So, which version of my Dad’s bucket list journey story do you want to hear?
It can be difficult to figure out the best way to tell a story. Especially a story like this one. I mean, do you want the Hollywood version, the edited for TV version, or would you rather check out the gritty documentary? It could go either way with this tale, and just like many times in the past, I’ve found myself a bit paralyzed at the idea of having to choose which version of the story to lay out for your consumption.
If you’re just tuning in, you might want to go back and check out Oh Canada, in which I explain in detail my upcoming train voyage through the Canadian Rockies with my Dad and younger sister Dana; a trip that may be my father’s last, since he is in his last moments of life. Go read, come back, I’ll wait.
OK. Well, while you were doing that, I made a decision. You don’t have to choose. Nope, you’re getting all three versions of how this trip went down. Starting off with Hollywood. You know this works. Click on the arrow, and watch a little film that encapsulates all the highlights of our journey in three minutes.
Now on to the Travel Channel version of the story, I think my father, my sister and I can all agree that the fine people aboard the Rocky Mountaineer really know what they’re doing. They performed their jobs efficiently, with class and dedication, and pampered us like we’d never been pampered before. In fact, we were treated like royalty almost every place we went, starting off at the airport.It may not have been a red carpet, but the airlines rolled out the ramp for my dad at almost every location. Of the eight times we boarded or disembarked from an airplane, only once did we find ourselves without one – in Seattle – and anticipating how difficult it was going to be for my dad to go down the steps, the pilot himself stepped in and offered to help. He was a big guy, and got in front of Dad so that if he stumbled while slowly going down the steps, he wouldn’t go anywhere. I was so grateful, I felt like I should’ve tipped him.
Not to be outdone by Seattle, Vancouver assigned an airport employee to guide us through the back channels of the airport (yes, they exist). As soon as she got Dad into a wheelchair she began racing my dad down deserted hallways and up secret elevators, whisked us through customs and then out to the curb where she hailed us a cab. We didn’t have time to figure out how to navigate the airport, but we didn’t need to. We just needed to haul ass and follow her. I want one of her every time I fly.
We arrived at the Fairmont Hotel, a grand old palace in the heart of the city, the first of 3 hotel rooms that we would share during our journey through western Canada. We feasted on applewood smoked brisket and pulled pork from a southern barbecue joint nearby, because Dad is a Texan, and that’s what he loves. We ate chocolate truffles and eclairs for dessert, washing them down first with champagne, then moving on to expensive bourbon. Oh yeah, we did that. I had my mom’s credit card.
The next morning while the rest of the passengers boarded a bus for the train station, a big yellow taxi was waiting for us, and were met once again with a wheelchair handled by a fresh faced young woman who took us to the Gold Leaf waiting area. She brought us orange juice. Nearby was a young man playing the grand piano, and across the room was a bagpiper decked out in full dress.
When it was time to board the Rocky Mountaineer, my dad was hoisted aboard with a lift that was operated with a hand crank. This process was repeated every time we got on and off the train, and they performed this task with smiles on their faces.
Once aboard, the wheelchair disappeared, but Dad only had to make his way a few yards to the elevator, which whisked him up to the second floor, and then another few yards to our seats, all together, in the glass domed car.
The train left the station, and we were on our way. We met Valerie, Ellie and Vicky, (who hailed from Down Under, England and Canada). They were the crew members who tended to our every need for the next two days. First, there was coffee and tea. Then came croissants and fruit, followed by numerous delicious breakfast choices. There was a smoked salmon and cream cheese scramble, Eggs Benedict, or smoked farmers sausages with roasted mushrooms, tomatoes and Yukon Gold potatoes topped with a baked egg.
Then they began taking drink orders. We switched off between champagne and bourbon all day, with a brief break for wine during lunch, which featured sauteed Pacific prawns with garlic herb jasmine risotto or mesquite smoked Alberta beef with portabella mushrooms. Later that afternoon, the snacks and drinks kept coming and coming and coming.
We played cards. We read. We talked. We visited with the other passengers. We were fascinated by the commentary provided by the crew members, who entertained us with tidbits of information about history, landmarks, people and towns that we passed.
Oh, and the scenery was amazing. Rivers, canyons, mountains, even prairies that looked like a set from Westworld. As we pulled into Kamloops that evening, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police waved to us from atop their trusty steeds. We were taken by taxi to our hotel, and ventured out onto the town, dining on Greek food that evening (not that I was hungry).
The next day was a repeat of the first, except the scenery and the company was even better. This time we got to know more of our fellow passengers, who seemed truly interested in my dad’s history as a novelist, and he regaled them with stories, showing off one of his books that he just happened to bring along for reading material.
When we finally left the train in Banff, it was too late really to find dinner in town, so the chef made a special care package for my dad with a sandwich, and we were gifted with a beautiful coffee table book about the Rocky Mountaineer experience called “The Unforgettable Journey,” signed by the entire crew. As Ellie handed us the book she said, “You know sometimes there’s one group of people who really make the trip for us, and make this all worthwhile. Your family is that group on this trip.”
I think we could say the same for them.
You see, those amazing people, the men and women aboard the Rocky Mountaineer, treated us with great care, compassion and humor during one of the toughest couple of days my sister and I have ever gone through with my father. His bucket list trip was important and special to all of us, but at the same time it was four extremely difficult days.
This is the point where some of you might want to stop reading. Because this is where things get real. I mean, we almost didn’t even make it onto the plane.
