Last Saturday around midnight, I found myself in the thrice-nominated worst airport in the United States, standing barefoot on cold concrete, awaiting the return of my hastily-packed backpack from the clutches of an army of perpetually annoyed TSA agents. Newark Airport is stress-inducing during the best of times, but I was about to board a plane to Tampa, Florida to visit my dearest friend Ann whose prognosis had gone from bad to worse to ‘get down here as soon as you can’.
Ann became seriously ill back in November, when sudden encephalitis compressed her brain stem and required emergency brain surgery. A few weeks ago, she seemed to be doing better, even returning to her mother’s care at home, where we enjoyed a rare hour-long phone conversation. She wasn’t out of the woods, but she seemed more like herself and we prayed that she was on the long road to recovery.
Sadly, our hope was short-lived. On father’s day, a major hemorrhagic stroke and several embolisms (blood clots) near her heart and lungs returned Ann back to the intensive care unit. The combination of these two life-threatening conditions meant that treatment or surgery was impossible. A few days later, I received the call from a mutual friend, Janice, who relayed that the doctors had reached the end of their treatment options, and were recommending hospice care.
Janice had decided to get the first flight down, which would be followed by another mutual friend, Catherine. And thus, a day later, I was due to board my own flight down to possibly say goodbye to my best friend, someone I considered a sister. The reality hit me like a sucker punch in the gut.
Bleary-eyed, I knew my trip wasn’t going to be easy from the very start. Something in my bag kept tripping the automatic security scanner, and my bag was searched by no less than three TSA agents over the course of 30 minutes while I stood, shivering in my bare feet. I was not originally due to leave at midnight, but an emergency landing earlier in the day delayed all flights, including mine, for six hours.
An hour later, the plane was in the air and to my left sat a nervous young man who smelled as if he had spent the flight delay at the airport bar. The captain greeted the passengers with a warning about moderate to severe turbulence. I looked out into the blackness of the night and saw a wall of impossibly dark and menacing nimbus clouds back lit by continual lightning strikes. The captain called for the flight attendance to strap into their jump seats, and I held onto the arm rest until my knuckles turned white while the plane bucked and shuddered. The young man next to me started shaking and moving his limbs incessantly, clearly terrified and probably feeling ill from the turbulence. He got up to use the restroom no fewer than ten times. I stared out at the silver wing of the plane as it shuddered violently through the assault of the maelstrom outside and just prayed that we didn’t get hit by lightning.
After getting through the storms, the young man finally passed out, likely from exhaustion, and then promptly fell hard onto my shoulder. For the rest of the flight, I remained squished between the young man and the window until we mercifully landed.
I was due to stay in a hotel with Janice and Catherine, who had spent the evening drowning their sorrows over wine. Janice was still awake at 3AM when I hailed the cab from the airport. On the ten minute ride over, I was grateful that I had survived the trip, and assumed from here on out that I could focus on Ann.
I opened the van door, and then pulled out my wallet to pay the cab driver. At the same time, Janice reached in to help me get my things out of the cab. She gave me a hug as the cab driver sped off, and we sat outside for a few minutes talking about Ann.
It was only when we decided to go up to the room to catch a few hours of sleep that I realized my terrible mistake. Looking down into my purse, my mind reeled as the reality of my situation hit me all at once.
I had left my wallet in the backseat of the cab.
My driver’s license, credit cards, and health insurance cards were all in the wallet along with a fair bit of cash. Janice, despite being as exhausted and upset as I was, jumped into high gear. We began by contacting the cab company who were as apathetic as they were unhelpful. They claimed to have sent out a message to their drivers to look for my wallet, but according to the dispatcher, no one returned their calls and they couldn’t locate the cab I was in without the number from the side of the van. I was advised to “call back on Monday morning, at 9AM” before the dispatcher promptly hung up on me.
We contacted airport security to see if they could review the video footage of me getting into the cab in order to find the cab number, but after searching the video feed, the security agent just couldn’t get a proper angle to view the number clearly.
By this point, I was getting quite desperate. Janice had a rental car, a huge Cadillac that the rental car company had given to her because the small subcompact that she had chosen was not available. It’s now around 3:45 AM, and I took Janice and her car keys and I drove with reckless speed back to the airport. In my desperation, I had decided that I would simply press the taxi call button at the airport until my original cab driver reappeared.
After ringing the call button, a few cab drivers showed up only to drive away confused and annoyed as I waved them on. Finally, ten minutes later, by sheer coincidence, I saw the familiar insignia on the van pulling into the taxi stand. I ran at the van, waving my arms in the air, forcing the taxi to stop. I recognized the driver. It was my cab!
I had been praying and thought that finally my guides, who had been so silent throughout my spiritual depression, were coming through for me. Why else would I have found the cab when even the cab dispatcher couldn’t?
The wallet wasn’t sitting on the back seat as I’d hoped, but I assumed it fell onto the floor somewhere. I tore out the floor mats, shined my cell phone light under every seat, even went through the cab driver’s glovebox. And came up empty.
My wallet was gone. I was stuck a thousand miles away from home without money, identification, and possibly without a way to fly home again. Exhausted and defeated, we dragged ourselves back to our hotel. It was now 5:00 AM.
