Frequent Flyer Man
A week before he died, my father called me into his study so we could “go over certain things.” My mother had died six months ago, and he lived alone now. Without her to worry about, my father had to find a new routine for himself. During the day, he did errands, ate lunch out, read the newspapers at the medical library across the street. In the evening, he watched Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune and ate a small bowl of ice cream with a spoonful of Greek yogurt. Just before going to bed, he retired to the study to go over his accounts on the computer.
His study occupied the smallest of the three bedrooms in our apartment. It was afternoon when he called me in, and he had the shades drawn and the air conditioner on. Furniture crowded the room: a heavy wooden desk with drawers against one wall and a white laminate computer desk against the other. My father liked to sit here and read the latest news online. In addition to the computer, he had a printer and a fax machine that he never used, and he kept his office phone there too, though it rarely rang. He’d retired seven years ago.
Blah, blah, bank, blah, blah, don’t forget this, remember to do that. A waterfall of words washes over and disappear down a drain because I can’t imagine the world without him in it. My father reaches into his drawer and pulls out five or six or seven credit cards. He fans them out like playing cards.
“This one is for Delta, this one is for Continental, this one is for American.”Maybe he tells me the number of miles in each account. Perhaps I write down his account numbers. I don’t remember. I remember only this:
“Make sure you get the miles after I’m gone.”
Sitting at his desk in his Indian-style pajamas, a white cotton kurta and loose cotton pants, he looks like a mad professor. His white hair curls around his head. It seems like it went from black to white overnight when my mother died. He goes through the cards one by one and then tosses them on the desk, where they land with a light thwack.
And then, ten days later, he’s gone.
Nine months earlier, on a cold December day, my father called me. "I'm going to Miami."
Dedicated frequent flyers call this a mileage run—a trip taken solely for the purpose of earning miles. They look for the cheapest fare and the most distance. For this trip to Miami, my father would also get double miles.
“When are you coming back?”
“Same day. Don't tell your mother."
My mother was on her way to India. She’d be landing in Bombay as my father boarded his flight in New York. I didn’t understand why my father had to take this trip now, while she was in transit. Anything could happen to either of them. He was eighty-years-old, asthmatic, and frail. He wore a suit and tie every day when he went out, and although he had a cane, he never used it. His hair was more black than gray though perhaps I’m misremembering this. He did not look eighty to me, and he did not look sick, though the asthma limited his activity. It was his constant companion. When he traveled, his carryon bag—an Air India attaché case—contained two inhalers, a nebulizer, steroids, Benadryl, antibiotics, extra handkerchiefs, and an epi-pen. He was a doctor; he was prepared.When I mentioned the trip to my husband, he said, "Why doesn't your dad spend the night?”
My father hated winter in New York. But when I tried to suggest he spend the night or even a couple of days in Miami, he said, “All the food has lard in it.” Like most Indians, my father avoided pork products. He hadn’t been able to find anything to eat the last time he was there. He saw no reason to stay in a place where he couldn’t find food.
"He wasn't calling to ask me,” I said. “He was calling to tell me."
Was this normal behavior? When I complained to a friend, she said, "That sounds exactly like your family." Meaning, my mother on her way to India, my father flying to Miami, and me, in Pittsburgh, unable to tell either of them what to do.
My father was home by dinnertime. He complained about the flight. Crowded, no snacks. "I had to ask for water three times,” he said.
At the gate, there was a wheelchair waiting for him. He had a half hour layover, and although he walked fine, he reasoned that a wheelchair would get him to his gate more quickly. He tipped the attendant ten dollars and returned home disgruntled but triumphant.
I never asked him how many miles he netted. The miles were his deal, not mine. I was just glad he’d returned home in one piece, that I wouldn’t have to call my mother and tell her what he’d done.
That I wouldn’t have to call her and find out she didn’t care.
