a coffee and something to munch on for breakfast. At 10:25, I return to find a line a mile long at the counter. It takes me over an hour to get my boarding pass. Man, this day is already off to a great start.
After taking thirty minutes to pass through Passport Control, I spend another hour waiting in the security line. I get through and they pull me aside. I don’t know why. Then the TSA woman tells me they have to swab my hands for explosive residue. What the hell? Anyways, they swab my fingers and it comes back negative. What the hell triggered that?
Finally through all that bullshit, I get up to Gate B30 and stand in yet another line to get a seat assignment. Apparently they over-booked the plane. How the fuck does that happen?! They know how many seats they have. It seems simple to me. Jesus. Anyways, I stand in line for the better part of an hour waiting for a seat assignment. They keep telling us they can’t give out seats yet because the flight is not “closed”. Even at 1:30, when the plane is supposed to be taking off, they tell us the flight is still not closed. Who the hell is running this circus? I try to keep my cool. I have given myself three and a half hours between when my plane lands in Miami and when my flight to Norfolk departs. I’m still ok.
Around 2pm they finally give us seats, bumping me to first class - I get the leg room but none of the other amenities - but we don’t board until 3pm. Once onboard they announce that the flight, which is supposed to be direct from Brussels to Miami, will have to detour to Amsterdam to get a part to fix the plane (Yeah, you read that right). About 4pm we finally take off. We land in Amsterdam at 4:30, sit on the tarmac for forty-five minutes while they fix the plane. By this time I realize there is no way in hell I’m making my connecting flight to Norfolk. I resign myself to that fact and decide to relax. I’ll just deal with it in Miami. There is absolutely nothing I can do for the next 10 hours. Except endure a miserably long flight.
I kill time by writing my next blog post and watching “Gone Girl” - A lot better of a film than I thought it would be. I tried to get some sleep but, as always, I can not sleep on a plane. The old woman to my right is nice enough, we speak briefly, but I think she must be whacked out on Xanax or something. When she talks to you her eyes are nearly closed. She’ll be talking to the Flight Attendant about something and when the attendant leaves, the old woman continues talking not even realizing the person has left. When they bring her food, she ends up spilling it all over herself, the aisle, and the floor between me and her (Thank god there was an empty seat between us to buffer me from the mess). She knocks over her glass of wine more than once, the beverage pouring all over her and she doesn’t even notice. She spills what appears to be General Tso’s chicken all over her carry-on bag. This woman is a mess.
I land in Miami at 9:30pm EST, ten minutes after my connecting flight leaves. After talking to four different American Airline employees I finally find the ticket counter. There is a humungous line. I just shake my head. Of course. There is a American Airline employee at the end of the line answering questions. She comes to me and I tell her I just missed my flight and wanted to see if I can get on the next one. She must have felt sorry for me because she pointed me to a second, very short line. She says, “I tell you what - you go to that line over there.” I move to the short line and soon after I get to the ticket counter. I explain my situation again. The lady is very nice and says she can transfer my ticket over to the next flight to Norfolk at no charge, but the flight is not until tomorrow at 10:45am. I was afraid of that. She prints my boarding ticket and gives me a discount ticket to the Clarion down the road so I can get a room for $75. I thank her and head to the hotel shuttle. I have to hand it to American Airlines. It was not their fault at all that my other flight (with a Netherlands Airline) was delayed. They had no responsibility yet they changed my ticket over at no cost and gave me a hotel discount. I’m impressed.
I get to the hotel and go right to sleep. The next morning, I take a much needed shower and go downstairs for the free breakfast. God. It’s horrible. Powdered eggs and soggy bacon. I grab an apple to take with me, thinking ‘well, you can’t fuck up an apple, right?’… Back in my room, as I pack, I bite into the apple. The worst apple I have EVER tasted in my life. After just a few bites I spit it out and throw it away.
I catch the shuttle to MIA and get through all the security measures without incident. I board the plane and get to Norfolk right on time. Today seems to be off to a slightly better start than yesterday.
