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The bump, rumble and screech of the tires, the long, loud whoosh of air beneath the expanded wings, and the roar of engines confirmed that we’d landed safely. I released the arms of my seat, wriggled my fingers to get the blood flowing in them again and breathed. I smiled at the woman sitting beside me in first class, wearing designer everything and fancy pearls. As she got up from her aisle seat, she gave me a glance that said, “What’s wrong with you?” I realized that I was shaking and my eyes were still moist. I said, “I’m sorry,” but could barely get that out.
My children had planned this trip. “If you’re going, and our wives say you are, then you may as well go first class all the way,” my sons had told me. I hadn’t flown anywhere in years, and never in first class. I felt a bit guilty and a tad uncomfortable with the extra attention. Here I was, a half-rate hippie, 62-year-old physics professor from the University of Minnesota in a vintage houndstooth jacket, complete with faux leather on the elbows—not because I’m stylish, mind you, but because my favorite jacket had holes in the elbows and my lovely Debra had fixed them for me. I was wearing a poorly ironed old white oxford shirt and one of my favorite pairs of grey woolen slacks. The only thing missing from my standard attire was my grey tie, which my daughters-in-law withheld against my protests. Most everything on this excursion went against my objections, yet here I sat.
Around me in first class sat men in lightweight, thousand-dollar three-piece suits and women in chic outfits, even the older folks like me. I felt completely out of place, and I’m sure I looked like a homeless person in comparison. The edges of my sleeves on both the coat and shirt were worn; tiny stray strings adorned them like unintended fringe. My pant cuffs and the collar of my shirt were every bit as worn. My neighbors in first class looked at me, some clearly wondering what I was doing in first class, and others wondering how they could help the poor old fella obviously here with help from some charity. The latter was most true. I think I chose my oldest clothes out of spite or depression. Truth be told, everyone was nice. Even the lady who sat next to me, at first, though I wore her down with my whimpering as the flight progressed.
We were about to disembark the airplane in Las Vegas. The other passengers were all standing in the aisle, anxious to leave, here to undoubtedly spend money and have a great time. I’d been forced to come and was committed to sitting in my hotel room for a week, working on a physics problem I felt I was close to solving but that had eluded me, pretty much like everything else in my life in recent years. I remained in my seat, unsure I could move had I wanted to jostle with the others. I was in no hurry to begin this ridiculous journey.
I took another deep breath. If the flight had petrified me, stepping out of the airplane scared me to death. It wasn’t so much flying. I’d flown a great deal. It was doing it alone for the first time and doing pretty much anything without my beloved Debra.
You see, my life—well, my will to continue to live—had ended six months prior, to the day. By that, I mean, my wife and soulmate, best friend and lover, Debra, had passed away in March. We’d been inseparable since we met at a rally for something during our freshman year in college. It was love at first sight. We married a little less than two years later. Last week would have been our 42nd wedding anniversary and a few weeks past 44 years since that wondrous day we’d first met. I stayed in my bedroom and cried all day on our anniversary and can hardly believe I’m sitting on this godforsaken airplane a week later. I’d cried quite a bit during the flight. The flight attendants had been very understanding and helpful. The woman sitting beside me was visibly relieved as she left her seat with purpose, glaring down at me. After my nod of apology as she rose, she ignored me.
I stared out the tiny window across the tarmac, which looked hot and foreboding under the Nevada sun, watching, but not seeing, the people bustling about removing luggage and the like. I wasn’t sure whether the wavy distortions were due to the heat or my addled brain. I couldn’t believe my Debra was gone. I half-believed that if I turned to the seat beside me, she’d be there, patiently, warmly waiting for me to gather my things. I didn’t turn. I knew she wasn’t there.
This whole nightmare was an anniversary present from our children. They nearly had to force me onto this plane and into this seat. I’m such a mess that it was easy for my oldest to get a pass to get through security to help his elderly father onto the plane. I guess Jim Jr. has connections, and both boys are filthy rich. I could go on and on about them, but I usually left that to Debra, who was better at bragging on our boys, their wonderful wives and our grandchildren.
