The Invisible Traveler

A 30-something couple enters the airport, hand in hand, with a purse, a backpack, and a small roller bag.

Nothing about them is exceptional. There are no characteristics that would warrant a second glance. They are not juggling car seats and squirmy toddlers. They don't have the frantic look of travelers who overslept and may miss their flight. There are no dogs in carry-on cases or skis to check at the counter. 

If you noticed anything about the purse on the woman's shoulder it may be the jaunty Marimekko fabric, but even with that extra moment's notice, you would have no way to guess that knocking around inside it, with the requisite wallet, keys, and sunglasses are also: a list of hospitals in the area the couple is traveling to, documentation of purchase of the most comprehensive trip insurance available, a list of medications, bottles of medications, a container of hand sanitizer, a jar of Airborne, a packet of Clorox wipes, Thieves essential oil spray, and a blue plastic vomit receptacle.

If you were walking behind them, the only thing you may notice about the backpack is the way it droops low on the woman's back, a telltale sign of the weight within. If forced to guess, you may say that the backpack contains a book, a tablet, a laptop. You would be right, and...nestled in with those items are also ten cans of doctor-prescribed nutritional formula, an empty 60 ounce syringe, a plastic tube called a mic-key, and a doctor's note on University Hospital stationary, vouching for the need for these larger than 3 ounce liquids.

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If you noticed anything about the suitcase pulled by the man, it may be the bright blue color of the bag or the green handle tag with the words, "The Greater Go" printed on it.

You would never guess that The Greater Go is a travel agency specializing in booking travel for people with disabilities, the same one that has booked the few trips he's taken in the last few years.

You wouldn't know that zipped inside that blue bag, along with boxer shorts and pairs of jeans, is a "night bottle," a large plastic jar with accordion edges and tubing, used to collect urine when connected to a urostomy pouch at night. 

You wouldn't imagine that extra urostomy pouches, mic-key tubes, or packets of gauze are in and around the packed toothbrushes and pajamas.

Even if the contents of that blue suitcase spilled onto the airport floor, you most likely wouldn't realize that the shirts and jackets inside have SPF built into them, for ultimate sun protection, in hopes of preventing skin cancer #83.

You may notice the young man being pulled aside at security, every inch being patted down long after his wife sailed through the line. Seeing this may make you think he pulled the short straw that day or, perhaps, forgot to remove his belt with the metal buckle.

You would not guess that he goes through the humiliating and awkward process of describing his situation and then lifting his shirt to show these strangers his urostomy pouch and his g-tube every time he travels, along with the disclosure that he has a metal hip. He stands vulnerable in the most chaotic part of the airport, while security guards frequently use this moment as a training opportunity for newer guards. After they pat him down, while saying never-before-heard statements such as, "A hip replacement? But you're so young!" they make him pat down his urostomy pouch himself, jostling the urine inside as they stand and stare. After that, they test his hands for explosives.

Every. Single. Time.

If you are in the area afterwards, you may see a man with a stoic, brave look on his face, patiently zipping his jacket and slipping on his shoes. What you cannot see is the humiliation, anxiety, and exhaustion this exchange has caused him.

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A time that you would, perhaps,
take notice of this young, healthy-looking man,
would be at the gate,
if you saw him stand and get in line
upon hearing the announcement for those needing extra time to board the plane. 

And with that noticing may come

judgment,

questioning,

glaring

on your part,
which is exactly why he will not board early, 
even though he needs to,
but will,
instead
wait for his zone to be called.

If you are on the flight, you may see a moment of indecision and jostling as the couple determines who will sit in the aisle seat and who will be in the middle.

What you can't see is that the wife, whose role as her husband's caregiver necessitates that she is on high alert at all times, who is always making sure that her husband's environment meets his medical needs, is looking around the cabin at the passengers nearby. She is listening for coughs and sniffles, trying to determine which seat would best keep her immune-compromised husband safe from germs, while keeping in mind that the avascular necrosis in his remaining hip often flares if unable to stretch out during the flight.

 

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If you notice the couple taking a selfie before take off, you may roll your eyes and assume it's their generation's obsession with self-promotion and addiction to Facebook and Instagram.

Yes, and...this couple's selfies are often taken at the hospital or clinic and on this one day, they are taking advantage of having a photo background like those of their peers.

You may see the young man donning a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones and assume he's listening to music or drowning out the crying infants on the flight.

True, and he's avoiding the in-flight conversations with seatmates that inevitably turn to, "So! What do you do?"

To this question, his answers vary from, "I used to be the director of a non-profit that supports orphans in Latin America and the Caribbean," to "I'm a professional patient," or sometimes, "I'm on disability."

All are true and all lead to awkward follow-ups and questions, some of which are bound to include not-so-helpful statements such as, "Well, at least..." or, "You're getting better, right?" or the best, "My cousin's neighbor once had..."

Typically these conversations occur before the plane even takes off, leading to a flight full of side eyes and suggestions starting with, "I read this thing once..."

Hence, the headphones.

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You may see the young man taking a nap for the duration of the flight.

What you can't know is that the energy it took to get from the doors of the airport an hour ago to this seat were more than he has in his reserves and that he is now completely depleted.

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If you saw that the woman ordered a vodka soda for the flight and assumed she was anxious about flying, you would be partially correct.

Crashing is the last thing on her mind.

Instead, avoiding a medical emergency while 30,000 feet in the air, getting her husband from this flight to their final destination in one piece, surviving the duration of the trip that is about to occur without needing the list of hospitals in her purse or having to use the trip insurance policy they don't travel without - those are the things consuming her mind.

You see, being a caregiver "on vacation" means taking care of the same things she does on a daily basis x 150.

Hence, the vodka.

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After the flight,
the walk from the gate to passenger pick up is epic.

Although there is a long list of reasons why
this man needs a ride on
this cart,
you will not see him use it.

For if you did, 
your eyes would see only a young healthy man,
and your brain and your heart and your conceptions
about what people who need that cart look like,
would not understand.

He knows that.

He knows that you cannot see the invisible passenger on this and every trip with him.

He knows that walking from the gate to the baggage claim,
though hard on his physical heart,
is easier on his proverbial one
than feeling the looks and sensing the judgement of those who think there are only two of them on this trip,
not three.

The couple purchased no ticket for their invisible traveler and yet it is with them every step of the way, hiding there in the negative space, a fundamental, yet unseen, component of who they are, what they need, how they exist.

Perhaps, as his health declines, there will come a day when this traveler will appear in a form that fits inside the box of what people picture when they think of "disability." 
Perhaps then the couple will use the resources and get the help they need without stigma or guilt or shame.

How strange to wish, even in one small way, for worsening health, just to be able to fit into a box.

 

At the end of the day,
A 30-something couple exits the airport, hand in hand, with a purse, a backpack, and a small roller bag.
Everything about them is exceptional.
You just can't see it.