I will open with the caveat that what occurred should never have happened, and I’m nearly as angry at an airline system that allowed it to as I am with a family who so callously treated their matriarch in this way. That being said, the following is only about me.
The trouble began at the departure gate in Frankfurt. After a couple of days on the road doing strenuous work driving glamorous cars through the alps, the trip home is always a chance for work or sleep. I had serendipitously met up with a handful of other journos; I’d been driving Bentleys, they’d had to settle for Audis, but we were all in good spirits and hoping to get into better ones in the business class section.
The call went up for anyone in a wheelchair who needed to preboard. With the usual crowd of gateswampers grumbling that they weren’t in wheelchairs, a small, elderly woman was eventually pushed through the crowd, indeed requiring assistance. The lady with the microphone asked if she had additional family members to board with her. Like a bunch of bikers splitting lanes in a traffic jam on their way to Port Dover, people suddenly appeared. We lost count at 16, as the gate clerk exclaimed, “eef you are wiz zee woman in zee wheelchair, eff you are her fameeley, pleez tell us.” The stream continued until my colleague Rod turned around and yelled, “if you aren’t with the woman in the wheelchair, please tell us.” This instantly divided the crowd into three parts: those with a sense of humour, those who were with the woman in the wheelchair, and Germans.
The crowd of people pushed past the security gate as they overwhelmed the German boarding clerk. Read that sentence again: I thought that was impossible to do. This monster sized family had scammed their way into boarding first all tagged around a dying grandma, the way families have anchor babies to live in a country they’re not from. I’d been practically strip searched at security because they found a pack of 6 novelty Bentley matches in my luggage that I’d mistakenly tossed in thinking they might be a USB stick, because manufacturers now disguise their press kits as Toblerone bars and Rubiks cubes. It hadn’t helped that the x-ray had detected a pair of boots with chains on them also in my luggage, because I just never know if the situation is going to require a Mad Max meets Real Housewife moment. A girl likes to be prepared.
Finally on board, I was happy to find the front business sections rather sparsely populated. There are three areas: the cool kids club in the nose with 17 seats, then the main business cabin with the galley and washrooms in between. This is a monster plane with a third business section up top, double-decker style. Beyond the back curtain is coach, where we would all be if it weren’t for auto manufacturers but this story isn’t about that. Throw in Lesley, Jodi, Rod, Michael, and you know you’re about to have a memorable flight.
I started watching Ida, a small arthouse subtitled black and white Polish movie about a young nun who you just can tell is going to end up not being a nun. (Note: I still don’t know. I started watching it three times on this flight. I never did find out what happens.) I had a row to myself so I shifted to the middle seat, though they are all self-contained units with fixed consoles. The middle seat just meant I could carry on conversations with Michael and Lesley without leaning too far. Then I got bored and moved up a row to chat with Lesley, because the seat between her and a chemical engineer who thought we were nuts was empty. I shifted his belongings about a bit and asked if he minded; he said he did not. I realized later this is like if a crazy person comes up to you in the street and asks for a dime, it’s probably just easier to give them a dime. At the time I mistook John the Engineer’s polite nature with meaning he was as crazy as an auto journo. Yes, I asked his name. I like to personalize my crazy whenever possible.
As Lesley and I chatted, announcements were being made that they had a sick woman on board. I wasn’t paying much attention because of course it wasn’t about me. A few minutes later, a flight attendant scanned the cabin, then asked me what seat I was in. “I was assigned this one, I moved to this one, and now I’m in this one,” I explained. My business class bingo had already screwed up their dinner order and I figured I was in further shit for messing with the plan. Little did I know I was in further shit, but not for that reason.
“We have a sick woman and we were wondering if we could move her here,” she said, indicating the row of three seats I had all my crap sprawled across. “Of course!” I yelped, gathering up my junk and throwing it at Lesley. John the Engineer looked slightly nervous that my move was now becoming permanent. Lesley used the word contagious, but I was too busy being a worldwide ambassador of good will to turn down the request. I mean, how bad could it be to have a doctor- attended sick woman get some peace and quiet in the business cabin?
As the travelling circus settled behind us, things got loud. And louder. It became rapidly apparent that this was going to make the boarding nightmare look like a walk in the park. They wheeled in Grandma, who was somewhere between 80 and 118 but very obviously down to the last hours of her life. This woman should never, ever have been on an airplane. She did not know she was on an airplane. That Family Who Should Be Slapped now crowded around her, and I have entirely unconfirmed suspicions that the doctor that magically appeared on board came with them. In fact, I’d swear to it if asked. All I know is they somehow got her into a seat, she somehow now had IV in her arm, the rest of us did that polite Canadian thing where you pretend all this is just normal, and go about your business. Michael was beside this, so go ask him for better details.
Things were quiet for ten minutes. Then Rod came rocketing out of the front section whisper- yelling to Lesley and me that he “smelled fecal”. His words. I thought he was kidding. He was not. Grandma had shit herself in the row behind us.
I looked at John the Engineer, who up until this moment had thought the worst part of this flight was losing the empty seat beside him to me. The flight attendants got that look in their eyes like a flock of birds do on nature shows when they all detect a predator in the bushes at the exact same moment. I shot up and did a recognisance swoop of the seats in the nose of the plane, where Rod was smugly nestled believing himself immune to the shitshow unfurling a few rows back.