In 1972, United Airlines initiated the first frequent flyer program. Other airlines soon began offering similar programs, in which travelers earned miles by flying. These days, with programs attached to credit cards, travelers earn miles by flying and by spending. Earn as in make money, get a reward, and so on. The companies bank on the illusion of achievement through acquisition, on people failing to pay their bills on time or in full just for the chance to get a “free” ticket.
Before frequent flyer miles, there were timetables. To plan a trip, my father took the crosstown bus at 42nd street to Fifth Avenue where all the airlines had their offices. Swissair, Alitalia, Air India, British Airways. He came home and spread the timetables out on the double bed in his bedroom. He had a travel agent, Henry Kiss. He didn’t trust Henry Kiss to plan the best route, the most comfortable arrangement of flights. Hence the timetables on the bed. In the middle of this bed, my sister and I played gin rummy. My mother sat on her side, reading the newspaper, and my father sat on his side, rustling his timetables and taking notes with his gray Parker pen: black ink, indecipherable doctor’s scrawl on the back of envelopes, pads stamped with pharmaceutical ads, the margins of an old newspaper. He spliced together a trip using multiple carriers. He planned layovers in places where we had friends—Frankfurt and Geneva—and in places he wanted to see—London and Paris.
Life in New York was lonely for my father. In the late Fifties, he left behind a prominent position at a hospital, security and friends. Returning to Bombay, he became more himself, the self he had been before he left home at the age of 38, almost too old to start a new life. He laughed more, smoked less and walked the streets with confidence and ease. He took trouble in stride.
This shift in demeanor began with the timetables. He studied them the way he might have studied books for an exam, closely, with his pen in hand. I imagine the possibilities they offered, the tantalizing pleasure of elsewhere, but elsewhere wasn’t my father’s concern. He had one destination in mind: home.
Claiming his miles was easy: a phone call, a death certificate, a letter of testamentary. My sister got the miles for American, United and Continental. I got Delta, which had the most miles, because I was more likely to go to India before she did. That’s what the miles were for: trips to India. My father wanted me to go every year and give money to my widowed aunt and a donation to the shrine he worshipped at in one of Bombay’s western suburbs.
I’ve been to Bombay once since his death, on a paid-for ticket because no seats were available for miles. At the shrine, the caretaker yelled at me because I was disrespectful; without my father, I didn’t know what I was doing. I saw my aunt and offered her some money. She protested, I insisted, and after she’d taken the envelope stuffed with cash, I felt weird and relieved. Time passed. I didn’t return. My aunt moved to another country with her son. I used my father’s miles to go on vacation in Scotland.
For my father, vacation was like lard: unacceptable.
A year after the trip to Scotland, new credit cards began to appear in my mailbox. Chase Continental, American Express, Chase Southwest. I joined a website that would help me accumulate more. Soon I had one, two, three new cards, all of them accumulating miles. I had wasted his miles, and now I needed to get them back.
My father’s final American Express statement shows that he spent $12 on groceries and $10 at the drugstore. He drove the same car for thirty years, wore the same suits until they were threadbare, and had no interest in shopping. He liked numbers and he liked systems, and he played the mileage game the way he played the stock market. The numbers, the transactions, the accumulation of miles thrilled him.
Don’t tell your mother.
After he died, my sister and I found a letter addressed to my father from a doctor conducting research into Alzheimer’s disease. We didn’t need to see my father’s original letter to know that he’d been worried about my mother, her increasingly erratic behavior and her mood swings. She wandered the city for hours and refused take medication prescribed to her by the doctor. Because my father could control my mother no more than I could control him, he had written to a colleague as if inquiring on behalf of a patient, not the woman he’d loved for 42 years. Home may have been India but home was also my mother.
Now the mileage run made sense. My family had always traveled well together. At the airport, my parents transformed from wary, overworked immigrants into confident world travelers. On the plane, unable to control anything except the volume of the movie, my father relaxed. And so, while my mother was in transit—out of sight and out of touch but safe—my father did what he did best: he got on a plane.