Truth be told, Debra’s death was as much a blessing for her as it was a curse for me. She’d been suffering through cancer treatments for over two years and had lived longer than anyone expected. I think she did that for me. One last Thanksgiving and Christmas with the family, I think. And one last Valentine’s Day with me, the two of us alone in her hospice room, flowers everywhere, nibbling on chocolate-covered strawberries, holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes. We didn’t talk much. That was difficult for her. I mumbled how much I loved her and would miss her. The doctors did everything they could. I’d spent nearly everything we had as I tried to try to find a way to save her. I knew, as I sat with her on that last Valentine’s Day, that I’d failed.
One month later, March 14 of this year, my children guided me into her hospice room. Tears poured from my eyes. I knew it would be her last day . . . our last day . . . my last day. As I struggled to compose myself for her, the doctor dialed back her meds. She opened her eyes as I held her withered hand in mine. I leaned down to her beautiful face and told her how much I loved her and always would. Gazing into my eyes with those deep brown masterpieces and that wise knowing look she always gave me when she was about to set me straight, my dear Debra whispered, “Jimmy, I will always love you and I will always be with you, but you, my dear sweet Jimmy, cannot stop living because I’m gone. You’re strong and vibrant. Move on, find someone to spend the next 25 years of your life with. I want most of all for you to be happy. I need you to find your way to being happy.” Her voice was faint, raspy, but this came from her soul. She knew I was useless on my own.
“I’ll try,” was all I could muster. My eyes clouded as I lay my head on her chest and she put her hand on my head, as she had so many times when I was troubled or stuck. I could barely make out her faint heartbeat. After only a few seconds, I felt her hand go limp and fall off onto my neck. The heartbeats stopped. So did her breathing. The monitors beeped, and nurses ran in, but the doctor held them back with a wave of her hand. I could feel something leave her body. It moved through me, warmed me, for only the tiniest of moments, but it was enough. Then reality. There was nothing more to be done. I stumbled backward, and my sons caught me. She was gone.
I was inconsolable. It was the worst day of my life and the beginning of the end for me. Or so I thought.
And now, here I sat, crying like a baby, staring out the window, ignoring the world, in a cushy first-class seat at the gate of the Las Vegas airport. People scurried above me, securing their luggage and the fastest route out, but I heard none of it. Before this flight, I hadn’t had a drink in over 25 years. Debra was an alcoholic, though a pleasant one. We’d figured it out together, and she’d received excellent treatment, went to meetings regularly, had a dutiful sponsor, sponsored many other young women over the years and hadn’t had a drink since. I’d stopped too. It was hard for her. It was easy for me. I’d simply stopped. Like everything we’d done during our courtship and marriage, we did it together.
I had two glasses of red wine on the flight. It hadn’t helped. Of course, I was wearing a couple of drops on my white shirt along with a smattering of gravy in the middle, at the top of my belly. In the last six months, I’d lost all and more of the weight I’d gained during the previous two years. My clothes were baggy. One thing I’d done was walk. I’d slowly walk and walk, using my cane more often, depressed and thinking about how I could join Debra, wandering often until I was lost. I didn’t care and I’d find my way.
I looked down at the gravy stain. Debra had always made fun of me for spilling, pulling her Tide stain pen out of her purse and insisting that the stain be worked on right there in the middle of dinner.
When I’d turned sixty, all the younger professors in the science department gave me plain grey ties, the sort I always wore, with stains in precisely that location. One after another, I opened varying sizes of boxes, only to find the same exact gift inside. Debra had been there. After I’d opened the last box, they handed her a box of Tide pens. Everyone had a good laugh.
A tiny smile crept in under my tear-soaked cheeks as the attendant said, “Sir, it’s time to get off the plane.”
“Oh, sure. Sorry. Lost in thought. I’m a professor of theoretical physics. We tend to do that.” I began to wipe my eyes with my sleeve, but the attendant handed me a napkin. My cheeks warmed as I thanked her. The nice woman helped me up and gave me my cane from the bin above. I only needed it occasionally for balance, but I needed it now. She pulled down my computer case and handed it to me. It was the only thing left in the bin. The rest of my luggage was checked. My sons’ wives had helped me pack. They refused to allow me to bring any of my ties or jackets or any of my old woolen pants. They’d bought me several new things. “What a waste,” I’d complained.