I raced back and Lesley was already on the move. I told Jodi there was a seat but to move fast. I leaned over to John the Engineer and said, “get going. Grandma has indeed shit herself. Leave your baggage, go, I’ve found you a seat.” He hesitated so I yelled, “break the rules! This is survival of the fastest, trust me!”. He ran. Up in the nose, I gently explained the situation to some people already ensconced there. “I’m very sorry to take away that free seat you’ve been counting on for the next 8 hours, but an old woman is shitting herself back there and we must leave.” Nobody complained. It was like all those lifeboats that left the Titanic only half full. No way would a lifeboat be only half full on my watch.
Rod and Lesley started discussing where the plane should land to unload the very ill woman as flight attendants ran around finding pads and cleaning supplies. I shook my head sadly, because as a mother I know you cannot clean up a shit covered person, no matter how tiny, with a bottle of Purell, a roll of paper towels and desperate hope.
As we discussed the logistics of landing the plane in Iceland, Newfoundland, Bermuda and finally just jumping out of it over the Atlantic Ocean and taking our chances, the entire family now seemed be in the business section we’d all left. I’ve seen a lot of gambits to get an upgrade, but even I’ve never seen someone play the Shitting Grandma card. I also realized that Jodi was missing, and could possibly still be back there. I thought about going to look for her, then rationalized that she’d quit the paper and I missed working with her, and maybe this was her karmic payback for leaving me.
As a second wave of shit literally hit the fan, they evacuated the last strangers from the section. The crew had thrown coffee grounds up and down the carpet of the section, because I guess on transatlantic flights they don’t carry rose petals. Rod had a mask over his face by now, and I was instantly reminded of Michael Jackson, which then reminded me that Michael Jackson had a doctor who killed him with anesthetic and I wondered why that doctor, who has probably learned his lesson and has a lighter hand, couldn’t be on this flight. For me. A car PR person stood up with the pissed off PR guy look on his face and said he needed a Hazmat suit. There are some things even a PR person’s credit card can’t fix, and we’d just discovered what it was.
For some reason, someone thought it would be good to empty out Grandma’s diaper in one of the only two washrooms at the front of the plane. Yes, our spoiled front of the plane. I don’t begrudge being down to one washroom on a long flight, but I take offence to someone smearing shit all over that bathroom and pretending it’s just like being in Willy Wonka’s factory except not chocolate. For the rest of the flight if anyone approached that washroom, Lesley would start yelling at them to stay away. Lesley is a very good person to have on your side. Rod adjusted his mask. Michael kept working as if willing something to return to normal could make it so. The PR person continued to look like a PR person who can’t buy his way out of a problem.
Rod asked a harried flight attendant a question, and the poor woman mistakenly believed he was asking for some heated cashews or a whisky, one ice cube or a lint roller. He was only asking if things were okay but with the language disconnect and the frenzied scene playing out, we had to gently remind her we were Canadians and would be far more likely to come back and offer to swab shit off a dying grandma than ask a busy flight attendant for sparkling instead of still. Well, not quite. But nearly.
The chaos ensued for hours. I made the mistake of asking how much shit a small woman could possibly have in her. That’s like asking what else could possibly go wrong or show mommy what you put in your mouth. There are questions you just don’t want to know the answers to. I bonded with two women in the very front two seats who were returning from a fabulous 18 day holiday. As we talked and laughed and pretended we weren’t locked in a flying outhouse, one asked if there was anywhere on the plane that might be a little less funky. “Unless you want to cling to the nose of the plane like Superman,” I told her, “no.” They kept drinking wine because nobody knew what day it was anymore, let alone what time it was.
Flight attendants were now taping small sachets of coffee grounds to the sides of our chairs, which is like putting a deodorizer over a litter box. Some people who had been blissfully asleep were stirring, and I helpfully explained what was happening. It was important they understood I was just the messenger; it was the Kingdom of Exploding Bowels playing out behind us that was the issue. I lamented that I hadn’t enjoyed more of the excellent chick pea salad in the lounge before the flight. Nature’s very best fart camouflage is the person a row behind shitting themselves.
I kept asking Rod and Lesley how much longer the flight would be. We stared at the small airplane graphic and I swear to god it was going in reverse, like the clock in Ferris Beuller. The flight attendants were spectacular; there is no other word to use. They all looked like they’d aged a little, like when you put up a picture of the U.S. president on his inauguration day and then compare it to one a year later, only this was eight hours instead of a year, but still. The announcement finally came for landing, and we were told to stay put while they got the sick woman off the plane first. This of course meant her entire entourage, who had boarded first and taken over the biggest business cabin would now be deplaning first. Crafty.
As we finally trailed down aisle, coffee grounds burrowing into my mocs and my nostrils assaulted anew, I glanced at seat 12D and wondered how much it costs to take an entire plane out of commission because one airline allows a dying woman on board and a family removes whatever dignity she might have for whatever reason they deem right. We suspect this was an attempt to access Canada’s socialized medical safety net, something I am loathe to put forward, ever, but when told an ambulance would meet the woman in Toronto, the family strenuously argued that they couldn’t afford that. You can afford to fly so many people your family could have its own TLC show but you can’t afford that?
I’d lost count how many times I smelled shit that day, but there it was again.