My brother-in-law Tim picks me up from the airport. He updates me on my grandfather’s condition as we head to Hampton. He says it’s tough to see Gan this way (Gan is what my sister, Kelly, and I have called our grandfather since we were able to talk).
We get to Gan’s house. I walk in and the first thing I see is a hospital bed in the living room. Gan looks frail, skeletal. Tim was right. It’s difficult to see my grandfather this way. He is just a husk of his former self. He is hooked up to oxygen. He can’t move at this point. I walk to the bedside and talk to him. He can’t talk but he is responsive. His eyebrows raise when I tell him I’m back from Europe.
The family takes shifts sitting with him. I grab a nap in the back bedroom from 9pm to 1am, and then take the overnight shift since my internal clock is still on European time and it will be easier for me. Despite the hospice’s prediction that it wouldn’t be long, Gan’s condition doesn't change at all through the night. It’s hard to tell what he’s feeling, so my sister and I decide to begin administering Morphine every hour on the hour just to make sure he is not in pain.
In the morning, Kelly and I run out and get some breakfast for everyone. At some point Gan’s breathing becomes more labored. We are all sitting with him for a long while. In the early afternoon, with no apparent change in his condition, the family starts planning lunch. I go into the kitchen with my grandmother to see what I have to work with and to make a grocery list. Dad steps outside to take a phone call. Mom and Kelly are sitting on the couch in the living room.
As I’m sorting through pots in the kitchen, Kelly runs in and tells me to come into the living room right away. I’m confused at first, then it hits me.
I run into the living room. Mom and Kelly are standing by the bedside with their hands on Gan. His color is different. He is still. No labored breath. No breath at all. We all stand silent for what seems an eternity. Partly out of reverence, partly waiting to see if he takes another breath - they say sometimes a person on their deathbed can go 45 seconds between breaths - you have to wait a while to be sure. After a long while, we call it. 1:45pm. September 17, 2015.
My sister is upset that, after all that time by his side, the one moment we step away is the moment he leaves. Which is understandable - it's almost like we abandoned him at the most crucial moment. My parents reassure her that this was probably what he was waiting for - for us to go about our business and not be hovering over him like a hawk. Maybe he didn’t want to exit with us watching. Kelly was also upset that she and my mom were sitting there and did not notice his last breath. I tell her I think that's a good thing. Had she noticed, it would have meant it was loud and most likely painful. He went quietly and, I hope, peacefully. Gan always said, “Old soldiers don’t die, they just fade away” and he did just that.
It’s gray and drizzling on Monday, September 21st when we lay my grandfather in the ground. It’s a military burial. As a Marine who fought in the Pacific Theater in World War II, it’s what he wanted. As "Taps" slowly drifts on the damp gray air, the Marines fold up the flag that adorned Gan’s casket and present it to my grandmother.
It still hasn’t fully sunk in. Gan is gone. Never again will I hear that greeting, “Hey, Champ!” Never again will I sit down in that living room, sip on a cup of coffee, and talk with him. It just doesn't seem real.
The past two weeks as a whole don’t seem real. I’m back in the States, unexpectedly; My grandfather is gone; I have no home; I have no job; And while I have not gotten back together with my ex-girlfriend, we are hanging out again in some strange capacity - She even attended the funeral with me, which I think I needed. It’s like I stepped into a twisted surrealist version of my life. Like Salvador Dali took my biography, chewed it up, spit it out and handed it off to Luis Buñuel to direct the film adaptation of it - one only to be screened at midnight art house theaters where people walk out saying ‘I’m not sure what the point was’. Even the weather of late seems to echo the weirdness. Storm clouds have been lingering for days, always seeming on the verge of a major tempest, yet nothing really happens. I’m in limbo. Gray gloomy days just looming, something unknown lurking just behind them, never revealing itself. Is it something sinister, or something miraculous? I’m not sure.
I need to get back on the road. Right now the plan is Mid-October. Not even sure where I’m heading to. Maybe Paris. Maybe Madrid. Everything is up in the air right now. But then, I guess that’s life. Nothing is certain and nothing stands still.