Jan 3, 2008

Shakes on a Plane

















In conversations about flying--when friends are detailing their fears, rational and otherwise--I'm the Miss Mary Sunshine who proclaims "I LOVE to fly." I do love to fly. I always have. Airports smell like possibility to me. It's the only time I let myself buy People Magazine and eat unlimited Peanut M&Ms. Fig Newtons become a fruit product--something healthy for the flight. I love the surge of take-off, the familiar bounce of landing. I've been in planes that were struck by lightning, and white-knuckle turbulence. And I still love to fly.

And that's why it seems so significant to me that I was so terrified on my flight home the other day.

We'd settled into a red-eye from Honolulu (New Years Eve no less), returning from two weeks away from home. Back in March when I booked the tickets and paid with them using points from my credit card, it had seemed like a good idea to find the cheapest cheapest fare (since anything more expensive, times five, adds up to a whole 'nother vacation for us). And I booked us through Houston--with a two-hour layover, before continuing on to Philly, an airport which, oddly enough, pops up on kayak as being in the New York Area.

We'd handily survived the two daytime planes out to the islands--even though the video portion of the in-flight entertainment system had been down and the kids had been up. Turns out you can play 8 hours of electronic solitaire.

The flight was packed--a large family reunion of large people was squished into the chairs ahead of us, a sure sign that I'd be chewing on someone else's reclined seat-back the second we hit the right altitude. After stumbling awkwardly through a PG-13 movie that was completely inappropriate for my 9 year old son--black rectangles attempted to hide simulated blow-jobs, exposed breasts, semen collection from a stallion (!), etc.--I'd switched to the Nanny Diaries, and everyone else in the family dropped off to sleep.

Somewhere over the Pacific our plane made some strange grinding noise--and it sounded like an engine kicked into some other type of laboring-extra-hard gear. You could feel the whole plane rattling and struggling in the new bass hum, and those of us who were awake exchanged nervous glances. And that's the first thing that scared me. If I've ever though a spot of turbulence was too much I generally find relief by looking at my fellow unfazed passengers. But everyone who was awake was clearly fazed. And since we were all sitting with sleeping loved-ones, we had only each other to scan for worry, and because we were strangers, we sort of half-smiled too.

To make matters worse, the cute little cartoon airplane that insisted on showing us exactly where we were on our journey on the screen at the head of each section of plane was just surrounded by blue. Nothing but ocean as far as we could see. Then it tried to be helpful by showing us a new zoomed-out view. Now we could see that, not only where we surrounded by blue ocean, we were as close to LAX as we were to HNL. Other helpful information followed--we were 3 hours and 13 minutes away from our place of origin, we were 4 hours and thirty three minutes away from our destination, it was 14 degrees outside. Benign stuff like that that suddenly seemed significant.

Grinding along, with nothing but ocean for hours and hours fore and aft, my insides hollowed out and my fingertips got cold. I looked at my sleeping family and wondered how two parents are supposed to save three children. A shiver of helplessness sliced through me.

A few days earlier we'd been whale-watching off of Lahaina. It was my first opportunity to be seasick since having children--and the nausea kicked right in (despite the fact that I'm a mom and my body should have slipped into some mind-over-matter vomit-proof gear like it's proven it can do when handling some of the ickier parts of parenting). I worked hard on the boat to tamp down my sick-feeling and as long as I focussed hard on it--or rather focussed on not focussing on it?--I was kind of okay. Then one by one my daughters started to feel ill. My oldest wanted to go downstairs where it would rock less, and I was completely unable to escort her there (what kind of mom am I?). So my husband took her while I stayed up top with my toddler. We were fine until she started to say things I was feeling like 'stop talking to me' and 'I just want to look at the floor' and, again, 'stop asking me if I'm okay.' I started to imagine what it would be like if she got sick. I knew I'd get sick too. I'd be completely unable to help her. It was such a helpless feeling, sitting there wondering how likely it was that some stranger would run towards us eager to be of assistance, and to feel so unable to be the one who could do it. My m.o. in this type of situation is to walk myself through the worst-case-scenario. In this case of course she and I had both thrown up, all over ourselves, and would eventually be back in Lahaina, wearing brand-new tourist clothing. She'd be in a grass skirt with a coconut-shell bikini top, and I'd be in an XL BadAss Coffee tee--the one with the cartoon donkeys pulling their pants down--and a fringed, floral sarong. We'd survive. It'd be gross, but we'd get through it.

