Dad piloted one of the last planes into the downtown Hong Kong airport before the airport relocated. This had him flying a jumbo jet between high-rises right through the city. People in the apartments could see the pilots and wave. Autopilot wasn’t an option. To land safely the pilot needed to manually steer the aircraft during landing and the approach challenged even the most seasoned pilot, but Dad liked flying into Hong Kong.
Dad came home from this, his first trip of the year, on a Tuesday. He told Linda he didn’t feel well. Uncharacteristically, he headed to the doctor who told him he had a virus and needed to take some antibiotics. He would feel better after he rested.
I’d just returned to college after Christmas break. I called home that day and demanded to talk to Dad because the tires on the Suburban were almost bald.
“He’s sick in bed. Can it wait?” asked Linda, my mom.
The snow was piled up high in Indiana where I went to college.
“Sick? In bed? Put him on the phone. It can’t be that bad.”
“He’s very sick.”
“Come on, Linda.”
I didn’t believe her. He just didn’t want to give me any money. Money remained a constant struggle between us. My parents were always telling me they didn’t have any money even though my father worked as an international airline pilot.
“Dad, hello? Are you there? Can you hear me?” I asked.
“What do ya need?” His Boston accent came out because he was annoyed that I had insisted on talking to him.
“The Suburban needs new tires.”
“I don’t feel well.”
“Dad, it’s icy here, and I’m sliding all over the place.”
“Fine, get some new tires.”
He had drilled into me that I could only use the credit card for real emergencies. And, even if there were an emergency, I needed to call first. This time, however, he sounded so sick that I felt a little guilty when I hung up the phone. I hadn’t had to lobby hard for the tires. I didn’t know it then, but this was the end of before—the last few moments of normal.
“How’s Dad?” I asked when I called on Thursday, two days later.
“I’m making him go to the hospital. He isn’t making sense. He’s been lying in bed acting weird and mumbling,” Linda said.
“What do you mean?”
“His voice is strange. He keeps saying incoherent things. I felt his head and he doesn’t have a fever. I don’t know. I’ve got to go.”
Gram, Linda’s mother, called me that night to update me. I asked if I should come home, but she said no.
The next morning Gram called again, “Your Dad’s very sick and you need to come home today.”
“I thought he was OK.”
“Get to Chicago. The airline has made space available on the flights,” she said.
Because Dad had flown for Delta for almost three decades he was one of the most senior pilots. His seniority meant the airline had bumped a paying passenger from first class to give me a seat. I barely made the last flight to Salt Lake City.
On the flight, I smiled as I thought about our best family trip to Legoland in Denmark. We had gone to Legoland just prior to my junior year of high school and we had flown to Europe in first class. Our family didn’t ever go to Disney World or Disneyland. Our parents preferred national parks.
Dad had rented the van used by the car rental agency because our large family wouldn’t fit into any of their other cars. It was my first trip to Europe and I just soaked it all in. In Copenhagen, Dad had bought me the cutest blue polka dot skirt and white blouse, reminiscent of an outfit worn by Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Then we hit the road to the resort.
Driving into Legoland two giant Legos were the first indications that Legoland was near. Giant as in the size of two houses sitting on one another—one red, one yellow.
We had stayed at the resort itself and Linda and Dad let us have as many Jolly Colas as we wanted. Jolly Colas were the national soft drink of Denmark. Normally we were only allowed one drink at dinner when we were out, so this was a huge treat. We had fun riding the Lego train through the resort, looking at all of the world landmarks made out of Legos.
On our flight back home I came out of the bathroom and walked past Dad to my seat.
“Nicole, come here.”
“Dad, I’m going to my seat.”
“Get back here.”
I walked back.
“Your skirt is tucked into your pantyhose.”
I laughed as I remembered the embarrassment of walking down the aisle showing everyone my undies. We had enjoyed each other’s company on that trip for once.
When I landed in Salt Lake City, I heard my name over the airport intercom.
“Nicole Harkin, please pick up a white phone nearest you for a message.”
Before the ubiquity of cell phones, these white phones were situated throughout the airport in phone booths. As I lifted the phone, I worried what the woman might say on the other end of the line. It was always a woman.
“They’re holding the flight to Missoula, Montana, for you. Please take that flight instead of flying to Kalispell, and do hurry because it’s scheduled to leave soon.”
I felt a little bit excited and special as I sat on the plane. That day everything seemed like a dream. I had expected to go to class, meet up with friends, and live my life. Instead, here I was flying across the country into the unknown.