Alright, maybe I am a little more hardcore than necessary at times, but you’ve got to do what is necessary to keep going.
We are in Ireland for a stint on business, and due to my condition I have arranged to fly in to London for my chemo treatments. To be extra helpful, my work, ever concerned about me, arranged the flights as ‘level 1 disability assistance’, as well as sending someone from our team to take me from the hospital right to Dublin to make sure I made it.
She was being helpful.
Except that it was the most awkward experience of my life… well, it certainly made the top ten.
Exhausted and worn out, I climbed into a taxi at the hospital and slept all the way to the airport, being prodded awake and draped over a luggage cart in a stupor. That alone got a few stares, but thankfully we didn’t have far to go to the disabled people holding pen.
Yes, holding pen.
London City Airport has a section just off the side of the check-in desks roped off for disabled people consisting of 8 chairs and a security barrier rope to lock us in, just in case we wander around the airport naked and confused looking for a train platform and shoving pancakes into the boarding pass scanners.
Once inside the holding pen I must admit that British Airways seriously steps up to the plate. They come to you to collect your passport and check in for you, bringing back your documents in a nice little holder and introducing your personal airport porter, who will pick you up at X time to take you through security. She says this all to me very politely, while painstakingly bending down to my eye level in the chair and talking to me in upbeat tones like I’m five and about to go on a magical pony ride.
What? I’m a fairly intelligent, coherent human being that runs companies internationally, writes books and travels often, why is she talking to me like I’m some sort of mental patient?
I forgot to take off my hospital wrist band. Yeaaaaaaah.
The journey gets infinitely more awkward once the wheelchair shows up. Given my hospital experience with wheelchairs I resigned myself not to ‘help’ with things like maneuvering and doors, as this usually ends up with mild concussions and flying braziers. Best to just sit back, stare straight ahead and do nothing.
Except apologize profusely to everyone I come into contact with, even the porter. Because awkward constant apologizing is just how I roll.
We come out of the elevator and I’m struck by my line of sight.
Butts. Butts everywhere. Nothing but bums. Everywhere. Just bums.
We maneuver around the butts rather deftly, this guy clearly knows what he’s doing and where he’s going – oh wait we’ve just rocketed through a security door and down a cargo lift. This is new. We pretty much run through the mechanical back-area of the airport, assuming I’m not a terrorist of any sort, and pop out at the dreaded UKBA immigration desk going the wrong way and flying through a side door to the front of the security line. Not the special ‘family and disabled line’, the proper security line. Right in front, like me being in a wheelchair completely trumps everyone else’s patient waiting. I’m getting dirty looks as he cuts right through and I start struggling to pull out my electronics from a seated position not quite close enough to the conveyor belt.
Yet I dare not adjust or get out of the chair for fear of being lynched by the foot tapping mob behind me. Okay, my stuff is on the belt we can go through now – but the porter has completely disappeared.
Where the HELL did he go? I start trying to propel myself forward with the wheels but end up going backwards and running over a man’s foot. A security person comes to fetch me as I hang my head in shame, being pushed through like a faker invalid. I can’t fit through the scanner with the wheelchair so they bring me to a special door right in the middle of the security area in full view of everyone as I am frisked and felt up so thoroughly I didn’t know whether to press charges or leave a tip.
The porter magically rocks up on the other side holding all of my stuff and dragging poor Zoe along with him as I’m brought to him from the other side and we’re off like a rocket again through the sea of derrieres leaping and jumping out of our way.
We’re left in a Special Assistance Zone, he’ll be back in an hour. Well, we may as well go get some dinner.
And then the awkwardness hit an entirely new level of unbearableness.
Zoe loaded me up with all of our bags and coats on my lap, towering to just below my chin. I hung on to the jenga pile bags while she pushed, like timid molasses, through the airport terminal – even leaving me at one point to go and find a restaurant to make a reservation at. People took pity on me, seeing only a head in a wheelchair mercilessly piled with bags and asking if I was lost and needed help – all at a kind yet extremely patronizing eye level, of course.
Oh god, it was humiliating.
She came running back, an Italian restaurant could set up a disabled table for us.
Pushing me toward the restaurant and through the gauntlet of buttocks at the pace of a dying turtle, we made our way with hundreds of ‘excuse me’ and ‘sorry’s’ and ‘look out’s’, everyone jumping out of the way and looking at me with pity and concern. I was beet red and looked like death warmed over, which hardly helped.
Some business men even took it upon themselves to clear a path for us, ushering us toward the restaurant. Humiliating.
Even worse, when we got to the restaurant despite my urgent whispered protests Zoe wheeled me straight through the very long line and to the very front, claiming we had a reservation. Cue much more tsking and dirty looks as the greeter jumped to make us a table, having 4 other tables of diners stand up to make room for me to be pushed through.