But this? Would someone offer to help us? Would I wake them up first? Tell them what was happening? Would it be obvious what was happening? Was there really a life-vest under my seat? Would my three year old agree to wear hers? Would someone know how to turn the yellow slide into a rubber raft? Would we all fit on the yellow slide rubber rafts? I'd refused to go into swimming pools in Hawaii because they weren't heated. How cold would the ocean be? Do people ever get rescued from plane-wrecks in the middle of the ocean? I couldn't remember.

Oddly enough, my thoughts turned to my electronics. Should I tuck my mini digital videotape into my bra? Footage of my seven-year old daughter wiggling on stage at the Luau? Should I swallow my memory stick? 600 pictures of proof that we'd had a great vacation? Would these finds bring comfort to our family and friends? Do they ever find the bodies of people who drown in the middle of an ocean? Do they do autopsies on floaters?

These are the thoughts that I tried to hold at bay while keeping my eyes glued to Scarlett Johansson and Laura Linney. Eventually a flight attendant started to move a cart down the aisle and I searched her face for fear and found none. Surely she had family too, reason to worry if there was reason to worry. Laura Linney fired Scarlett Johansson around the time I started to feel better. At some point I became one of the sleepers too.

We woke 'in the morning' to yummy banana muffins and gorgeous streams of airplane-window shaped sunlight. Cheerful ovals of impossibly bright light danced around inside the plane as we neared Houston, banking this way and that, circling the airport. The kids stretched themselves awake and murmured about what a quick flight it had been. The middle of the night middle of the ocean panic seemed like fiction.

Tray tables were locked and upright, seatbacks were raised (some not as soon as I'd have liked), and we began our descent. The plane angled down, down, down and then there was the lovely rubber squish-thud of the wheels hitting the runway--familiar engine shifts began to happen and then--just as quickly as we'd touched down--all of a sudden--the engine gunned up, and the plane's nose lifted up and we took off again steeply sharply. A rushed and upsetting take-off that sloshed all of our stomachs, and then some sloppy but no doubt important tilts and angles and we were up in the sky doing a slow loop around the airport. No one said anything for a few minutes too long. Then the pilot came on and told us in relaxed-pilot-speak 'Well folks, you can see we're in the air again...had to lift off to avoid a plane that hadn't left the runway yet...we'll bring it around and touch 'er down again.' Something like that.

My husband gave me an eye-roll indicating that he was sick to his stomach. My three year old began to vomit, most of it into an airsickness bag. Once we got her settled down using the babywipes that I swear I'll continue to carry with me for the rest of my life, my seven year old began to throw up too. I pressed the call button hoping that, in addition to bringing us extra barf-bags and plastic bags and paper towels, the flight attendant would bring us some sort of big-eyed sympathetic wasn't-that-just-terrible kind of expression. But we only got the bags and towels.

A few fellow passengers mused about what had gone on--of course being trapped in the middle section of the plane we'd had the worst view of it so had no idea how close our call had been. But mostly there was silence, and we did land again (and I tried to start one of those rounds of applause but no one joined in), and then we were spilled out into the airport. No knowing looks or nods from any of the crew. Just poker-faces and professional nods as we deplaned.

My seven year old threw up a few more times in the terminal. And then we were blended in with all the other people connecting from other places, whose planes hadn't almost exploded in a fireball upon colliding with a plane that hadn't left the runway, and then we were blended in with all the other people just arriving at the airport--who had had good night sleeps and who thought it was just an ordinary day. And the grouchy flight attendant on our next flight seemed annoyed when I asked for extra barf-bags just in case and he seemed inconvenienced when I asked if my daughter could sit next to me instead of off on her own like her boarding pass indicated. And that flight was uneventful and everything was back to normal.

My mind moves now to the $5 dollar tiki statues the kids bought with their spending money only hours before the flight. Ku the god of strength, and perhaps more importantly, Lono, god of luck and protection were swaddled in tissue paper in my son's Naruto backpack. Maybe they deserve to be unpacked and placed in positions of honor somewhere in this house.

And of course I'm glad I didn't eat my memory stick.

1 comment:

honestbaby said...

That was quite a story :) I too had a similar experience on a plane recently. Unfortunately or fortunately, my children weren't with me so I was plagued with the added guilt of creating orphans. I love your writing and I'm a big fan of your blog. If you ever want to contribute to my site honestbaby.com, please contact me.

Jill