Las Vegas and Pick Pockets

I promised myself I would run a marathon after each baby was born. It was a promise I would keep. Thirteen months after Jackson was born, I ran the Ridge to Bridge Marathon in North Carolina. Sixteen months after Parker was born I ran the Huntsville Marathon in Alabama with Jamie. These races were an attempt to reclaim a part of my life that fell away during my pregnancies. I was hoping to remember who I was, to restore my identity.

I first became a runner soon after Jamie and I were married.  I glean tremendous joy from chosing a race, training for it, and then putting myself to the test on race day. It provides a great opportunity for obsessive compulsive micromanaging, which control freaks such as myself enjoy. I’ve been getting ready for the Las Vegas Half Marathon since way back in March. Most of that time was just me thinking about the race, registering, and buying a plane ticket. It was not until September that the hard work started.  

Consistent running has been difficult for me for years. I’ve struggled with it since my children were born and it went from bad to worse after my thyroidectomy last Decemeber. I’ve been tired; I’ve been overwhelmed; I’ve not been myself.  

All of that changed right before my 34th birthday. I found my groove and have steadily plugged away at three runs a week getting ready for this race. My runs have been far from excellent. I’ve started out too fast on long runs and struggled horrifically during the last few miles. I’ve had achey lungs, I’ve plodded, I’ve walked, I’ve complained, most often to Jamie but also to my friend and running partner, Mike.  

A fews weeks back I was having one of those runs that are characterized by too many beers the night before. As Mike and I shuffled down the Greenway, I explained my latest epiphany: it seems that runners must, in some way, like to torture themselves. When we are pushing our limit in pace or distance, it hurts. When we are unprepared, we are miserable. Sometimes it’s the conditions that get the best of us – the heat, the rain, the wind. There is physical pain. There is mental warfare. There is struggle. Yet, I keep coming right back to it.  

Why? 

Running is very much like living. It’s an endurance event. There are long hills we climb and summit. At the top, we stand proudly taking in the beautiful view we are so fortunate to behold. We recognize the effort that went into it all. We are in awe of what was possible on that day – of all that our eyes saw, of strength and ability, of the fine people we’ve shared it all with. Running and life both hold the promise of amazement. 

Then again, there are the moments we struggle through it all. We can’t gain any traction. We are exhausted. We are hurting. We feel like despite all our effort, we are getting no where, making little progress. We fail at an endeavor and grieve what never was. Running and life both hold the promise of hardship.

Yet we go forth. One step at a time, one foot in front of the other. We hold onto the hope that the struggle is worth it – that all the good stuff is still out there somewhere, even if we can’t quite see it right now.

Last Friday, when I set out for Las Vegas with two of my sisters, we arrived at the airport in Greensboro and were immediately bumped to a flight that would get us to Las Vegas EARLIER than our original flight.  What?  That never happens!  Then the gate employee gave us three tickets for a free adult beverage.  We were flying high.  All was well.  

Six hours later we landed in Vegas.  Somewhere between getting off the plane and arriving at the rental car depot, my wallet was lost or stolen.  The night plummeted hard and fast.

I first thought I could have left it on the plane.  I had purchased a pair of headphones, so I was certain I’d had it on the flight.  I back tracked to the Delta ticket counter hoping someone had found it on the plane and turned it in.  There was no such luck.  It was no where to be found.  St. Jude, the patron saint of impossible causes, had far more dire events to attend to.  

My stomach was in knots. Here I was in Vegas with no identification and no money.  The cash I brought with me was gone forever by now. Things were going horribly awry. 

I sat on a bench stewing over it all while I waited for my sisters to pick me up outside the airport. With some time, I realized life will go on, with or without my wallet.  The half marathon on Sunday will go on.  I am well.  We are safe.  It could all be so much worse.

Running and life are a mixed bag. They are candy and cavities, summer and sunburn, Vegas and pick pockets.  Through the highs and the lows we will keep on moving. 

 We will endure.  

This is all I am sure of.

Now, I’m off to spend other people’s money. Thank goodness for sisters. I promise I’ll pay you all back, if I can just get back home without my I.D. 

