Monday, January 10, 2005

It’s Still Ticking (Part IX)

“Dallas, we have a problem…”
Please believe me when I say that I’m not a worrier. If anything I’m much too passive for my own good. Panic is generally not an emotion with which I’m acquainted. But this time, this time I’m telling you I was panicked.

It happened so fast, I was totally unprepared. We were just sitting there in the terminal. I was doing my best to make conversation, but it was tough. I wanted to talk to Alex about how he was feeling; what his frame of mind was. I wanted to talk to him candidly about his condition. But there were people all around us and I knew that he was already uncomfortable, making every possible effort to appear conspicuously “normal.”

We were just sitting there and the conversation had lagged again, but only for a moment. Then suddenly and without any previous mention of being thirsty, Alex sprung to his feet and announced, “I’m gonna go get some water.”

As I said, he caught me flat-footed. I didn’t want to make a scene and say, “No Alex, you can’t go by yourself,” and due to the quickness with which he took off, I would have literally had to have leapt to my feet to chase after him. But what about our bags? I couldn’t leave them behind. I was so conscious of not wanting to embarrass him. I froze, with only a halted, “O…kay” managing to pass through my gaping lips as I watched him walk off into a sea of rapidly moving bodies across the busy DFW concourse.

Immediately, the debate inside my head began firing like the 4th of July:
“So what are you gonna do, AJ, get up and follow him, or sit and just watch him go, and just hope that he’ll be okay?
— Aww c’mon he’ll be okay, won’t he? I mean, he’s just heading over to the little restaurant straight across the concourse. He’s in plain sight. I’ll just sit tight and keep my eye on him. He’ll make it back. He certainly will find his way. I’ll just stay and watch him from here. No biggie. It’s cool.”

So I sat, with the echoes of Saraph’s last charge to me reverberating in my skull: “You’re going to have to be with him at all times you know. You can’t let him out of your sight, not even for a minute.”

And then it happened. Alex had stopped in front of the restaurant and peered inside but apparently decided that he couldn’t get what he needed there. Who knows, perhaps he just forgot why he was there in the first place. He made an abrupt right turn, heading down the corridor in search of another place to find his bottle of water, or whatever his reason. Unfortunately when he did so I instantly lost sight of him. Directly perpendicular to my location was a 20-foot-wide retaining wall running parallel with the main concourse corridor. When Alex disappeared behind it, I expected that I would see him emerge from the other side momentarily.

But I didn’t.

There’s no way I could have missed him. “Maybe he’s just standing there on the other side of the wall, trying to make up his mind which way to go,” I thought. “Don’t panic — he’ll show up.”

I continued to wait for what seemed like five minutes — but was probably more like a minute and a half — scanning the entire area, trying like hell to convince myself that I would see him any second now.

But I didn’t.

I could feel my heart pounding inside my chest. I felt completely out of control, like a freight train on the verge of jumping its tracks.

Then I caught myself. “Okay AJ, just get’cher ass up and go find him. If you need to have him paged, so be it. If you need to call airport security, so be it. But DO SOMETHING. He’s NOT going to make it back by himself.”

I sprang to my feet and headed diagonally to the right, towards the corridor, with my duffel bag across my shoulders and Alex’s small suitcase-on-wheels in tow. When I got to the retaining wall I peered around it, praying that Alex would somehow be standing there on the other side.

But he wasn’t.

I looked left, then right. No sign of Alex.

My internal debate became an all-out shouting match.
“No way. NO FUCKING WAY! This is NOT happening! Oh God, Please!
You are such an IDIOT, AJ! Didn’t she say that you couldn’t let him out of your sight? What the FUCK were you thinking?
Oh God! Alex! WHERE ARE YOU?!”

I tried to gather myself and decide on a plan of action. The good news was that time was still on our side. There was still about an hour until our flight for Indianapolis departed. In fact, the current flight at our gate still hadn’t even boarded. There was time to find him. I continued making my way down the corridor to the right, the last direction in which I had seen Alex heading. I decided that I would continue for 50-75 yards and then double back, duplicating my efforts in the opposite direction of my starting point. He couldn’t have gotten any further than that, I thought.

I decided that if I hadn’t found him at that point I would call security. But I had to stay calm and take it one step at a time.

I continued my search, paying special attention to see if there were any newsstands of snack bars that might sell bottled water. I came across only one, peered inside, but no Alex. I continued another hundred feet or so and still saw no sign of my brother. I made a U-turn and headed back toward our gate.

By this time I had caught my breath a little and my panic had subsided somewhat. As I again scanned the adjacent areas along the corridor, my mind was busily thinking about my next contingency.
“How do I go about getting a hold of Airport Security to have Alex paged?
— How long will it take?
— What kind of an idiot am I gonna look like when I tell them that ‘I lost my brother?’
— How do I…wait…Ohmigod, IS THAT HIM?”

A FLOOD of adrenaline coursed through my body as I recognized my brother’s profile, standing at the check-in counter of the gate directly to the left of ours. I quickened my pace in a beeline toward him, but again not wanting to make a scene, I didn’t call out. I saw the counter attendant hand Alex something. He then began to slowly walk away from the counter back toward our gate’s waiting area to the right.

I couldn’t afford to let him get any further away. I called out, “Alex!”
No response.
His back was still turned to me, but he looked up, craning his neck over first his left shoulder, then his right, as if someone was calling his name from somewhere above.
“I’m back here bro,” I said, now only ten feet away.

As he turned to catch my glance his eyes got as big as saucers. I dropped the bags and threw my arms around him. He hugged my neck and whispered into my ear, “AJ…I was so scared…so, so scared.” I assured my brother that everything was okay, and that I was sorry that I allowed it to happen. “But from now on we stay together, okay? We don’t need to do this again, right?” I smiled. “No we don’t,” he chuckled.

As we separated, he exclaimed incredulously, “That lady — she was so mean to me! I told her I had Alzheimer’s Disease, but I guess she didn’t believe me!”

And there it was — the first mention of the “A-word.” I was stunned.

I motioned toward the waiting area seats and we went over to a secluded spot to sit down. “Do you know what just happened, Alex?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he responded, “I got lost. I couldn’t find you, and I didn’t have my boarding pass (I had asked him to let me hold it earlier to make sure we had all of our documentation in place at boarding time), so I went over here to get a duplicate.

“Then I guess that old bitty thought I was trying to pull a fast one and didn’t want to issue me a new ticket. I told her that we’d gotten separated and that I had Alzheimer’s and I didn’t wanna miss my flight. She finally gave it to me, but she really gave me a hard time about it.”

If ever there would be an opportunity to broach the subject, this was it.
“Okay Alex, you brought it up, so I’ve gotta ask,” I said. “You told her that you have Alzheimer’s? Do you think you have Alzheimer’s”
He responded immediately, “Oh, I’ve known I have for a long time.”

The door was finally opened. My brother and I were in for a very interesting conversation.

Next: “I don’t want to be sick.”
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