I laid there in bed, the sky lightening outside, and stared up at the ceiling. I felt persecuted, victimized. I accepted that losing the wallet was my own fault, but I cursed my spirit guides. Why now? Why, when I am in this god-forsaken state not for pleasure, but to visit with a dying friend?
A few hours later, Janice and I were at the police station, where I asked the surly officer on duty to write up a police report. I knew there was little chance of recovering the wallet, but I had hoped a police report would help me convince the TSA to allow me to fly home in two days. The officer begrudgingly filled in a few details on his computer, then scribbled something on a post-it note and handed it to me. I stared at him, incredulous.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Your police report number.” he replied, without a hint of sarcasm.
“Isn’t there anything more official you can give me?” I stared in disbelief at the scrawled numbers on the post-it.
The officer crossed his arms, and just said, “Nope”. Apparently, in Florida, it takes a full week to process a police report, so I was advised to ‘return in a week’.
Janice and I stumbled back out into the bright, hot Florida morning, squinting at the blazing hot sun now rising overhead. By now, Catherine was awake and texting us for Starbucks, completely unaware of the disaster that had unfolded just hours before. As we pulled up to Starbucks, I became acutely aware that I couldn’t even purchase a cup of coffee. Janice graciously offered the desperately needed coffee, and I humbly accepted. Although Janice and I were friends through Ann, she and I would grow closer on this trip, as she proved herself to be an incredibly loyal, emphatic friend.
Seeing Ann was a shock, though one that Catherine and Janice, who had both seen her already in this state, had tried to prepare me for. She looked nothing like the Ann I knew. Her face was bloated from massive doses of steroids and water retention and illness. One side of her body was useless from the latest stroke, and her remaining ‘good’ hand was held claw-like close to her body.
I held back tears as I gave her a kiss on the forehead and whispered that her old pal Jenn was here. She didn’t respond.
We spent most of our time at the hospital with Ann and her family, keeping vigil over her. The nurses were very kind, and I showed them pictures of Ann before she became ill. I guess I wanted them to see how beautiful she was, how vibrant and active she had been. I told them stories of the places Ann had traveled, and all of the places we’d hiked together. I know that to the nurses, Ann was just another patient in their care, but a part of me wanted them not to see the sick woman in the bed, but the Ann who loved nature, animals and her family, the Ann who sat by the bedside of her dying Aunt for days when even her own family didn’t come; the Ann who sang the solo so beautifully in our high school choir, the Ann who traveled around the world bringing gifts back for her friends. I wanted them to understand that she had lived and touched the lives of others; that she was deeply loved.
Catherine and Janice were flying out on Monday morning, and I wasn’t scheduled to depart until Tuesday morning. They most generously left me with a little cash so that I could take a cab to the hospital and to the airport, and then they drove off, leaving me alone in Florida.
I called TSA to find out what I needed to do in order to fly home the next day without ID. I was told that I could have my family take pictures of other ID I had at home, as well as fax photocopies of expired licenses, passports, credit cards, etc. There was no guarantee that TSA would accept these things in lieu of real ID, but it was worth a shot. I enlisted my mother and my significant other to help, which they did admirably.
The hotel manager kindly allowed me to have some items faxed over, and printed. Armed with 16 cell phone images of identification and four pages of printed copies of my expired licenses and passport, I felt at least that I was as prepared as possible to appeal to the TSA to allow me to board the flight.
I asked the hotel to recommend a taxi service, and the gentleman who picked me up would end up being an angel disguised as a middle-aged Palestinian man. He was the owner of the taxi and limo service, and after he asked me how I was doing, I just started to cry. I told him my story and why I was there in Florida. The driver, Ahmad, told me that I didn’t have to worry about the fare to the hospital, that it was ‘on him’. His kindness drove me to sobbing, and he handed me his card. He told me that he would also get me to the airport the next day, and if I couldn’t get on the flight, he would bring me to the train station. All free of charge. Of course, I insisted on giving him a decent tip, despite my limited funds.
I spent that day with Ann and her mother. We discussed Ann’s life, and the goings-on in the last few months. We also discussed Ann’s final wishes, which she had entrusted to me years before when she was about to undergo one of her first of several major surgeries. I was reminded that Ann and I developed our spirituality together, and over the years had many long conversations about what we believed and experienced. At the time, I felt it was my duty to provide Ann with spiritual support when I had time alone with her later in the day, but as usual, things didn’t work out as I had planned.
Around 8pm, Ann’s mother left to return home, leaving me with the cash she had on-hand to help me in case I couldn’t get on the plane. Again, her kindness in the face of her sorrow and grief over her daughter brought me to tears. I had already contemplated what I might say to Ann when I was alone with her. Would I talk about the afterlife, what she could expect when her time drew near? Would I ask if she was visited by her father, who had died years before? Would I reassure her with all of the book knowledge that I had gained from researching life after death? No. In the end, I didn’t discuss any of it. I talked about old times and good memories that we had together. I played music that I knew she loved, and mostly, we sat in silence together, listening to the faint beeping from monitors in other rooms.