Ten Years Ago

Ten years ago, I stood at the back of the church waiting to walk down the aisle.  I was with my Dad listening to the violin and piano playing Canon in D when tears came unexpectedly.  I walked the long aisle mostly crying.  When I met Jamie at the end, he took my hand and squeezed it twice.  He told me later that he thought I’d changed my mind.  But that wasn’t it at all.  I was overwhelmed by all the love and beauty and hope around us.  We didn’t know then that the wedding was really the easy part, that we were starting the best and hardest adventure of our lives.  

Almost five years ago, the nurse walked into my hospital room at 2 a.m. carrying a screaming newborn. My abs and arms ached with exhaustion as she passed Jackson to me. Earlier that September day, the hospital’s air conditioner had broken, causing sweltering heat to engulf the entire floor.  I was a sweating fool as I tried to nurse this tiny, enraged human.  As the nurse left our room, Jamie sat up on his sofa-bed and proclaimed over the wailing babe, “She can’t do this to us!”  We quickly learned that yes, yes, she could.  And she did. His scream is just as piercing now as it was back then. 

Before the wailing

Two months ago, Jamie and I figured out that if we take the boys for a walk in the double stroller after dinner, we can talk in complete sentences while we wander through town.  There is some kind of magical power unleashed in the easy rhythm of wheels gliding over uneven sidewalks and down busy streets.  The boys become content and uncommonly pleasant.  And so do we, because we can finally finish that conversation we started almost five years ago.

Six years ago, we loaded up our Honda Civic and drove twenty four hours to get to Colorado.  We spent three weeks hiking, camping and drinking beer.  We attempted to reach the summit of Long’s Peak and were unsuccessful for the second time.  The fourteen mile round trip hike requires you to start in the middle of the night, but we overslept and wouldn’t have time to be off the summit before the afternoon thunderstorms rolled in.  We made the best of it, hiking just past the Keyhole before we turned around.  I still wonder if we will try it again one day.

At the Keyhole

Nine years ago, we bought our first house.  The movers spent exactly twenty minutes moving our meager belongings into the empty rooms.  Soon thereafter, Jamie planted four raspberry bushes in a row along the hillside.  Over the years, the patch grew more dense as rotten berries seeded new plants.  In late July, the limbs would drape downward, heavy with ruby red jewels.  Each morning, I would sneak outside and pick berries until my bowl was heaping full.  The boys would devour them for breakfast, leaving stained fingers, red chins and full tummies in their wake.    

Parker, post BerryFest 2014

Eleven months ago, we boarded a plane to Germany with a two and three-year-old in tow.  Parker screamed like a maniac as I tried to buckle him into his car seat just before our plane’s departure.  Jamie and I exchanged scowls across the aisle as we tried to calm Parker in our cramped quarters.  The message beneath our glares was one in the same, “Whose bright idea was this anyway?  We will never make it across the ocean.”  Jamie held a few pipe cleaners in his hand, trying to distract Parker from his raging meltdown.  He may have eventually thrown them across the aisle at me in a wave of frustration.  I may have given him the middle finger.  Sometimes marriage is about actively communicating. 

At the airport

Nearly three years ago, we welcomed Parker into the world.  He was born in the early morning, around 12:15 a.m.  His first night was spent in the nursery where he slept the whole night through, giving his Mama and Daddy a mighty fine present.  Jackson would adore him until he became mobile enough to touch and hold his toys.  The years would reveal quarrels and crying and naked wrestling.  But also, there would be love.  Lots and lots of love.

Jackson 2, Parker 2 months

Eleven years ago, we got engaged in Ellicott City, Maryland and walked to a nearby restaurant to celebrate the big news.  At the end of our meal the waitress asked us if we would like any dessert.  We smiled at each other before Jamie declared, “I think we will!  What would you recommend for two people who just got engaged?”  We waited expectantly for a hearty congratulations that never came.  Instead, she replied, “We got pecan pie, cherry pie, hot fudge sundaes and chocolate cake.”  There wasn’t even a hint of a smile.  We ate our chocolate cake while wondering if perhaps our waitress were already married. 

