We were walking down left aisle of the largest plane I’d ever set foot on in search of row 40, seats A, B, C, and D. It can take almost 15 minutes to reach the back of a plane when you’ve got a two-year-old in front of you, a three-year-old behind you, a giant backpack over your shoulders and a large car seat in your arms. We waddled down the aisle bumping into seated passengers every few feet. Once we arrived we shuffled kids around and tucked bags under seats and in overhead bins. I discovered that installing a car seat on a plane is a lot like putting on your skinny jeans. There is a lot of grunting and tugging and endless pulling involved, except on a plane, there is no room to stretch out as you accomplish the task. We eventually got settled into our cozy quarters. Flight attendants walked the long aisles helping passengers and gathering supplies. They passed out blankets and pillows for the nine and a half hour flight that stood before us. We were heading to Frankfurt, Germany on our first international trip to visit my cousin and her family. My nerves were tense. The plane ride was something I had worried about since the day the tickets had been booked. And now, we were on the brink of finding out exactly how it would go. I said a little prayer.
Let my family not act like complete fruit loops for the duration of this flight. Please let my children behave well for the sake of everyone around us and for my own sanity. Also, please bless us with an abundance of beer on board. Amen.
I felt better already. If even a couple of my requests happened to come true, I’d be one lucky lady.
I held Parker in my lap until the plane slowly started to back up and head to its position for taxiing down the runway. As we inched along, I put Parker in his car seat and buckled him up. It only took him a few minutes to figure out that in such tight quarters, his feet could kick away at the seat in front of him causing endless torment to some unfortunate soul. I held his foot firmly and told him, “No, sir. No kicking.” He laughed and insisted on playing his new game called Kick The Seat Every Three Seconds. The lady in front of him was not amused as her seat jostled back and forth. I held his feet again. That’s when the screaming began. The plane rolled slowly along. Parker’s face was red and fierce. He wailed. He cried. He would not go down without a fight.
At this point, the captain came on over the intercom. I imagined he was getting ready to say, “Can someone make that obnoxious kid in row 40 quiet down? I’ve got a pretty important job to do as I deliver 375 people across the Atlantic Ocean and I can’t focus with all that screaming.” But his message was actually just a tiny bit worse. We weren’t cleared to take off because a warning light showed a problem with an aircraft part. He explained that usually it corrected itself within 15 minutes and if that was the case, we would be ready to take off very soon. Sit tight.
I immediately pulled Parker out of his seat and onto my lap. I dug through our travel bag for some toys that would do the trick at distracting him for a bit. He calmed down. We played with stickers and read books. We ate crackers. The captain soon came back on the intercom. The problem had not fixed itself, so we’d have to wait for a mechanic to take a look. It would probably be AT LEAST an hour, maybe longer. Sighs were heard throughout the entire plane.
Upon hearing these words, a thought entered my mind. I wondered, not for the first time, if we were making a huge mistake setting out on this adventure. And for just an instant, I thought about getting off the plane for good. I thought that it might be one of those terrible forewarnings that one should listen to so that death is avoided. Or insanity. I felt fear rising in my throat. My mind raced with all that could still go wrong. Fiery crashes into the Atlantic, kids that refused to sleep, kids that cried excessively, mothers that cried excessively, passengers who rudely expressed their discontent with our brood, divorce proceedings from the stress of it all. It felt like Karma was not on our side.
The tension, the anxiety, the fear were all pressing hard into my chest. It was the kind of moment that begs us to summon all of our courage, our bravery, our wisdom, our strength. Someone else’s brave may have been getting off the plane and going back home. Walking away saying, I messed up. I was crazy to think I could drag my family on this adventure and so I will go no further. I’m done. But on that day, in that moment, my brave was holding on for dear life. Standing strong and steadfast. The course was set, and now all that was left to do was to sail, or in this case, fly. And so I sat with a fidgeting, fussy two year old on my lap pulling every distraction technique I could think of out of my mommy hat while we waited to take off.
