The end of compassion (fares)

Today, I took a friend to the airport. He is flying back home for his grandfather’s funeral. He had done some research on “bereavement fares” (also known as “compassion fares,” in that they used to be available also for visiting with a loved one who was near death, or had become suddenly ill or injured), and had figured out that only a few airlines seemed to offer them anymore. So he called the three airlines that seemed most certain to have these fares. The ticket agents at two of them said that these discounted fares were no longer available. The agent for the third airline acknowledged that they could offer a bereavement fare, but pointed out that it was more expensive than another available fare.

So my friend paid his nearly $400 to travel the 700 miles to his hometown, and I did what any self-respecting 21st century person with #firstworldproblems might do: I wrote an indignant tweet, hash-tagging some of the major airlines. And then I set off on an internet search to learn more about the problem.

In the past, the tickets bought under this kind of arrangement might (depending upon the airline) have a more flexible return date, which might be helpful in the midst of a family emergency. But it was also meant to offset the expense of buying a last minute ticket, with the idea that otherwise, some people might not be able to get to a loved one in a crisis.

It turns out that the lay of the land is more complicated than it had appeared at first: depending upon the veracity of various sources, there are indeed more airlines that offer a bereavement/compassion fare – but it also seems that what an airline’s website says may not be in line with the answer you get from a ticket agent. (Hang up and try again, one website suggested.) And while I added “#corporategreed” to my angry tweet, it does seem that each of the airlines is different – for example, while the CEO of United is being compensated $13.4 million this year, the executives at American are having a difficult time since declaring bankruptcy, and the executive at US Airways sent out a rather defensive letter last year, explaining that his compensation was significantly less than it had been in years past.

So it is possible to report on this issue from that perspective: struggling airlines, etc. etc. But the fact remains that my friend is paying for a seat that was still open at the last minute – a seat that would likely have been empty if he had not paid for it.

So I decided to check on one more fact: how much jet fuel is required to move each additional pound per mile. My friend and his baggage cost $5-7 in jet fuel to transport, round-trip. Add the napkins and sodas and (maybe) snacks (again, roundtrip), and still he added less than $10 to the cost of these scheduled flights with empty seats. So the airline made more than $350 off of the death of his grandfather. Would it really have killed them to make $250 instead?

Sure, it adds up. What if 10,000 travelers all wanted $100 off their roundtrip fare? Let’s see – that would be… $1million – less than the cost of one executive.

A year ago, today…

… was less than two weeks since Hospice care had begun.  We were all in shock – Hospice was for people who were dying! The idea that Dad would need a hospital bed or a walker – it seemed like an over-reaction.  And yet by the time those tools arrived, they were just minutes ahead of too late.

A year ago today, I had left the house just a couple of days before, on my Dad’s birthday.  I had spoon fed him ice cream to celebrate, only later to discover that I had been giving him one of the few flavors he disliked.  I just hope the cold and sweet were more dominant sensory perceptions for him at the time – maybe he didn’t notice it was blackberry flavored.  I talked some with my Mom and with my sister; Sallie was less than two months from her delivery date, and had made the flight out to see Dad before he died.  Then I went in and told Dad goodbye.  And we both knew that I wouldn’t be seeing him again, which made it really hard to walk out.  I gave him a hug and told him I loved him.

So a year ago today, we were out to dinner with friends, and I was asking Clay, a doctor, how long my Dad could last without fluids.  Mom had called me that morning to say that she and the nurse had agreed to stop giving him water to drink, and I was upset, and not sure how that would feel for him.  All I could remember was seeing my grandmother for the last time in her hospital bed, her hair all spread around her head, an IV in her arm, her tongue dry and cracked and her breathing raspy.  I couldn’t take my eyes off her tongue as I sang “Amazing Grace” to her.  Clay said it was hard to predict.  Could be days.  I didn’t tell him about my grandmother’s tongue – just nodded and tried to swallow my refried beans.  The phone rang, and it was my mother.  Dad had died just minutes ago.  I told her we would be there that night.  “Do you need to go now?” Sarah asked.  No.  We needed to finish eating our dinner. There was going to be a long night ahead.