Six days ago, our whole family sat down and ate an entire dinner together.  Let me repeat:  my two-year-old and my four-year-old BOTH sat at the table for an entire meal.  Jackson explained that his favorite part of the day was Great Granny’s breakfast and Parker said he loved playing in the pool.  Daddy loved his nap the most.  I loved that we finally, FINALLY, ate a meal without the usual grumbling and frustration that permeates this stage of life.  It gives me hope that maybe we won’t raise heathens after all.  

Sixty minutes ago, Jamie and I left for the airport where we will board a flight to Denver, Colorado.  It’s a place we keep coming back to, a place we both love.  We spent our honeymoon exploring Boulder and Rocky Mountain National Park and have made four trips back over the last ten years.  This trip, we will see some of our old favorites (Mountain Sun Brewery and RMNP) and sneak in a few new adventures too (Red Rocks and Garden of the Gods.)

I hope as we wander these mountains we catch a tiny glimpse of the carefree, young kids we were all those years ago, and I hope we have the good sense to appreciate where we are today, in the present.  Much like the last ten years, today will not be perfect, but it will be ours to take on together.  I imagine we’ll find a little rooftop bar with a view of the Rockies where we will sit down and order two (or more) local beers.  

We’ll raise our glasses to life, to love, to ten years of marriage, and to talking in complete sentences.  We may even order another slice of chocolate cake to celebrate the stories we have shared, the stories that hold us together. 

International Adventures at Home

The first time we met Qian, we went hiking together.  She climbed into our champagne mini van, and we drove to Green Hill Park where we explored a few hiking trails on a hot August morning.  As we trudged through the forest, we asked her a million questions about her life back home in Beijing and her travels across the world.  We were excited to be her host family for the school year while she taught Mandarin Chinese at Andrew Lewis Middle School.  There was so much we didn’t know on that day back in August.

We didn’t know that both Jackson and Parker would adore her immediately. On some mornings, Jackson would sneak down into the dark kitchen and jump out from the shadows yelling, “Boo!” just as Qian came in to make her breakfast.  From upstairs, I could hear a startled scream echoed by Jackson proclaiming, “Gotcha!”  She bravely embraced the chaos that small children add to the morning routine. 

We didn’t know she was an amazing cook.  Our family would regularly dine on dumplings, fried rice, hot pot, Kung Pao chicken, lo mein, and sushi.  She gave us a set of chopsticks, which Jamie would start using at most meals and the boys would try to spear peas any chance they could.  Jackson and Parker were hesitant throughout our eating adventures, but I have hope yet as they have grown to love “wo mein”; Parker has been seen licking soy sauce off his plate a time or two.

We didn’t know that dinner time would often invite questions like, “How do you say ‘car’ in Chinese?”  She would grin and reply, “chē,” and the boys would repeat her in their southern drawl.  Then, ever curious, Parker would inquire, “How do you say ‘pooty butt’ in Chinese?”  A universal language would fill the room as our voices laughed together.  We still don’t know the answer to that one!

We didn’t know all the adventures in store for us.  We would run a half marathon in Myrtle Beach, visit a couple wineries, hike McAfee’s Knob, and see the ponies at Grayson Highlands.  On the first snow, we would sled down neighborhood hills late into the evening and cook s’mores in a raging bonfire fueled by old Christmas trees.  We would celebrate the Chinese New Year by making paper lanterns with the boys.  We’d play hacky sack and backyard baseball, take yoga classes and make visits to the ice cream shop afterward.  

We didn’t know her kindness, her generosity, her easy going spirit.  She is thoughtful, adventurous, and sincere.  I imagine that it is not easy being so far away from home, but she has always handled herself with grace and offered so much to our home and community in the months she has been here.

We didn’t know that one day, Jackson would ask me if Qian were part of our family, if her last name were Garst.  I would walk through the answer from my heart, explaining that while she does have family in another part of the world, she is also part of ours because we love her.

