Up Here
By: Amy Ferris

She must have a window seat. This, she promises, is her last phone call for the night, reminding me one more time, it must be a window seat. I tell her I will do my best, the plane seems awfully full, and since it’s a last-minute booking, it might be hard. “If I tell you I want a window seat, get me a window seat.” Click. This phone exchange was not long after she had been diagnosed with moderate-stage dementia. She had some scary moments—unsettling, jarring, completely-out-of-left-field confusing moments. While visiting for a long weekend, Ken and I found her curled up in a ball, naked on the floor in her bedroom in Florida. She had absolutely no recollection of how she landed there. When I shook her from her sound sleep, she smiled and told me I looked a lot taller than she remembered. “Ma, you’re on the floor.” “Oh. It feels comfy though, you sure it’s the floor?” There were the middle-of-the-night phone calls thinking it was the middle of the day; there were the panic phone calls about her bank account. She had stopped balancing her checkbook, and believed she was being “robbed.” And then there were the phone calls wondering why my dad hadn’t returned from the bagel place when, in fact, my father had died a few years earlier. She was becoming much more agitated, much more impatient, and much less vain. Bathing became a chore for her. Losing her keys became second nature. Burning toast was a daily routine. A bat mitzvah in Scarsdale, New York galvanized her into major travel frenzy. She wanted desperately to go. A spur-of-the-minute decision, literally. “I have to go. I have to see Gertie. I have to go.” Gertie was her older sister. Theirs was a relationship not dissimilar to Palestine and Israel. “I have to go. Don’t tell me I’m not going.” The thing about my mom, she was as stubborn as the day was long. God’s honest truth, sometimes it was really hard to tell if it was the dementia, or my mother just being herself. “Ma, I don’t think it’s a good idea, you traveling by yourself.” “Oh, really? Fine. I’ll drive to Gert’s.” Having rammed her car into a fire hydrant—a glaring sign that she should never be behind the wheel, ever again—a few weeks earlier. “It came out of nowhere,” she said, “One minute I was sitting there, minding my own business, and the next minute, there it was, crossing the street.” What do you say? Really? “Ma, it can’t walk, a fire hydrant doesn’t walk.” Unfortunately, having her car keys taken away from her required more than just a sit down—it required the jaws-of-life to remove them from her grip. It is, I found out, the last bit of true freedom and independence, and it is never given up without a fight. I work it out so a car service (a very kind man who lived a few doors down from her) comes and picks her up, drops her off at the JetBlue Terminal, and makes sure there was no seen or unforeseen problem. I pay the guy to wait an extra half-hour. I call the airline and speak with a reservation agent, who has just the right combination of humor and sympathy and cannot be any more cordial or kind. She promises they will do whatever they can to accommodate my mom, but she needs to remind me that the plane is, in fact, full, and hopefully someone will be able to move, since there is not a window seat available. I ask her if there is a ‘companion’ person—a representative—who can help my mom get settled. Help her with the boarding pass, and the other unexpected frustrations that may arise. Yes, she says, someone will help my mom. I can only hope and pray for my mother to come face-to-face with kindness. I think of all the times I gave up a window seat for an elderly person, or a pregnant woman, or a wife who wanted to sit next to her husband. I am hopeful. She is picked up at the designated time, standing outside her condo with a massive suitcase and an overnight bag, having packed enough clothing for an entire month or lifetime, whichever came first. “Maybe I’ll stay for a few extra weeks, “ she tells me the night before, when she lists all the clothing she’s bringing. I can hear in her voice something I've never heard before: loneliness. She gets to the JetBlue terminal, she checks her suitcase outside with Baggage Claim, and—I am told by the neighbor/car service driver—that she hands a crisp ten-dollar bill to the bag handler, telling him he is a lovely, lovely kind man. He deeply appreciates her gesture. Little does he know that the remaining ten or so crisp ten- and twenty-dollar bills that she has tucked ever so neatly into her wallet will make their way to others who smile, offer a hand, let her get ahead in line, help her with her carry-on. She makes her way up to the counter, where a ticket should be waiting for her. Yes, there is a ticket, but she must go to the gate, in order to get a window seat. She goes through the whole security scene and I am told by the neighbor/car service guy about the taking off of her shoes, the removing of her belt, the telling of a joke or two about her hip replacement after she in fact set off the security alarm and how the sound once reminded her of the old days in Las Vegas when someone won at the slots; and it was a sound filled with "good wishes." “No more,” she says loudly, as if telling it to every single person on the security line. “It’s a phony sound, it has no heart, gimme back my shoes.” The neighbor/car service guy cannot go any further with my mom. The rules. The companion person from JetBlue now meets her, thankfully. There is no window seat available. She has an aisle seat. It appears that no one wants to give up a seat. This is where I get to relive the whole crazy scenario as it is repeated to me, beat by beat, blow by excruciating blow. My mother throwing a shit