How much time do you spend in a typical day observing the departure area of your local airport? If you’re like me, probably not a lot. For one thing, standing idly around the drop-off zone is a good way to get an impromptu frisking. Not that that’s a bad thing—I personally find the experience greatly heightens my sense of human connection. But I recognize that not everyone is a reclusive melancholic with an appreciation for invasive security measures.

Gary Tetz

Another reason is that when I follow the traffic arrow to Departures, I’m departing. I’m on my way somewhere, from here to there. And I’m in a hurry, so I typically don’t pause to savor the moment or look at the scenery. I weave through the lurching line of cars, dodge the skycaps, and leap piles of luggage to push through the rotating door into the comforting bedlam inside.

But last week, some unexpected airport downtime gave me the rare opportunity to stop and smell the…departing travelers. I had just flown into Denver and manipulated some friends into offering me a ride from the airport to my downtown hotel. They told me to meet them on the upper level, so I walked outside and waited in the sunshine. I was suddenly an undercover arriver in the land of departures, watching random drivers deposit their globetrotting cargo.

From my vantage point at the curb, a human drama of compelling depth and diversity unfolded. It had comedy. Tragedy. Ecstasy, apathy, and pathos. It was more powerful than Days of Our Lives, more riveting than Charlie Sheen. Scenes that began earlier and elsewhere with a hopeful, “Can you give me a ride to the airport?” were concluded on the Departures stage right in front of me. I observed—okay, was mesmerized by—what the interactions between driver and traveler revealed about the likely nature of their relationships. It felt a little creepy, admittedly. But I didn’t stop watching.

Some drivers just did the old drop and run—not bothering to get out of their cars or even roll down a window and wave. I wasn’t able to decipher much of a story in those cases, though once a vinegar-faced woman grabbed her bags and kicked the door of a black Lexus shut with a roundhouse stiletto. Either she was very angry at a special someone inside or had recently graduated from the Chuck Norris Finishing School. I didn’t ask which, as her other shoe was still loaded and lethal.

Others adopted a half-convincing, half-hearted interest, actually exiting the vehicle and pausing for a few moments of what appeared to be trivial conversation. Sometimes this ended in a handshake, sometimes in an awkward side-hug and tepid, “Let’s get together again real soon,” or “Great to see you, buddy.” Since in the course of my life I’ve never, ever been called “buddy” by an actual buddy, I’m assuming they weren’t friends. Facebook friends maybe, but not real ones.

Then I noted how bored and jaded husbands seem particularly glad that the threat level is orange and elevated, because it gives them an excuse to hasten the spousal good-bye. She wants desperately to communicate deeply held feelings before leaving to visit her sister in Tulsa, and he wants desperately to get to Happy Hour. So he gives her a quick peck on the lips, glances nervously at the uniformed officer pacing nearby, feigns annoyance at the impatient drivers waiting for his spot, musters a pained look of forced separation, and rushes back to his car. He’s a helpless, grateful pawn of terrorists and traffic.

Finally, I observed a special breed of drivers and travelers. These are the ones who can’t take their eyes or hands off each other, who long for just one more moment together, who make the rest of our relationships look drab and mono-dimensional by comparison. I have a theory about these people—that they’ve spent far too much time staring at World War II photos of soldiers at train stations bidding farewell to weeping young maidens. Or maybe they actually care about each other.

Whatever the explanation, their all-consuming love emboldens them to defy the security rules, ignore the chaos all around, and just savor the now. They create a moment that hangs in the air, leaving the two of them in clear focus while the traffic and people blur all around them. They stop time. The world pauses on its axis. Choirs sing and even the overhead airport voice forgets to forbid unattended luggage. It’s magical.

And then my ride arrived.

Outside the entrance to your nursing home is another kind of departure zone, a place where drivers deposit loved ones or sometimes not-so-loved ones for an often unscheduled and unwelcome trip. Some long to go along, and can hardly bear the imminent separation—stopping time with lingering moments of shared pain and devotion. Others spend the minimum required, mustering indifferent assurances of visits and letters before beating a hasty retreat. And, of course, some just drop and run.

For too many of these travelers, you and your team of open-hearted caregivers will become surrogate family and friends, standing in for those who dropped them off at the curb, waved a half-hearted goodbye, and essentially disappeared. For those folks especially, I’m awfully glad you’re there—because you care, and you’re good at departures.

“Now wait just a minute, Mr. Tetz,” I hear you muttering angrily in my general direction. “Isn’t this a humor column, and aren’t you contractually required to write an ending that will make us laugh?”

Funny you should ask…. LTL

Gary Tetz is a long-term care commentator based in Walla Walla, Washington. Long-Term Living 2011 May;60(5):18-19

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