Unpacking, Vol. 2: The flight there

Here is how the May Congo trip started: I went to my sister-in-law’s wedding in Florida, with a very sick Jesse in tow. In order to get us there on time and with all accessories present, I did everything: the packing, the cat boarding, the driving. While in Florida, I went into overdrive helping with preparations for the wedding, because I love my mother-in-law and wanted to help her. Jesse was still sick. We managed to survive the wedding and left the next day, and I did all the driving again, this time with a scratchy throat, popping the zinc lozenges like nobody’s business. By the next day, I was full-blown sick. Eating soup, powering through some Zicam, drinking cups of hot limeade with honey.

Tuesday night, the night before we were to leave, I was still vacillating—what to do? Go? Stay? What if I go and I get worse? What if I stay and get better? I had a prescription of amoxicillin just in case, but it wasn’t very strong. My sleep that night was fitful. My alarm was set for 3:00 a.m.

I woke up at 2:30 and went to the bathroom and threw up. At 3:00, my godsister called and said she was worried I shouldn’t go, was worried that the illness was a sign that I wasn’t supposed to be on this trip. I didn’t know if I agreed. But, as much as I hate it, I do have a bit of a superstitious streak, and I thought immediately of all the stories about people who should have been on the plane that crashed but overslept, that kind of thing. Stories about mining disasters, about men who survived because they just happened to be hungover that morning and stayed home.

Jesse woke up, and I just sat on the couch, half dressed and wet from the shower I’d somehow managed to take, crying, not at all sure what I should do, not wanting to stay, but not wanting to go either. I was so weak I could barely stand.

He said, well, let’s get you to the church. (Where we were meeting the rest of the team.) If you feel too bad there, I’ll bring you back home. If not, go to Raleigh. If you feel too bad there, I’ll come pick you up. If not, go to DC. If you feel too bad there, we’ll get you on a plane home. As long as you’re in the States, there’s time to turn back.

I nodded, pitifully, and he helped me put on clothes, and he put my things in his car, and he drove me to the church parking lot, where I cried some more, curled up in the front passenger seat of his car. By the time the van showed up, I was feeling a little better, the nausea not as strong as it had been, and I got in the van (front seat, so I could keep my eyes on the horizon) and went to Raleigh.

And at Raleigh I felt better, so I went to DC. And then we had a nine-hour layover. At lunch, I took a Mucinex and started to feel much better. Ah, I thought, I’m so glad I came, I’m getting better.

Then, while waiting at the gate, I started to feel very hot. I was flushed, my neck and face a brilliant shade of strawberry. I felt kind of prickly.

This whole time, I had been telling myself, well at least I don’t have a fever. If I had a fever, I’d know I should really stay.

I’d packed a thermometer, but it was in my checked luggage. No one else had one. Some of them went to hunt for one in the airport shops, but they were unsuccessful. I was right back where I’d been that morning. What to do? What was the right answer? Was this some kind of sign? Or was this something I needed to persevere through? It was agonizing.

Then Christie, who used to work at a hospital, pointed out that I didn’t feel that hot to the touch and that the flushing looked more like an allergy than a fever. I realized the Mucinex had been one of those time-released things and called my doctor’s office to get a nurse’s opinion. They called back later and said they’d had people with a similar reaction to Mucinex and that it would in all likelihood go away on its own.

That gave me a bit of relief, but I still had a decision to make. Without the Mucinex as an option, I would have all the congestion and stuffiness to deal with, and I was facing a fifteen-hour flight, an overnight stay in Ethiopia, another three-hour flight, a six-hour bus drive through Rwanda, an overnight stay in Rwanda (at a guest house I knew offered fairly rough accommodations), and then a week of go-go-go in Congo, followed by another several days of travel. But. I’d been planning and preparing for this for months, and there was all that money spent, and I really thought I was on the upswing, that if I could just sleep through the flights then I’d more than likely recover quickly, and if not I always had the antibiotics.

I was kind of a mess. I went to the bathroom and just sat in one of the stalls, the only place I could come up with where I could be alone. I just sat there and cried and prayed for the right answer. Then I realized: there was no right answer. I felt calm, almost instantly. There was no right answer. I could stay. Or I could go. It was just a choice. So, I thought, all right, I have a decision to make. Well, what’s the better story? Going is the better story. Going and being sick was a better story than staying. So, I went to the sinks and washed my face and took some deep breaths and went back to the gate. I was going.

Just before I boarded the plane (literally, I was two or three people from the door of the plane), airport security pushed their way through the line and stopped the man in front of me, pulling him out of the line and asking for his identification.

My immediate thought was: Oh, crap! A terrorist! I wasn’t supposed to go! I told myself I was being ridiculous, and boarded the plane. I sat down, started arranging my stuff, pulling out my sleep mask and earphones, getting a book within easy reach. Maybe he was a terrorist, but the security guys have him now, and he’s not on the plane. Well, then who walks right onto the plane and past me toward the back? I started texting Jesse, telling him how much I love him, just in case the plane is going to crash (I don’t mention the man in any of my texts). Then, they closed up the plane and we took off.

Well, you know the end of the story. We didn’t crash. I didn’t die. In fact, I was sick right up until we got into Congo, and the first day we were there I felt remarkably, unexplainably better. No need for the antibiotics. This is all the more amazing because of what happened on our flight to Ethiopia. See, we did have a sort-of terrorist on board, but it wasn’t the man.

It was a little girl, elementary-school-aged. Who screamed at the top of her lungs, for nearly fifteen hours straight. That sleep I wanted to get? The sleep I was sure would aid my recovery? Nope. Didn’t happen.

I could try and describe it, or I can just show you.


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