The coming months will bring lots of new excitement for her.  She is traveling to California, through the Southwest and down to New Orleans before she heads back to Beijing.  She will get married this summer and begin a brand new adventure.  I’m so excited for all the wonderful stories that are waiting to unfold in her life.  And more than anything, I’m so thankful that our stories are now woven together.  We were strangers at the start, but now we will part as friends.

We didn’t know how lucky we were on that day back in August.  

Xiè xiè, Qian.  You will be missed so very much! Best wishes to you!  I know more adventures await us in the future!

Paint Nite at ALMS
Sledding with Jackson
Grayson Highlands State Park
Before the Myrtle Beach Half Marathon
McAfee’s Knob
Dinner with Jackson

Close to Home

Some of my earliest memories are of walking along earthen trails carved through the forest – birds calling, the rustle of leaves underfoot, the sense of adventure and anticipation as my eyes fall upon a place I’ve never seen. I remember jumping on slick stones across a creek bed, tree roots snaking their way across the trail and rocks jutting upward, just waiting to cause skinned-up knees from a little stumble. I remember my dad extending his hand toward me with a mound of wild berries piled high on his palm. “Try one,” he’d offer and I’d gladly indulge. I still love to explore.  

Recently, when my dad veered off the paved path we were walking on and into the woods, I wasn’t surprised in the least. A line of us followed behind him like little ducklings in a row – Jackson on his heels, then me and Parker, followed by my mom. Our feet trotted over sticks and leaves as we carefully dodged thorns waiting to snag sleeves and skin. Soon we were right next to the river exploring a little paradise.  

Jackson and Parker spent the next twenty minutes gathering stones, big and small, and tossing them into the flowing water. With each release, they listened for the distinct plop that marks a rock swallowed whole by a river. Then they ran off to search for more stones. They found sticks and dangled them into the water as they pretended to fish. They spied the first daffodils poking up through the softening earth. Jackson climbed up and down a tree limb. Cautious at first, he eventually mastered the hand and footwork so that he could tackle it mostly on his own, over and over again. Parker, ever eager to keep up with his big brother, climbed along the branch as well.

The adults joined in. Dad meandered up the bank and found an excellent hiding spot where exposed roots made an earthen seat. My mom helped the boys climb and bounce on branches. We noticed the timid green of early spring. We heard the rush of water around us. We took it all in. 

Watching this close-to-home adventure unfold reminded me that discovery can happen nearly anywhere. Sometimes, I find myself feeling achey for a big adventure, for seeing a place far and away with my very own eyes. I long to sip another cold beer in a Colorado brewery after hiking in the Rockies. Or I wonder what it’s like to catch a glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea. I imagine a day of climbing all 3,000 stone steps to the top of Matchu Pitchu or exploring the wilderness of Patagonia.  

However, today those adventures pale before the magic of two boys discovering a river. I remember that we are infinitely able to explore. Discoveries can happen near and far, inward and outward. Close to home, we discover that backyards hold a host of adventures, from collecting chicken eggs and planting a garden to baseball on the lawn and mysterious stones uncovered in the dirt. Nearby, we make discoveries along a lazy river, within the walls of a museum, or swaying on the front porch swing. Sometimes we dive inward, exploring our own hearts, our being, our beliefs, our minds as we read a book and are carried away to another time and place. Other times, we stretch outward. We make a friend, develop relationships, and connect with our communities. Each day, each moment is uncharted territory. 

And truthfully, the best explorations happen with the ones you love. What a joy it is to see the delight of Jackson and Parker as they discover the river’s edge. What a joy it is to share this moment with my parents. There is nothing like watching kids do what kids do. I imagine my parents must feel the same way as they watch their grandchildren along the bank. They know my exact delight as they remember watching four little girls explore a generation ago.  Now they watch another adventure unfold through the eyes of my boys.  

Thank goodness for those long ago days romping through the woods. I didn’t know that as I was collecting those long ago memories, I was also finding bits of myself.   

