Airplanes, Loved Ones & Babies
I believe that amazing things can happen in airports and while flying. It's hard to describe why I always loved both. When I was back home in California recently, my dad reminded me of a time when he could walk us right to our gate and stand at the window waving to the plane. Despite that being taken away, there is still something great about heading towards something that breaks us out of the norm, and there is something great about coming home again. (as my world traveling Nana used to say, "the best part about traveling is coming home again"). I am aware that travel is not always a happy time. I flew for years to Summer camp and back and forth to college. I've had fun trips to see friends and visit lovers. I've also flown to reach someone in a medical emergency, and again, to say goodbye to my Nana for the last time.
When I had babies I stopped enjoying the airport/flying activity, the movie and the cup of coffee and the peanuts. My daughter was in her first year when the fear increased in our country, for good reason. How would anyone be able to board a plane again? How could I? Everything was harder, airport security, long lines, stressed travelers and high alert airline crew.
Not long after 9/11, I was five months pregnant, flying across the country alone with an 18 month old. At the airport, both ways, I had been roughly searched, my baby was taken and held by a stranger in gloves and uniform, while I unbuttoned my sweater and pulled up my pant legs, keeping my eyes on my child. I went on to travel alone with her on that flight to Los Angeles to say goodbye to my grandmother, who wasn't going to be with us much longer. The flight consisted of unhelpful glances and under the breath murmurs, while I walked up and down the aisle holding my baby who wouldn't sleep and was as aggravated as the rest of us. It's hard to believe I survived that flight without melting down and had a hard time after that imagining flying again. But I have and I will and these days my teenagers are now experienced travelers, having traveled to places like Paris, London, Panama, Chicago, Wyoming, their list is growing.
Last month I flew alone to Southern California. On the big flight, there was a weariness as the flight took off before the crack of dawn. My seat mates were fighting with each other, the crew had no patience, and the food smelled pretty disgusting. Everything was unrestful and my Starbucks didn't feel like such a treat anymore. I kept to myself, my seat mates constantly leaned across to pass things past my face to the rest of their family. I considered trading seats with them, but I found myself angry and annoyed and stubborn about keeping things more difficult for them, at my own expense.
I had finally settled in to read my book and the man across the aisle got up to go to the restroom. There was a quick thud and he landed flat on his back, out cold, right next to me on the floor. He was the husband of my seat mate and father of the two children sitting in my row. I turned and grabbed her arm, pulling her up with me to get to him, as the flight attendants rushed over. They called for medical help and thoughts went through my mind that this man was dying before my eyes and I was holding the hand of his wife, and calming his children. I also (not proudly) had the thoughts "we might have to land somewhere here in the midwest" and "I just might not make it to my destination" and then lastly, "I'm no longer going to be angry today." In the end, the two doctors, three nurses, four concerned mothers and the EMT that were on the flight all determined he was fine. He had just passed out from low sugar and a rough night the eveing before. But in those 30 minutes, the temperature of the airplane changed and the humanness whipped us all back into the travelers we should have been from the start.
As we disembarked in Los Angeles, I was behind a very small frail elderly woman attempting to speak to everyone around her in rapid Spanish. Everyone looked around and shrugged while she became more adamant that we all understand what she was saying. My five years of Spanish class did little for me except I recognized "baño", and realized what she needed, and it didn't seem she could get there as fast as she needed. While hours before I would have wanted to shove her forward so I could get myself out of that flying capsule, I also would have missed the quiet exchange when a Spanish speaking airline employee met her at the door with a wheelchair. She was gently helped into it, her anxiety immediately eased as they whisked her away.
A week later, I was sitting in the tiny Santa Barbara airport at 5am with a tall cup of coffee, praying that my flights home would be uneventful. I was determined to think lightly on all the things that seemed to feel heavier than normal when cooped up with a bunch of tired travelers. As it became busier and local commuters lined up to board the plane, I watched as the flight attendant in charge greeted her "regulars" with smiles, small talk and hugs. When it was my turn, she smiled, scanned my ticket and put her hand on my arm before I walked down the ramp to board. "It will be a good flight" is all she said.
In San Francisco, on my last leg home, we were delayed 90 minutes. We were not only delayed, but we were stuck on the plane. There were chatting families, screaming babies, couples snuggling, flight attendants bustling and someone had a very potent salami sandwich. In the end, what stood out was the man in military attire, walking to the back of the plane, speaking to a single woman traveling with her three very restless children. She nodded in response and he reached over and took her screaming baby. He didn't go far, but he held that baby for the next hour until takeoff, talking, singing, face to face. When all things were quiet, I looked back and he was sitting in his seat, with the sleeping baby on his chest.
I think the "travel headaches" that are cringe-worthy in flying, unfortunately supersede the reminders of humankind that slap us in the face from time to time. Cram them all in to an aircraft and mix them with fear, frustration and exhaustion, and it's a miracle that we still travel every day. On the other hand, standing in line together towards our destinations, being mindful and kind, is why we do.