“Doc, you haven’t bought anything new in 20 years,” the girls had said. Both boys, their wives and pretty much everyone called me Doc. They called Debra “Mom.” Everyone did. I was always a tad jealous, I think, but she deserved it. She was a phenomenal mother to our two boys, Jim Jr. and Bobby, and really to all the children in the neighborhood, our sons’ buddies and myriad girlfriends, and even some of our adult friends as they dealt with trauma in their lives. Everyone turned to Debra for a kind ear, real and meaningful assistance, and the perfect, soothing words. Truth be told, among the many roles she played in my life, something like a mother was among them.
She’d chosen the boys’ names. I wasn’t at all sure I wanted a junior, but she insisted. “I can only hope that he grows up to be half as wonderful as you are,” she’d said as she lay in the hospital bed, me beside her holding her hand while the nurse cleaned and weighed our first child. I’ll never forget that day or the birth of Bobby six years later.
I’d managed to reach the space outside the door from the plane and lean against the wall of the circular landing at the end of the gangway. I was out of the way of the workers entering and exiting the doors, delivering luggage checked at the last minute to other passengers, but I’d moved no further and I had no luggage to wait for. I stood. Those memories of my life, back when I’d been living, seemed to be from another time, another era.
Sally, Bobby’s wife, was of New York Irish descent, red-haired and tender, with an occasional edge to her. She’d been adamant about this trip and the clothes, but, of course, I’d pushed back.
“My clothes are perfectly fine,” I’d snapped. “I’m just going to hide in the room for the week. Why do I need clothes for that? And I need my tie.” But Sally refused, gathering my grey ties and throwing them all in the waste basket with finality. I sighed, finding my eldest’s face. “If I have to go on this crazy trip, I’m wearing something I’m comfortable with!” I had to put my foot down somewhere, didn’t I?
“For physics, maybe, but not for Vegas,” responded Victoria, Jim’s wife. She’s good ol’ Scandinavian stock, with blond hair and blue eyes, so common up in Minnesota. Both girls were so dear to me. I already missed them.
“Why, again, do I have to go to Las Vegas, of all places, and by myself?” I pleaded to Jim Jr., hoping for a last-minute stay of execution.
“Doc,” Sally stepped in and said gently, her hand on my shoulder, “you’re dying. You’re letting yourself die. You need to find a way to live again. It’s what Mom wanted. You can’t let her down. This is the way.”
The other three stood steadfast behind her, but I trudged on, “OK, fine. But why is going to Vegas alone, at my age, the way?”
“You know this. We’ve gone over it a thousand times.” Sally was emphatic and a bit exasperated by this discussion. “As I meditated with my yogi, this trip for you came through in the most clear and vivid vision I’ve ever had. Then it happened three more times, each more vivid than the last. Then Victoria had the same vision, and before we even told you about our visions, you dreamed it.”
“I don’t know what it is about Vegas, but the universe wants you there,” Victoria had chimed in. She was also into all that psychic mumbo jumbo.
“Plus, you and Mom loved Vegas, especially Mom,” Bobby said, putting a hand on my other shoulder.
“Mom went every year,” Sally interjected.
“It’s where she took anyone she was helping out of some emotional mess, and they always came back healed,” Victoria reminded me. I nodded, remembering the many people who loved my Debra for all she did for them, often involving a trip to Vegas.
“It’s a special place for you two, and especially for her,” Sally continued. “I don’t know why the spirits are driving you back there, but they are, and you know it.”
“Why do I have to go alone? I’ve never gone anywhere alone. Never this far alone.” Visions and meditation and all that stuff were hokum as far as I was concerned. I’m a physicist, for crying out loud. Of course, we’d had that discussion. I’d lost, somehow, again. I always lose.
“Because you have to,” Sally stated emphatically. For some reason that made absolutely no sense to me at the time, I knew Sally was right. I had to go, and I had to go alone.
“OK,” was all I could say. I focused on the airplane ticket in my hand and the luggage at my feet. The kids had handled everything, including getting me into my seat on the plane. And despite my reservations, I have to say, I appreciated it.