An hour and a half dragged by. We got Parker to watch a few ten minute clips of Frozen before the headphones bothered him. He drove cars on the tray table. We made pipe cleaner bracelets. We colored. We ate more crackers. Then we pulled out our ace in the hole, a phone and tablet. We survived.
After nearly 2 hours, the trumpets sounded and the angels sang. The plane was cleared to take off. By now, it was nearly 8 p.m. and a fussiness rooted in exhaustion was upon us. We broke all the rules during take off and Jamie held Parker in his arms as the plane raced down the long runway. And then we were airborne. The cabin lights were shut off. Exactly four minutes into the flight, Parker’s eyes closed. He was sound asleep. Jamie carefully laid him into his car seat and he slept like that for the entire flight. All nine and half hours. Not one peep out of him. Jackson fell asleep shortly thereafter. It was beautiful. It was amazing. It was cause for celebration.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if we’d changed our course. If things had been different. What if we’d gotten off that plane during the delay?
If we’d gotten off that plane, I would have never seen my cousin, Kelly, waiting at the airport with her beautiful smile. I would never have hugged her tightly and followed her like a baby duckling through the airport chaos toward her car that was parked a few feet from the door of an international airport (she has a secret parking spot!). I’d have never known the depth of our similarity. How we both catch and release spiders found in the house, often skip lunch, and have been known to pour water into empty beer bottles at a party to rehydrate discreetly. I’d have never known the gracious host my cousin is, her warmth, her humor, the joy it is to be near her.
If we’d gotten off that plane, I would have never delivered a stash of Cosmic Brownies to Kelly’s son. I’d have never watched him play soccer at the village park with his friends. I’d have never drank fantastic German beer with Danny, Kelly’s husband, and laughed about how each evening he’d open a beer for Jamie and then give us all an Irish goodbye. I’d have never sat outside with amazing company, laughing into the wee hours of the morning as we played Cards Against Humanity.
If we’d gotten off that plane, I would have never tried curry wurst or schnitzel. I’d have never roamed castle ruins and rode a train to a village Kerwe. I’d have never climbed aboard a tilt-a-whirl and soared through the German sky with Jackson close on my hip. I’d have never walked to the grocery store, pushing a stroller, while drinking a beer.
If we’d gotten off that plane, I would have never carried Jackson through the streets of Venice screaming and thrashing like only a crazed three-year-old can do. I’d have missed the tourists on gondolas pointing and snapping photos of our insanity as we walked along canals and over bridges. I imagine a great many children will never be born thanks to the scene we made on that fine day. I’d have missed smiles smeared with gelato as the boys devoured overflowing cones and their delight in chasing pigeons through the crowded squares. I’d have missed the woman sitting in her window waving to Parker as he played on steps that led to a nearby canal. I’d have missed the two old Italian ladies who gave Jackson his very first piece of gum as we rode along on a vaporetto. That’s right, we’d have never taken and eaten candy from strangers without that plane ride.
If we’d gotten off that plane, I’d have missed the German Alps. Zugspitze. The grand views. The 1936 winter Olympic stadium. Confusion at how to actually flush a toilet at a rest stop. I’d have missed Biergartens, a jolly man in lederhosen riding his bike through town and crying, exhausted kids. I’d have missed a blaring car alarm set off as we arrived at a quaint restaurant that proclaimed to locals, “The Americans are here!” and all the awkward laughter that follows a silenced car alarm. I’d have missed the carriage ride up to Neuschwanstein, complete with a front row view of a horse poop grand finale.
You see, the nagging fear within me slowly withered and gave way to joy, to beauty, to discovery, to life. I’d have missed it all, if I’d gotten off that plane.
Back home, our house sits under a flight path for planes landing in Roanoke. Each day, dozens fly right over us. And each time we happen to be outside, the boys stop their play and point. They say, “Look, Mommy! A plane! A plane! We did that, Mommy! We did that!” Each time, I smile and nod and say, “Yes, we did boys. Yes, we did.” We soar along with the folks above us, we smile, we remember all those wondrous moments that are full of meaning, full of life, all because we didn’t get off that plane.