Our friends took their son and our daughter out for doughnuts while my husband and I went home and tried to think of everything we might need over the next who knew how many days, and loaded up the car.  It was only when we were all ready to go that we met our friends and our daughter in a grocery store parking lot, and I told her what had happened, and we put her into the car and drove away together.

A year ago today.  It is one of the dates that I know.  Like the date we first met with the Hospice nurse, and the date I last saw him.  There are so many other dates I do not know: days no less laden with loss or longing for my inability to commemorate them.  The last day I heard him speak an intelligible word.  The last time I heard him say, “I love you.” The first time I changed my father’s diaper, and discovered how far past embarrassment we all were.  The day I bought sheets for his new adjustable bed.  The day I laid down in that empty bed and cried and cried before they took it away.

I do not grieve as one who has no hope.  But still, I grieve.

Shana Tova

Because my daughter attends a Jewish preschool, I am a little more in tune with the Jewish calendar than the average Christian.  This morning, when my daughter asked if she were going to school today, I told her, “No – it’s Rosh Hashanah.”

“But I didn’t get to hear the rabbi play the shofar!” she wailed.

After some questioning, it became clear that the rabbi had come to demonstrate the shofar at last Friday’s Kabbalat Shabbat celebration, but Hannah had decided that that did not count, because she was supposed to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.  “Do you want to go to the synagogue?” I ventured.  I knew that they would be having services today, but I also knew I was gambling on the shofar blowing – that could just as well have happened last night, since the day begins at sundown.

But no, she was not interested in that, either.  Like the mercurial four year old that she is, she changed tacks, “But I thought that I would hear the shofar all the way over here, in my house!”

The shofar sounds to signify the commemoration of the creation of the world – Rosh Hashanah is the celebration of the world’s birthday – so it is the New Year in the most literal, non-arbitrary way imaginable.  My daughter’s desire to hear the shofar even in our kitchen gave me a wonderful opening to talk about the New New Year – the sounding of the shofar that Jews and Christians alike look forward to – the shofar that signifies the re-birth of the world, when the Messiah arrives (Judaism) / returns (Christianity.)

“When Jesus comes back, the shofar will be heard by every person everywhere!”

“Even in [San] Francisco?… Even in Alaska?… Even in the desert?…” she asked, naming the farthest away places she could think of.

“Yes… yes… yes!” I answered, “The shofar will be heard everywhere, and when we hear it, we will know that Jesus has returned to make the world new, and it will be a new creation, a new birthday for the world and for everyone!”

It was a beautiful sunny day today, just the perfect temperature for a walk to the park to push Hannah on the swings.  It was my first day since getting the shingles that I have felt well – well enough to drive and to spend the whole day with my little girl, well enough to jog beside her bike.  I was so thankful for the sun and the clouds and the leaves and everything.  I was overflowing – it felt like the world’s birthday, and I was filled with praise for the Creator and all creation.

And yet… today was also the day of the funeral for a woman at our church whose life was taken by cancer.  A woman younger than my mother.  A woman who herself was a wife and mother.  This new year will be a year without her in it, without my father in it, without so many in it that have died all over the world since last Rosh Hashanah.  As thankful as I am for all that is, I continue to long for that which is not yet – for the day when the shofar will sound in every kitchen and every prison cell and every graveyard and everywhere – the day when our tears will be wiped away, and the world is made new.  And so, even as my Jewish friends did today in worship, I too hold the two in tension: a celebration of life and creation and all that is – Shana Tova! – and a desire for the round of years to come to – not so much an end as a new beginning.  As a Christian, that hope for me is summed up in the prayer recorded by John of Patmos: “Come, Lord Jesus.”

So I invite my Christian friends to join me in a Rosh Hashanah tradition – eating apples with honey as an embodied prayer for a sweet new year – for the sweetest possible new year of all.

Shana Tova! / Happy New Year  -and-   Maranatha / Our Lord Come