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We'd always wanted to go to Barbados, and this winter's polar vortex gave us the extra push we needed. We booked, giddy – well, middle-age giddy – a WestJet package for an all-inclusive resort.
We shrugged off cancellation insurance, cavalierly dismissing the possible validity of Murphy's Law.
Two weeks before we were supposed to depart, I started having back pains that quickly spiralled into the searing, stabbing agony of sciatica. It made sitting, walking and even lying down a living hell. The only position of semi-comfort was doubled over a chair with my knees tucked underneath.
My sister arrived with a pair of unsettling "gifts" – my always-fashionable mother's two canes, which I'd bought her and which she'd refused to use, preferring to support herself on a nifty-looking umbrella. I, however, grabbed one of the canes like a drowning swimmer grabs a life preserver. Now I could at least get around a bit.
"We can't possibly go to Barbados," I wailed to the hubby.
Not surprisingly, the idea of forfeiting several thousand dollars did not exactly appeal to my better half (or, frankly, to me). So, having reluctantly reserved a wheelchair at the airport, I armed myself with anti-inflammatories, Tylenol 3 and sleeping pills and we set out on our trip.
To my surprise, I enjoyed the wheelchair service at the airport. Of course, for me this was a temporary novelty, not a necessity. The fact that all the other wheelchair passengers were roughly double my age, however, gave me a bit of a startled pause. It also didn't help that my 10-years-older husband briskly (though sheepishly) kept up with a Speedy Gonzales steward who expertly navigated my wheelchair through the crowded airport.
Wheelchair passengers get priority, and we all chatted while waiting together for the flight – our condition serving as a convenient icebreaker.
"This is not bad," I thought. "Maybe I can do this."
Unfortunately, this sense of happy expectations quickly came to a Dickensian ending.
As I stood up from the wheelchair to go through the security gate, I was brought to my knees by my sneaky sciatica. As I doubled over, a flock of security officers surrounded me. Some offered water or paramedics or a ride home; others eyed us and our carry-on bags suspiciously.
My poor husband – white as a ghost – stood helplessly beside me as I attempted a few times to straighten up, grabbing onto him for support. Because of the pain and the general pandemonium, I was oblivious to the fact that whenever I touched him the security officers made him do the whole metal-detector and physical-search routine again (did they think I slipped him something illicit when I clutched his arm?).
This surreal scene, watched with puzzled curiosity by countless other travellers, only ended when the pain finally subsided and I was able to reclaim the safety of my wheelchair.
The flight to Barbados is somewhat long – almost six hours. As I wriggled in the seat, constantly adjusting and readjusting myself and stifling my moans as well as I could, the expression on the face of the woman sitting beside me started to change from curiosity to apprehension to alarm. If the flight hadn't been fully booked, I'm sure she would have bolted to another seat.
When I had explained, she looked relieved and just watched sympathetically as I slid onto the floor, placed my face down on the seat (ya, I know, ugh! – but desperate times call for desperate measures) and tucked my knees under. It was a Kodak (or Instagram!) moment.
Having left my trusty cane at home (note to all ailing travellers: You can bring your cane on board; it isn't considered a lethal weapon), I used my husband as a supporting device.
When we got to the resort and I saw that his forearms were turning reddish-blue, I asked at the reception desk if they had any canes for rent. By that point I was getting used to seeing a mixture of puzzlement and suspicion on people's faces. No, they didn't have any canes for rent – scuba-diving equipment, boats, jet skis, but no canes.
Seeing how frazzled I was, one kindly staff member ran home and brought me his grandma's walking stick – an old, beautifully carved and painted cane that proved a lifesaver. The stay at the resort was thankfully less eventful than the flight. The place was small, so I didn't have to walk too long to get anywhere. Guests gave me sympathetic looks as I limped around, but none ever asked me why I had the cane.
An elderly Barbadian woman named Zelda, who sold trinkets and shawls and told fortunes on the beach, was more direct.
When I stumbled for an answer, Zelda looked sad and thoughtful and asked, "Is it spinal?"
I explained my problem and she listened carefully, then spent half an hour telling me about homemade and natural remedies I should try.
"You know so much," I said.
"I know life, that's all," she replied.
Barbados is a beautiful place and we made the best of the situation. We're planning to go back. But next time we'll definitely buy cancellation insurance.
Monica Kucharski lives in Mississauga, Ont.