whenever i travel, i have my routine. preprint boarding pass. get through security. if it’s a morning flight, a stop at starbucks for an oatmeal and a grande skim latte. if it’s afternoon, off to feast on one of my favorite, airport-only guilty pleasures: a freshly baked aunt annie’s pretzel dog served piping hot with a side of yellow mustard. next up, the newsstand for a gossip mag and a jumbo bottle of fiji water. neatly pack my suitcase on the way in. throw it all back in on the rush to get home.
though it was a smaller plane (only 3 seats across), it was a trip like any other. tired from meetings. ready for some quality time on the plane with my may issue of vanity fair before squeezing the little munchkins awaiting me at baggage claim. the short 1 hour flight was the perfect amount of time to pour over every detail of rob lowe’s tell all book excerpt about his big break—being cast in s.e. hinton’s “the outsiders,” directed by francis ford coppola (and incidentally one of my favorite pre-teen angst books/movies).
i was glued to the story. who knew that, before the this motley crew ever became the “brat pack,” lowe auditioned for the role of jeremy on “eight is enough”—only to lose the part to ralph macchio? or that tom cruise was actually staying in a guest suite at emilio and charlie’s house eating haagen dazs and swimming in their “gilligan’s island pool” while awaiting a big break of his own in the film.
though it was 70 and sunny when i left nashville, things started to get mildly bumpy about half way through the flight. nothing out of the ordinary—just occasional turbulence that subsided after a minute or two. no big deal: i had important dish to read up on.
just then, the flight attendant got on the loudspeaker.
“hi folks. we were just about to get prepped for our descent, but due some weather in chicago, we’re going to be…in a bit or a holding pattern for...about the next 20-30 minutes.”
as if on queue, we felt more jostles.
“crap.” a delay... “oh well,” i thought, slowly gripping the armrest of my seat. “i guess when i’m done with the 80s nostalgia, i can go back to the piece i earmarked on the falling out between bill gates and paul allen, founders of microsoft. the outsiders’ studly debauchery aside, this story seemed to have just as much drama, ambition and betrayal (think the pre-quel to “the social network”) to keep me occupied until touch down.
i was just getting into the seedy details about matt dillon’s 45-second seduction of a fan in tulsa when we hit a rough patch. the plane started shaking. outside, you could see nothing but black and dark, foreboding clouds.
i had been in worse turbulence than this, and the young, coiffed flight attendant was still smiling when he instructed us all to “please fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen.” i did as i always do during flights like this: look around and assess peoples’ faces: some were sleeping, others stoic. i concluded that it would all be fine and reopened the magazine.
about 2 minutes later, there was a startling sound.
we felt a huge jolt. the lights flickered and came back on. i was in row 4, so i had a clear view of the window in 1C at the front of the plane. i saw a vivid flash of purple in the sky.
“OH MY GOD!” i was no longer in my head, but speaking loudly in both panic and disbelief. “oh my god.” i turned to the lady next to me. “did we just get hit by lightening?!”
she was a kind, mousy woman with a calm demeanor. she half-smiled nervously, though her eyes were fearful. “i think so…"
i could feel my heart starting to race. we both kept our eyes on the flight attendant, watching for signs of panic or any form of acknowledgement that we were in dire straits. though he was clearly shocked when the jolt hit, he disappeared behind a curtain, offering no clues as to our fate. it didn’t take long for the heart palpitations to build to a pounding crescendo.
it felt like we were hurtling forward—the same sensation as when you’re on the runway during a landing, screeching ahead and wondering whether the brakes are actually going to be able to actually stop the vicious forward momentum. the only problem was we were thousands of feet in the air. we weren’t plummeting, but it felt like we were out of control.
“oh my god. are we going down?” i was back in my head. in a span of 5 minutes, i was suspended. in the air. in limbo. in a state of mind that somehow presented me with a reflection of my life—and my death.
the terror of realizing there was no where to run for safety was suffocating. but it wasn’t nearly as brutal as realizing that you can’t go back, can’t change anything that you’ve done up until this point. the last interaction you had before you stepped on the plane—with your kids, your spouse, your friends, and even your enemies—might be the last you ever have. period.
to make matters worse, as a parent, the sheer helplessness of knowing you may not be there to see your kids’ future: to guide them, to protect them, to enable their hopes and dreams, was devastating.
i was gripping the arm rest and gasping for air.
“are you ok?” asked the woman next to me.
i mustered up enough oxygen to mutter desperately, “i have two kids waiting for me and i just want to get back to them.”
she looked at me, paused, and her expression changed, from nervousness to empathy…and reassurance. “me too,” she said.
i could feel the air moving more freely through my lungs now. the pounding began to subside. she only said two words…but they spoke volumes to me. “we’ll be ok. and if we’re not, our kids will be.”
how could she know? how could i possibly know?
i wanted desperately to pick up the phone and call them, leave them a message, make them a promise that no matter what, they’d be alright. i chastised myself for not drawing a big “i love you” rainbow on my son’s whiteboard to make up for the tiff we had before i left (he wanted to wear the sweatshirt instead of the jacket). i wished i woke the baby up instead of letting him sleep before i whisked off to the airport. i wished i could have given them something tangible to hold onto…
and then something clicked. i stopped wishing. i realized that with kids—and really in all our relationships—it’s not about a single moment in time, like the last interaction you had with someone or leaving behind a last-ditch “crash” course on how to get along in life. instead, it’s the lessons that we teach, the values that we instill, the goodness that we affirm—what we leave behind for loved ones is a legacy built over time, during every moment that we spend with them.
they’d be ok if, and only if, i gave them the love and the tools then to thrive now and from every point forward—regardless of whether i was physically there.
i saw the flight attendant resurface at just about the same time i noticed that airplane had slowed down. we were no longer careening forward, and for the first time since this ordeal began, i could see some faint lights in the distance below.
over the grainy background noise of the audio system, he began: “i’m happy to report that we have just been cleared to start our descent. i apologize for any inconvenience you many have experienced. we should be on the ground in approximately 15 minutes.”
“inconvenience?!” i thought… “more like a grabber, much?” but i was too elated to even care about the ridiculous euphemism (no doubt calculated to downplay the traumatic events that had just transpired).
when the wheels touched ground, i grabbed my belongings and raced through the airport terminal. terra firma. a homecoming. squeeze hugs from my boys, waiting for me with cookies in hand, grins on their faces, love in their hearts.
i got my mother’s day present early this year. happy mother’s day to all of you!