Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Flying with John

By now you know I’m home. At least you do if you’ve been following the on-again, off-again saga of  “L’Arche Across America” in which my dream of six months was derailed in two weeks by the illness of one of our members.

Yesterday, I flew with John home from Seattle, a good decision. It was what needed doing, for his safety and long-term health. Last Thursday, John had a choking incident that may have included aspiration, which carries the risk of pneumonia. The ER doctors weren’t sure. But I was and so was our community leader-in-waiting, Jen, when I suggested it. John needed to come back to his L’Arche community in Haverhill, Mass., and as the closest to him of our traveling party, the obvious accompanier was I.

So that happened.

Yesterday, John and I sat for five hours at gate B5 of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, waiting for Jet Blue 598 to take off. Then we sat another six hours on the plane, in the back row, providentially proximate to the toilets. There followed another hour of luggage wrassling and rendezvousing with our two loving drivers: Anna, head of Pat House, where John lives; and Katie, boss of me in Beverly, where I live.

Woody kept reminding me during our trip that Doris is his boss, and that I have one too. I agreed with him. (That’s Doris and Woody in the photo, long story, but notice that he has the horns and the hammer, and she has the smile.)

There was one moment that completely surprised me during our flight yesterday. I found myself (a good expression, indicating surprise at seeing myself in a new situation) sitting on the edge of my seat, sans seat belt, observing John. He was seated beside me, uncomfortable as he always seems to be when seated or lying, his eyes at half-mast, body aslump, sort of sleeping, sort of not. There was nothing to which I needed be alert, but I was. Alert. Watching him, and watching myself watching him, and thinking, What the john?

This is not me. If you’ve “accompanied” me through much of my 65 years, you’ll know I’m not that guy seated on the edge of that seat, attending to a man with a disability. I’m the spoiled kid from a wealthy community, who got the best educations and then started wasting them. The young idiot who smoked dope and followed the wrong way and started drinking and started getting angry at everyone and thing. And was not very nice to be around for a while there.

But John and L’Arche have worked some kind of magic on me. By accompanying John home, by sitting with him and basically doing nothing for three days in Seattle while waiting to come home (like we sat on the porch in the photo at the top), by just being there and following through, I am different. I am not—always—that guy anymore.

This is a gift of L’Arche.

Here’s another gift, though it may read like a gag: For about an hour during the flight, I became increasingly aware that John was uncomfortable, and I knew why. He had to get to the bathroom and he was afraid to get up because he falls easily and the plane was rocking and he was doubly afraid that he might have an accident. That is the definition of uncomfortable.

I asked John if he needed to use the toilet. He said no, but then John says no to most things. I asked him again. No again. I asked a third time. He didn’t answer verbally, but he began rocking his body forward as if to get up out of his seat, an operation that took five minutes.

What followed in the coffin-sized toilet at the back of Jet Blue 598 was something out of a bad high-school comedy skit. John entered the toilet facing forward, but the plane was bucking so hard that he couldn’t stand. So he had to sit. Which meant me (crouching inside the coffin, trying to keep the door closed behind me without pushing it open with my ass) turning him around, pulling down his pants, sitting him down, and helping him complete his work.

John wisely avoided the toilet for the rest of the flight—or any more beverages that might have forced him into the toilet. We came down in a rumble of turbulence, watching the Celtics and Cavs on the 7x9-inch screen. I got John off the jet and into a wheelchair and thence into the waiting arms of Anna. I gladly embraced my boss, and we all headed to our respective homes.

This was the official end of my leg of the “L’Arche Across America” tour, and I have no regrets. None. Only gratitude. Thanks, John.


  1. Had to do a lot of the bathroom duty with Mom during her final weeks. It is humbling. You didn't entirely waste your education. Le Grand David was a pretty great contribution to Boston parents and kids.

  2. Was looking forward to meeting you and John with the rest of the crew this Thursday at L'Arche Heartland. But you did what needed to be done, and I'm sure John appreciated your care and accompaniment. Thanks for sharing your part of the journey with all of us.


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