I was gloating a little bit inside when the gate agent invited families with small children or anyone else who needed a little more time to board to go ahead and get on the plane. I was unencumbered, kid-free, able to loiter around the gate area, admire the desert hills through the plate-glass walls, soak up warm, soothing air that blew through the open doors. I saw the gaunt man in the wheelchair get pushed through the doors onto the tarmac, and I felt a pang of sadness, even pity, as I quickly looked away and resumed my daydreams.
I don't think I noticed that gaunt man and the companion who had been pushing his wheelchair—a woman who at a glance appeared to be at least fifteen years his junior—right across the aisle from me as I settled into my seat. I fished my book (that smug, overachieving fourth book in as many days!) out of my bag before shoving it under the seat with my foot. The cloudless sky, the cactus-speckled landscape, the heat through the window, the glow of vacation, the anticipation of heading home, the headiness of sanctioned self-absorption, such are the things that were on my mind.
Sometime during the ascent into that bright blue sky, though, I caught the hint of a gesture out of the corner of my eye. I brought into focus the caress of a hand across a bony back, then the look on her face a mix of compassion, fear, and knowledge of something still present yet already lost. He was dying, I'm sure of it, of cancer or some other ravage, his body mostly gone. He had a different, equally familiar look on his face, the look of one who knew this was his last vacation, of determination to make it appropriately great, to enjoy it despite it all, but an acknowledgment that mind can only triumph over matter for so long. He slouched forward over his tray table, eating one of the very same protein bars John used to eat, without gusto, just the way John ate them. He was probably no older than she after all, just that much nearer to death. Her hand was still on his back.
Did she feel the way I did when I was on that vacation? Did she feel resentful of the caretaking? Guilty about having moments of sheer joyful fun when her spouse couldn't? Tired of pretending that it was all OK? Unbearably sad that her life as she knew it was literally crumbling before her, the progressive decay visible to the naked eye? Did they talk of funeral arrangements over dinner? Did she just want it all to be over, to move on to the inevitable if painful catharsis of Next?
Because I took that vacation, and that's what I felt. Those are the things I did. I took that vacation four years ago, and most of the time, I forget that I even had those feelings, did those things. But it took only that one caress to bring it all right back.
It's not a vacation, that vacation. Under certain circumstances, it's better than no vacation. But when four years later, you take a real vacation you realize just how deeply you can deceive yourself when you have no other choice. It truly did feel like a vacation at the time, but I can see now that it was not. It was the best we could do, and I have no regrets. There's just not much best in death.