   

  
    
 

All in the Name of Venice

I love to be unconventional. To go against the grain. To find another way to do a standard procedure. It gives me some kind of strange thrill. It’s the reason we have been without cable television since 2007. That’s 8 years without access to all the glory of HGTV: House Hunters, Property Brothers, or Love It or List It. It’s the reason we have gone without internet in our home for the same period of time. It’s the reason I refused to buy a commuter pass at Virginia Tech and opted to ride the bus from my apartment to classes each day. Going without sometimes inspires a creative resourcefulness that I enjoy. It suites me. Then again, maybe I’m just cheap. It’s also the reason I drink milk well past the expiration date as long as it passes the sniff test. I like to test the limits of the date that experts proclaim my milk will sour. Sadly, I’ve been missing out on this adventure as of late because with two young kids chugging a gallon every four days we don’t come close to approaching the expiration date anymore. Some call me crazy. I prefer unconventional. 

So when we decided to go overseas to visit my cousin this past summer, I knew immediately this was a matter of heart, not a matter of convention. It made very little sense for us to go. We have young children, we have a limited income. But I also knew that there would never be a perfect time to take a few weeks to see another part of the world. And so we took a leap and we fell in love.  

Back in college, I discovered the brand-new-to-me world of Target. As I ambled along pushing my red cart down aisles full of trendy home goods and stylish outfits at generally low prices, I knew that I would be back again and again. One day while roaming I stumbled upon this fine beauty:

 That long ago day I fell in love with the idea of Venice. With seeing it with my own eyes. With wandering the narrow pedestrian streets and bridges. With watching gondolas glide down the canals. I couldn’t leave Venice on the shelf that fateful day, and so it came to live with me. I’ve looked at it nearly every day since I first drove it home in the back of my Civic. It hung on the dingy wall of my apartment while I finished up school. After graduating, I moved a few times and along came Venice. Jamie and I got married and bought our hilltop house and the picture hung there in my kitchen for seven years. Now in Salem, it hangs in the living room where I can admire it while drinking coffee or lounging on the sofa. I’ve been having a long time love affair with Venice.

So as we began to plan our trip to see my cousin in Germany, I started looking into the possibility of seeing part of Italy as a side trip. I looked at flights to Venice and discovered it was only a little more than an hour from Frankfurt! And super cheap! Win, win! How could I come so close and not go there? So with help from my amazing cousin, we settled on flying into Venice for a three night stay.  

The morning we were to fly out, we woke up at 4:30 a.m. Our plan was to carry sleeping boys out to the car where they would continue sleeping for the hour car ride to the airport. This did not happen. Parker, still exhausted from the time change from a trans-Atlantic trip, was buckled into his car seat and screamed for exactly 54 minutes of the 60 minute drive. This may have been stressful. We realized we were running a little late as we got closer to the airport and began to panic. My cousin dropped us off and went to park the car. She raced inside the airport and we got started checking in for the flight and going through security. We hustled out onto the tarmac, climbed the stairs up onto the plane and the door closed right behind us. We were the very last passengers to board and had made it with only few seconds to spare.

Exhausted, we collapsed in our seats for the hour long flight. The flight attendants walked the aisles trying to sell us Lotto tickets and jewelry. I was amused, but declined. When the plane landed in Treviso (a town just outside of Venice) we bounced so fiercely that I thought for a second we might be crashing. As soon as we knew all was well, the passengers all began to clap and cheer in a passionate I’m-so-glad-I’m-alive kind of way. It was a celebration of life. Our lives to be exact. I wondered if this was the reason our tickets were so darn cheap. 

Next up, came the bus ride. We bought tickets and climbed aboard a shuttle bus heading toward the 117 islands that make up Venice. By now I was realizing that my plan may have been a little teeny tiny bit overzealous. It seemed that maybe Venice was a bit more than an hour away. Math has never been a strength of mine. Back in the middle school years when I struggled with math homework, I had always gone to my Dad, the engineer, for help. Though I’m certain he explained things quite logically, with diagrams and arrows and examples, the session always ended in frustration by both of us. Clearly, my math skills haven’t progressed much since those early days. We had been traveling for almost 4 hours and there were still two more modes of transportation we’d have to take before we got to our final destination: a vaporetto (shuttle boat) and our feet. This was the longest hour long trip I had ever planned. In my mind, it had seemed much more reasonable than it was turning out to be.

