Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Seasoned traveler

In 2019, after a trip to Bolivia to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Bolivian Friends Church, Hal and I decided that we would take no more long international trips. We needed to face the fact that our aging bodies were no longer up to the challenges of 24-hour flight schedules, heavy suitcases, long lines, connecting flights in strange airports, customs, and all the other stresses of travel that we once considered an adventure.

Then last year we received an invitation to travel to Panama for the 20th anniversary celebration of an educational program we helped found and worked in for 14 years, up to our retirement. All the graduates of the program (some 50 Latin American Christian leaders, now with their PhD in hand), faculty, and staff (past and present) were invited. We love these people and have invested a good part of our lives in them. Being together again after ten years and celebrating God’s goodness—well, it tempted us to give up our no-more-travel decision and we committed to the trip. (I wrote about all this in an earlier blog—February 20.)

We then wrestled with the physical reality of Hal’s back problems, problems that would make the trip challenging at best. We wondered if we might need to cancel the trip, but we decided to go ahead. Hal continued with his physical therapy and we bought prescription pain pills, just in case.

The morning of the flight, our bags were packed and waiting by the door. At 2:15 a.m., the alarm went off. Hal, already up, sat on the side of the bed and told me of the pain in his stomach. We knew what that meant—the onset of diverticulitis, a condition Hal faces several times a year. We’ve learned what to do to avoid a trip to the ER: rest, drink lots of water, use Metamucil. This usually leads to healing. We also know what not to do: get on an airplane.

With sinking hearts, we considered our options: cancel both our tickets or have me travel alone. Our son, who was driving us to the airport, offered to take Hal’s ticket and accompany me on the trip. Both Hal and David were concerned about me traveling alone with my chronic dizziness. We finally discerned that it was important that I go and represent both of us in the celebration, that Hal would be well taken-care of here. We felt peace. So I quickly repacked my bag (I didn’t need to take Hal’s underwear and PJs along), kissed my husband goodbye, and left with David, an hour later than we had planned.

The trip proved to be insightful on what it means to travel as an aging person. Once in the Portland Airport, after saying goodbye to David, I began feeling the excitement of the trip. The pre-boarding process was familiar and a sense of independence was rising up. I enjoyed it. With a new twist. I discovered at the ticket counter that I could pre-board as a “disabled person.” The label bothered me, but I thought, “Why not?” Since I have this weird physical challenge, why not milk it for any benefit I can get?

So when the announcement was made for those in wheelchairs or with canes to come forward to pre-board, I joined the line with a bit of uneasiness. I made my walking stick obviously visible. But the boarding official didn’t ask for a letter from my doctor or any kind of proof of my condition. She believed me. So I boarded before families with small children or active military personnel. The first on the plane! For the whole trip. That certainly made the process easier, much less stressful. The overhead bins were all empty, and no noisy passengers jostled, finding their seats and storing their luggage.

David had insisted on making arrangements for a wheelchair to meet me in Houston. The very thought jolted me, but I acquiesced. Actually, I was met by a little passenger “train” for various of us that tooted down the airport halls at a good pace. The place for my connecting flight was only five minutes from where I disembarked. I could have walked it with no problems, but the ride was fun.

And so it went for the whole trip, there and back. People seemed more than willing to assist me, whether I needed it or not. It was one of the easiest travel experiences I’ve had. Ever.

The celebration itself more than met my expectations and gave evidence that I was meant to be there. I was with people I loved; it felt a little like coming home. Lots of hugs, some tears, deep conversations, times of prayer, and the sharing of stories. Each graduate had space in the program to present whatever was on her/his heart.

Our worship together was anything but academic. And it was not an academic celebration, although I had never been in a room with so many PhDs. That part was not at all overwhelming. What overwhelmed was the sense of gratitude. We were people celebrating the acts of God on our behalf. We were celebrating the community we had become. It all provided me with a blessed sense of closure.

One interesting aspect of the adventure was the concern my family was experiencing. They were very worried over how I would manage the trip alone. Lots of texts passed back and forth. At one point, I didn’t text for several hours for various reasons—getting through customs, late arrival at the hotel, the opening reception, getting connected to the Internet, etc. When I finally was able to connect the next morning, I found this long chain of conversations, all worried about me, wondering what to do, who to contact, etc. It made me chuckle and I felt like saying, “Lighten up, you guys. I’m a grown-up. I’ve done this before.” I didn’t say that, of course.

On the morning I was to fly home, I woke up just in time (thanks be to God) to get dressed, close the suitcase, and hurry down to the lobby to catch the shuttle to the airport. No time to text home. In fact, I had no time or connection to text until I finally got to Houston. In the meantime, Hal had contacted the program administrator in Panama to have her investigate to see if I had checked out of the hotel and boarded the plane. I felt embarrassed by the fuss.

Looking back, I recognize that, while a little exaggerated, the concerns of my family were legitimate. I hadn’t traveled independently for quite a few years, and I was a different person. A dizzy person in the process of growing older. And, to be honest, how much better that my family be concerned then if they didn’t care one way or the other.

I wonder how much my reaction comes from denial of the fact that I’m aging. “I’m too young for a wheelchair! I’m not a ‘disabled person’! This is NOT a cane; it’s walking stick!” And so on. And while I am on the younger side of old, that won’t last. There just may be a wheelchair in my future. Face up to it, Nancy!

I also acknowledge the role prayer played in all of this. I was humbled and blessed to learn how much my congregation, as well as my family, had been praying for me. That surely made a difference in how easy the plane trip was and how meaningful and satisfying the celebration. Thanks be to God.

So now we have once again have decided that long international trips are no longer an option. It’s a fairly firm decision (how’s that for an oxymoron?), at least until the next enticing invitation.

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