storm of a nut-dance, hauling a racial slur at the African American flight attendant, and then, if that weren't enough, causing another passenger who was somewhat overweight to break down and cry. “You know how fat you are? You have your own zip-code.” She’s escorted off the plane, and somehow manages to get back to her condo by renting a car, even though she has an expired license. I would just love to meet that Avis rental person who gave my mom a red Mustang to tool around in. She calls me in absolute hyper-hysterics. She wants me to fire every single one of those nasty, bitchy flight attendants, and pilots, and the co-pilot, he’s as much to blame. And where is her luggage, her fucking luggage? “I bet they stole it. They stole it and you should fire them, the whole lot of them. Now. I want you to fire them now.” “Okay, Ma. I’m gonna fire them now.” I find out from another very cordial and patient JetBlue rep that her luggage is on its way to New York. I am in Los Angeles on business; my brother is at a birthday celebration on Long Island. Nether one of us expected this hailstorm. I try to deal with the airport bureaucracy and arrange for my mom’s luggage to make its way to Fort Lauderdale within 48 hours, barring no glitches. The administrator on the phone told me it was like an unstoppable chaotic ruckus. A tornado. A whirlwind. “Your mother is old and frail and disruptive.” Holy shit. I am sad. I am horribly sad and, dare I say, embarrassed, wholly, deeply, immensely embarrassed, because this old frail woman is, in fact, my mom. “While we really appreciate your business, we must inform you that your mother, Beatrice, will no longer be able to fly with us.” This does not surprise me. I tell the JetBlue representative that my mom has the beginning stages of dementia. It comes and goes, but mostly it’s coming these days. I give her all the broad strokes—my dad died, she’s living alone, we know, we know, it’s time to get her settled, she’s stubborn, she’s independent, and there’s the whole question of what to do now. Move her, or does she stay? And she’s always been much more strident and righteous and defiant. Not going gently into the good night. For the record, every single JetBlue employee I speak to knows exactly what happened on that plane. They not only know all about my mother’s tantrum but, just like the game telephone, each and every time I speak with someone new there seems to be an added bit of shocking information. I was waiting for someone to tell me she stormed the cockpit, demanding to fly the plane to New York. I can only imagine the water cooler conversation about the crazy woman and the window seat. My mother refuses to speak to anyone. She feels duped and lied to, and the fat girl should have gotten up. “My God, she took up two goddamn seats.” And then she said, “I always, always have to sit at the window.” Why, I ask her, why? “Fuck you,” she hangs up on me. Trying to calm my mother down was near impossible. And just like the JetBlue employees, my mother’s version of the story became more and more exaggerated and embellished each and every time she told it. Repeated it. Shared it. By the time I had spoken with my cousin Carol, my mother claimed she was stripped searched and held ‘prisoner’ in a room, naked …without a television. “Without a television?” My cousin asked her, feigning shock and awe. “Yes, that’s correct, I couldn’t watch my shows.” “I’m so sorry, Aunt Bea. That must’ve been so hard and difficult.” “Yes, it was. But they gave me a private airplane and ten million dollars.” Dementia is filled with surprises. Unfiltered surprises. It is an unwanted visitor with select memory. Shortly thereafter, I moved my mom to New Mexico, not far from my brother, where she was about to start living in an assisted living facility. When we arrived at the Fort Lauderdale airport, I witnessed her interaction with the bag handler at Baggage Claim: after he took her luggage and placed it on the conveyor belt, she handed him a crisp ten-dollar bill, telling him, “You’re a lovely, lovely man.” He was mighty appreciative of her generosity. I witnessed her stepping through security with the alarm going off, because of her hip replacement, and her re-telling the same joke about the Vegas slot machines to all and anyone who would listen and laugh. It made her feel important. Valued. It added a little bounce to her walk. And as we walked to the gate, I could sense the first stages of panic; it was there, in her eyes. Right there in her eyes, a bit of worry and fear. She stopped and looked at me. “Did you get me a window seat?” “Yeah, Ma, I got you a window seat.” “Really? You did?” “Yeah.” “Good,” she said. “Good.” As the plane revved up its engines and was about to take off, my mom took my hand and squeezed it. Staring out the window, watching the plane disappear into the gorgeous white clouds and after a few long, long, moments, she turned to me, and said, “Up here in the clouds, I can dream all I want.” Then she pointed to two clouds, almost intertwined, and she said with such joy, "See that, see that, they’re dancing together. Just like Daddy and me. You can only see this kind of magic from a window seat.” In that moment, on that plane, the lines on her face smoothed out, her eyes filled with remembrance, as if every memory were intact. A twinkle. She started to giggle. She was so very happy, content—an awakening of sorts. “Thank you so much,” she said. “You don’t know how much this means to me.” It was here that my mother had always been able to see and feel and imagine clouds dancing, forms taking shape, lovers kissing, the intertwining of souls, and as her hand pressed up against the window, she could feel the kindness of Heaven. Not long after, she died.