The reality of this short journey is that my father is a stubborn man who refuses to do anything he doesn’t want to do, even if he knows it might lengthen his life or ease his suffering in the long run if it makes him slightly uncomfortable right now.
My mom tried to get my dad to condition himself to change his sleeping habits before the trip; sleep more at night and less during the day. I don’t think he did. If he did, it didn’t work.
Since he flat out refuses to wear pressure hose, I asked my dad to please put his feet up as often as possible the week before our initial flight so that his edema wouldn’t get dangerously worse during the airline travel. I know he didn’t do that. I think he has regrets about it now.
I also had to unpack some of my dad’s pain medication that’s perfectly legal in Oregon, because you can’t take quart sized baggies of pot across state lines and you definitely can’t take it to Canada.
The morning of our flight, my first text from Delta came at 8:58am while I was still removing the contraband from my dad’s walker. Our flight was delayed. Then there was another text, and then another. I was on the phone trying to rebook our connecting flight in Seattle before I was even out of my pajamas, but eventually I played the disability card and asked Delta if they could book us on another carrier. They put us on an Alaska flight that left an hour earlier than our original flight, but by the time this was accomplished, we now had 25 minutes to get to the airport for boarding a man in a wheelchair, and we were 20 miles away. How the heck were we going to make it in time?
You know that famous scene from the movie Bullitt? Substitute Steve McQueen for my sister Dana, substitute the ’68 Mustang GT for a VW camper van, and substitute the hills of San Francisco for the backroads of Ashland. That’s how we made it.
On the way we developed a game plan that became a recurring theme for the rest of the trip. One would be in charge of maneuvering Dad, the other would handle the bags. One caregiver, one Sherpa. Together, we were a well-oiled machine, she and I. And we had to be, to pull this thing off. It was an intense amount of exertion in a short amount of time, and by the time we arrived at our hotel in Vancouver, we were all emotionally and physically exhausted. Especially Dad.
So that barbecued brisket dinner? That came via Door Dash.
Then Dad couldn’t sleep. He hated that we tried to get him to turn off the lights at 11 pm, but we had to be up at 5:40 am to catch the train. Maybe it was all the bourbon, but my sister and I managed to fall asleep while my dad watched a Star Wars movie from the bed next to ours, although at one point he shouted out, “Hey, who’s that actress?”
“Natalie Portman, Dad. Please. I’m trying to sleep.”
When the morning came, Dad was in a lot of pain. Maybe it was the salty food, maybe it was the flying, but his edema had worsened. And then, because he insisted on it, my sister gave my father two Dilaudid, which is a strong opiate. We didn’t realize how strong at the time.
Within half an hour, Dad was conked out in his wheelchair. He woke as we were boarding the train, but fell back into a sort of drunken slumber once we got him to his seat, and that’s basically how it was for the rest of the day. Every once in awhile we’d nudge him if there was scenery that we knew he wouldn’t want to miss, but then he’d go back out again. Although they call it the Unforgettable Journey, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t remember much of it.
Sleeping all day meant that Dad was wide awake again the next evening in Kamloops and ready to party, but we needed to be up again before six to catch the next leg of our train trip. We debated giving him another Dilaudid – but just one – to help him sleep. Dad said one wouldn’t do anything, that if he was going to take one, that we should give him two. We refused, he groused that we were trying to force him to conform to our schedule against his will, and in the end he got one pill, and kept the light on all night long, reading and napping. Dana slept with a towel over her eyes.
The next day on the train was actually pretty sweet, because Dad was able to stay awake for a good portion of the journey. He was awake for breakfast, awake for lunch, and chatted with the crew and passengers. They had all seen him sleeping through Day 1, and everybody was happy to see him alert and participating. We were too. He still took a few cat naps during Day 2, but he was an entirely different person.
The following day in Banff, he was even more alert, and let us bundle him up and wheel him around downtown Banff, into all the stores that were wheelchair accessible. (Note to anyone with limited mobility: most of downtown Banff isn’t wheelchair or even walker accessible).
The effects of the Dilaudid lingered in some really concerning ways. In the Banff hotel we woke up in the middle of the night to my dad holding the desk phone in the air, over his head. He was shaking it and saying, “Tell me what time it is, dammit!” Then on the jet ride back home, Dad suddenly bolted upright from a catnap and began pounding his fists on the side of the aircraft.
But you know what? We made it. Bucket list trip accomplished. When Dad was awake, we had some of the best moments we’ve had together in a long, long time. Even though the trip was only four days from start to finish, and Dad was in a Dilaudid Dream for one of those days, it was still glorious. When Dad was asleep, my sister and I took a shamefully rare opportunity to just be together and celebrate having each other. We talked about our families. We talked about being sisters. We talked about future plans, and about what a monumental effort it was on everyone’s part to pull off this trip. And then we toasted with another double bourbon, played some cards, and drank some more. It was the best part of the trip. Not the bourbon, but the sisterhood. And I think seeing my sister taking the time to relax and enjoy each other’s company was the best part of the trip for my dad as well.
In the twilight hours on the last day aboard the Rocky Mountaineer, one of the crew came over and said, “You know, we understand how difficult this can be, taking your dad on this trip, and we just want you to know that we’re all really impressed how well you two sisters have worked together as a team.”
I’ll toast to that. In fact, as a toast to sisterhood, that’s what today’s streaming playlist is all about. Like Dad’s bucket list trip, this playlist may be short, but its packed with quality.