I wanted to shrivel up and die.
All was well as we sat at our table, even with the sneaking stares from other diners speculating on what was wrong with me when at one point I accidentally crossed my legs. Not good. But then the waitress came to take our orders. She took Zoe’s like a normal person, and mine like I was here on a trip from the make a wish foundation. Hands on her knees to get to my eye level, talking to me like I was five and everything being fantastic and wonderful, checking on me every few minutes to make sure my water was cold enough, my garlic bread tasty enough and the table low enough for me.
Tine to go and up jump the other diners again as Zoe wheeled me into shins, bums and suitcases trying to maneuver me out of there. At one point I even tried to help, making the whole thing so much worse and prompting a group of travelers to form a defensive line for me to get through and back to the terminal.
They were all lined up and holding people back but Zoe was too timid to push through. At one point the tension was killing me and I shouted GO ZOE GO!!!!
She stopped the wheelchair, came around in front of me, got down to my eye level and said 'What?'
I also had to pee like a race horse but there was NO WAY I was going to get up out of that chair and walk to the bathrooms like the final scene from The Usual Suspects.
I’d rather pee myself. People are treating me like I do anyway.
Convincing the flight attendants to let me board the plane without using the painstakingly slow and awkward stair lift from the tarmac was yet another ordeal, and to save what little dignity I had I had to make a great show of painstakingly dragging myself up the stairs infront of about a hundred people, all nodding with approval at my now apparent disability.
Upon boarding the plane I took one look at the waiting, patronizing yet overly kind faces of the on board attendants and continued my show of disability, limping and shuffling forward to my seat and gripping my way along the backs of the chairs, dragging one leg behind me and huffing like a wounded, asthmatic water buffalo for extra effect (though I wasn’t actually faking that part).
One flight attendant commended me on my strength and determination once I was buckled into my seat. I half expected her to give me a ‘wings’ pin for my coat.
Landing in Dublin was so much worse, as there was another wheelchair waiting for me on the tarmac and the pilots helped me hobble down the stairs (my legs had properly seized up by this point and I did genuinely need the help). This porter found out where I was living in Ireland and it turned out he was from the same area – and all through the back area of the airport he told me about the abandoned mental hospital on the hill overlooking our village (more on that in another post) and how he and his friends used to go there at night and there are still broken mirrors and syringes on the floor.
We popped out of a customs line side door for non-EU residents and the porter cut me into the front of the line again like some sort of VIP. I’m not a VIP, I’m just exhausted and drugged. I could wait, please let me wait!
He ignored me, and unceremoniously ran over someone’s foot.
And here then came the MOST AWKWARD part of the entire ordeal. Irish customs.
See, I’m in a wheelchair. With a porter. I’m exhausted and looking like a wobbling rubber
chicken in my chair. I’ve got a girl from Hong Kong carrying my bags behind me like a Columbian pack mule.
We wheel up to the customs desk and I look up, waaaaaay up, to the customs officer towering above me. I meekly hand him my passport up through the hole I can barely reach and wait for the stamp so I can go through.
But it did not come.
He grilled me. GRILLED ME. The woman in a wheelchair.
What was I doing in Ireland?
I’m here on business.
What kind of business then?
(what, dying people in wheelchairs can’t have careers?)
I run a Chinese media company.
(what, white people can’t run Chinese media companies?)
And what are you doing in Ireland with the company then?
I’m setting up an Irish office.
Where in Malahide?
You know Malahide?
Everyone knows Malahide.
St. James Terrace.
Oh, nice place. Is it a sea view block?
Number 12 actually, but I’m working on getting Number 10. It’s taking a lot longer here than I had anticipated.
And how long are you here for?
Not sure yet. But I have chemo again on the 10th of April in London.
You fly to London from Dublin for chemotherapy?
(dude, I’m dying. Just let me through!)
I see you are here quite often.
And who is this?
Zoe. She one of our staff members, and is helping me get back to Ireland.
(seriously. He barely looked at her passport, and didn’t ask her a thing. The silent girl from Hong Kong. But oh no, quiz the Canadian woman dying in a wheelchair like the freaking gestapo)
He finally let me through, Zoe in tow and I was wheeled out like a rocket (is this some sort of porter race? Zoe was literally running behind us) to my waiting husband in Arrivals, who took one look at me in the wheelchair and burst out laughing.
In a loving way, of course.
He laughed even harder when I stuck to my method and made a big show of struggling to my feet (granted, they weren’t working properly) and zombie shuffling over to him. He humored my show, like the world’s greatest husband, and dramatically supported me as I leaned on him and he dragged me away from the porter, away from the fellow passengers and to the car park where I could again walk normally, even stretching and carrying luggage.
Like a boss.
Sigh. And now we get to do it again on the Ferry in a couple of weeks.