We wandered in search of the right vaporetto line. After finding it, we climbed on board the boat and glided around the outside of Venice. We made friends with two old Italian women sitting in front of us. One of them dug through her purse and pulled out a piece of gum. Without thinking twice I let Jackson take and chew gum from strangers. He gnawed on it for a few minutes and the two women doted on him in Italian, smiling the whole time. Then one of them noticed that Jackson had swallowed the gum and became alarmed. She pointed to her stomach, gesturing that the gum had gone into forbidden territory. I turned to Jackson and asked him if he had swallowed it and he nodded proudly. Both women buckled over laughing, “EYEYEYE!”

Finally we arrived at our stop. We climbed off the boat to meet the host of our apartment and followed him through the streets trying to commit each turn to memory so that we could remember exactly where we were staying in Castello. It was useless. I’d read before we arrived that Venice is meant to be wandered mostly while feeling a little bit lost. This is very true. Eventually we arrived at a lovely courtyard in front of the apartment we would be renting. By now, we’d taken a car, a plane, a bus, a boat, and walked to arrive in Venice. The hour long trip in my mind had taken about 6 hours. But we had made it!

Had I known exactly how tedious the journey was going to be, I’m not sure I would have had the guts to do it. Fear and anxiety would have probably stopped me in my tracks. That’s the beauty of a little bit of ignorance combined with optimism. You just keep going. Putting one foot in front of the other, ever hopeful that the good stuff is out there waiting for you.  

Because, here’s the thing. I’m learning that sometimes we don’t give ourselves enough credit. Our dreams seem so BIG and daunting. Sometimes we put them on hold because we are waiting for all the forces of the earth to converge in a rainbow of fireworks above our house that declares in the smoky aftermath, “Go now and do that BIG thing you’ve been dreaming about!” Lacking this sign from above, we wait and wait and wait for the right time. The right time to travel. The right time to settle down. The right time to live creatively. The right time to switch careers. The right time to commit to family or friendship or adventure. The right time to live a healthier lifestyle. The right time to love. The right time to forgive. I’m learning that the right time is now. It’s today. Sometimes, all that’s holding us back is ourselves. We worry that if our pursuits aren’t just right, perfect, or Facebook pretty, then they aren’t worth it. But nothing is farther than the truth. There is beauty in the flaws and in the struggle of our journeys. It’s how we learn just what we are made of. After surviving this monumental transportation marathon, I felt like I should run out to the store and buy a real super hero cape and mask to wear for the rest of the trip. I realized that I can do hard things. I found a new confidence in my ability. And it all started from the seam of one little unconventional idea.    

Was our trip to Venice perfect? Absolutely not. It was better and worse than I ever expected, all at once. Just like life. Would I do it all again? Absolutely yes. Because at any single moment in my day, I can pause and see the arched windows stacked high on palace walls that line the water’s edge as I cruise along the Grand Canal. I see my boys grinning at the waiter who teases them while we dine al fresco. I see the ornate golden mosaics that decorate the ceiling of St. Mark’s Basilica. I see the grand scale of St. Mark’s square. The way an endless parade of columns stretch along the crowded piazza. I hear the laughter of people from every corner of the world coming together to see and feel an ancient city built on water. I remember walking just around the corner each morning to the bakery for pastries and doughnuts. I see petite cups of espresso emptied in one swig by aging Venetian hands just before their owner heads off to work. I see Parker running after pigeons and Jackson’s excitement at having finally been fast enough to touch the feather of one before it flew up and away. I would do it all again in a heart beat. Everything doesn’t have to make sense, to go smoothly, to end perfectly, in order for it to be well with your soul. Matters of the heart are so much more complex.  

As I walk through the rooms of our house these days, there is more artwork on the walls of more beautiful places from around the world that I have never seen. I look at the pictures and dream. I feel my heart calling. And I wonder how hard can it possibly be to get to Coppenhagen? Cinque Terre? I promise you this: I’ll be sure to let you know just as soon as I find out.  

  
  
 

If We’d Gotten Off That Plane

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.  

Dear God, 

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.