I spent the night in the hospital with Ann, helping her sip ice water through a straw and talking to her when she wasn’t sleeping. When it was time to leave again at 6AM to go to the airport, I told her gently that I loved her. She looked at me in the eyes and said, “I love you too, Kerry”. It hurt that she didn’t know who I was, but I didn’t correct her.
When the priest came to give her absolution the following morning, she remembered his name and thanked him. I was simply a passing shadow, a vestige of her life that she’s moved beyond as she travels the great mystery beyond. And I’m okay with that.
I called at Ahmad’s taxi service at 6AM, and as promised, he came himself to pick me up from the hospital. As he dropped me off at the airport, he again promised to help me if I couldn’t get home, and I felt less alone and grateful to have found a friend in this man. Before I left the cab, he turned to me and said, “Sometimes, these things have a way of producing something good in the end. Trust in God.”
I checked into my flight and printed my boarding pass. I collected my papers and ensured my cell phone images were ready, and then I walked to the TSA security line. I was shaking like a leaf, tears openly falling from my eyes, as I tried to explain to the TSA agent what had happened. He looked like a young military recruit, all business. I started to show the photo copies and the phone images, but the TSA agent stopped me mid-sentence. “I can’t use any of this.” He said. “What do you have that has your name on it?”
I showed him my boarding pass from my flight in, and a prescription receipt, the only two remaining pieces of my identity I had on me. He looked dubiously at my documents and said, “Don’t you have a utility bill on you or anything like that?” I just blinked at the man, processing the ridiculousness of his question.
The TSA agent shook his head and said, “Well, we are going to have to do a form verification. It takes a long time, and you’ll have to answer a lot of questions”
“Bring it on,” I replied.
After completing some paperwork, the TSA agent herded me over to a phone where he contacted homeland security. They asked me a few questions about my family which I answered without any issue. Then, they asked me to name streets around where I lived. To this question, my mind went completely blank. I remembered one road and named it, then named the nearest highway. It wasn’t enough. He stared at me expectantly, and I felt all of my hopes for getting hope draining away. Somehow my brain kicked into gear and I remembered the other major road in town, the address of my usual pharmacy. I said it triumphantly and they accepted it. After this, I was on a roll, and continued naming streets as they came into my head, but the agent had already hung up the phone and put up his hand to stop me.
“You are very lucky. I’ve never seen someone with so little proof of their identity get asked so few questions and still be allowed to fly.” I told the TSA agent that I loved him, right then and there. And I meant it.
Several hours later, I landed after a painless and quick flight back to New Jersey. I had already texted Ahmad to tell him the good news and thank him again for his kindness. I was exhausted and sad, but never more grateful to be back in the worst airport in the US. It took a while to find my ride, but when I saw my significant other’s car coming around the pick-up point, I had to hold back the tears once again. I was finally home. Later that day, Ann was moved into hospice, which her mother most heart-breakingly described as ‘lovely’.
I know that I will be unpacking this experience for a long time, trying to figure out why all of this occurred, and what lesson it was trying to teach me, if any. I was at the whim of the kindness or apathy of strangers, both which played a part in my experience. I saw the strength of friendship revealed in a desperate situation, and I was humbled by the insignificance of my problems against Ann’s suffering. I worked hard to keep my worries to myself around Ann and her family.
My experience with Ann was nothing as I had imagined, either. I had thought that perhaps I might be able to provide spiritual guidance or reassurance to Ann. Ultimately, I was as unprepared to aid her spiritually as anyone else. All of the book knowledge in the world felt woefully inadequate in the face of Ann’s stark reality. And I felt ashamed for even thinking that I might be in any position to provide spiritual guidance. I only hoped that she could feel my love.
Later, after discussing my disappointment over not offering Ann spiritual reassurance with my mother, she helped me realize that faith and spirituality must be cultivated during life, not in one’s last days. I could not have given Ann spirituality in that hospital room, but I could hope that she had a reserve of faith to draw on from the many years of exploring our belief together. I knew that Ann’s spirituality was strong in life, and I had to believe that it would remain a wellspring of hope during this difficult passage.
Alone, stripped of my identity and security, far from home and uncertain about the outcome, I was aware that what I was feeling was only a fraction of what Ann feels even now, even if she can’t verbalize it, and I am further humbled by her bravery and strength. Ann is stranded in the physical prison of her body and beyond the help or understanding of the living, caught between this world and the next. The comfort and aid she seeks is far away on the other side, where her beloved father will be there, ready deliver her soul safely to the next world.
No one but God and Ann know what awaits her in the coming days and months, but I pray that she is at peace. Should she decide to step off this painful mortal coil and into the light, I hope she will be surrounded love and beauty and the comfort of family long passed; and home at long last.
Godspeed, my dearest friend, and safe journey.
Note to the reader: I know my posts have been few and far between as I’ve focused on my friend Ann in the last six months, but I promise that we’ll get back to our regularly scheduled posts soon. I have a backlog of new and interesting books and ideas, and I look forward to sharing them with you. Thank you all for your kind words and support in my last post, they gave me a lot of comfort during this difficult time. -Jenn