With fists, with words, with kindness
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I am saying goodbye to my daughter at the airport. Sasha is ten and about to fly alone to Florida to visit her best friend. We lean into each other, forehead to forehead, Sasha looking fearless and anticipative, I misty-eyed and filled with awareness that this is but one of many separations to come.
On the return trip, Sasha’s plane makes an unscheduled stop. She calls to let me know that she has followed some other passengers to a new boarding area and will take a different plane home. I am shaken and irate at the airline; my daughter is matter-of-fact.
A decade later Sasha calls me from the airport in Düsseldorf, Germany, where she is changing planes on a return flight from Greece. She is badly sunburned and has been waiting for hours. There is no information desk in sight, and Sasha has forgotten most of her high-school German. I place a frantic call to her former pediatrician, who advises wet paper towels and plenty of fluids. I spend the night mothering Sasha long-distance, running up an exorbitant phone bill.
Another decade has passed, and my daughter is a scientist doing environmental field research in Costa Rica and Bolivia. She travels in and out of back-country airstrips, in aircraft the size of large dragonflies. I worry about plane crashes, poisonous snakes, killer bees, and political unrest. By phone Sasha reassures me in her clear, calm voice. “Vaya con Dios,” I say as we hang up, thinking a Spanish blessing couldn’t hurt.
I will never be able to keep her safe — never have been able to, really, even when she was an infant in my arms. My daughter’s life — all life — is as fragile as a plane in flight, as a dragonfly’s wings. I live in anticipation of our next airport reunion, when we’ll lean into each other, forehead to forehead, all distance erased, my daughter returned to me once more.
Elmira, New York
My parents weren’t the kind who picked their children up at the airport. “Just take a cab,” my mother would sigh over the phone whenever I planned a trip back to New York City from San Francisco. I’d usually find myself waiting in line at the taxi stand outside JFK International Airport. Or sometimes Khan, the Pakistani car-service driver who whisks my elegant, designer-clad mother around Manhattan, would meet me at the baggage claim.
Single and forty-one, I had managed not to meet any of my mother’s expectations. I hadn’t become a lawyer; I hadn’t even married a lawyer. So I had no idea what to expect from her when I announced that I’d decided to adopt a baby girl from China.
Happily, my mother liked the idea of a Chinese granddaughter. She began to send me newspaper clippings about adopted Chinese girls growing up Jewish on the Upper West Side. Still, she seemed tentative, almost distant, while I waited for an adoption referral. Maybe she wasn’t all that pleased. Or maybe she was just being superstitious. She’d once told me it was tempting fate to hold a baby shower before the baby arrived.
Eight months later the adoption agency sent me a tiny photo of a baby with a spiky fringe of black hair. In a burst of excitement, my parents made reservations to fly to San Francisco so they could be there when I came home from China with my new daughter, Clara. They even agreed to rent a car and pick us up at the airport. My mother and I had several long discussions about how Clara would react to a car seat. “There’s no way she’ll sit in one,” my mother said with certainty. “She’s never seen a car seat in her life.”
“Well, she’ll just have to. And if she doesn’t, I’ll hold her in my lap,” I replied. I was about to fly thousands of miles to a foreign country and be handed a one-year-old. A car seat was the least of my worries.
Clara was given to me, red-faced and screaming, in a government office in Wuhan, China. For the next two weeks, while the adoption was made official, she would not let me put her down. But when we got off the plane in San Francisco and climbed into my parents’ rented Volvo, Clara let me buckle her right into the car seat. My mother, completely enchanted, turned around in the passenger seat and offered Clara a long, manicured finger to clutch. They stayed that way for the entire forty-five-minute ride home.
Clara is four years old now, a happy preschooler who likes chow-mein noodles and the matzo balls she and my mother make from a mix when she visits my parents. The last time I planned a trip to Manhattan, my mother said Khan would pick us up at the airport. And he was there, at the baggage claim, holding up a sign with our name on it. But so was my mother, hunkered down in a dirty orange plastic chair, smiling as we approached.
When my dad was at the height of his cocaine addiction, I told my high-school counselor about his rages and beatings. She sympathized and said she could report it, but while he got treatment, I would be put in Chicago’s foster-care system; at my age, sixteen, that meant a group home where I would be housed among juvenile offenders. She told me some horror stories about those homes. I thanked her for the warning and told her I preferred the beatings. Then I ran away.
It was winter in Chicago. I couldn’t afford an apartment or even a transient hotel on my meager income from a part-time job. So I rode the trains and buses to stay warm, and, when I had absolutely no place to sleep, I went to the airport. There was almost always a delayed flight, and where there was a delayed flight, there was a crowd of stranded travelers for me to slip into and find a place to sleep. The roaming security guards made me feel safe. A bathroom was never far away, and, if it was deserted enough, I could risk washing my hair and taking a sponge bath. Some mornings I might talk to a monk in robes and learn about his religion, or hear some Bob Dylan wannabe strumming a beat-up guitar. Those terminals were my only safe haven during that frightening time.
Sometime in the early nineties, I was watching the ten o’clock news, and the anchor reported that, for security reasons, the terminals at O’Hare would be open to ticketed passengers only from then on. A sadness came over me, and I wept for anyone who might be looking for a safe place to sleep on a cold winter night.
It was 1969, and the Vietnam War was in full swing. At my father’s urging, my eighteen-year-old brother enlisted in the navy to avoid the risk of getting drafted into the army and ending up dodging bullets in the jungle. I don’t remember much about the day my brother left for Great Lakes Naval Training Center except that I got his room. I was eleven.
Six weeks later my brother was coming home on his first leave. My parents, my sister, and I waited at the airport gate, surrounded by hugging strangers. As the crowd thinned out, I began to think my brother was not going to walk down the narrow jetway. What if he didn’t come home? I had never before considered the possibility that something might happen to him. The thought disturbed me, because I did love my brother, who expressed his affection for me, his kid sister, mostly with punches to the arm and thumps to the back of the head.
Then I looked up at a tall sailor with a shaved head, dressed all in white, wearing shiny shoes and carrying an enormous sea bag on his shoulder. My brother shook my dad’s hand and hugged my mom and tousled my hair. Where was the punch? Where was the thump? Who was this polite, grown-up stranger?
My brother eventually went to Vietnam, where he served on a ship, relatively out of harm’s way. After he’d finished his tour of duty, he was stationed in Long Beach, California. He’d send me albums by the Beatles and Jackson Browne and James Taylor, records my friends and I hadn’t heard yet. California seemed the source of all cool music.
A couple of years later he got discharged from the navy and came home to Virginia. Once again we headed to the airport. I was now fifteen and, in my mind, almost grown-up. Waiting at the gate, I tried to look nonchalant in my frayed bell-bottoms, straight hair, and John Lennon glasses: as if I came to the airport all the time; as if I knew my way around the airport.
I watched the narrow jetway, eyes peeled for the tall sailor. But as the last passengers emerged, there was no sailor. There was only a tall, shaggy-haired hippie carrying a huge sea bag. He was smiling at us. Once again my brother was a stranger to me.
St. Petersburg, Florida
My mother, my father, and I are late departing for the airport, and I am annoyed. My father is holding us up with his primping, slicking his hair down with some acrid-smelling gel. At this rate, I may miss my plane.
“For God’s sake, we’re only going to the airport,” I say.
“I need to look good for my little girl,” he says, “in case I don’t see you again.”
This comment catches me off guard. It’s the first hint he’s given that he is aware of his failing health; normally he insists that my mother is exaggerating. She has whispered to me over the phone, her voice tinged with fear, that she’s found my father walking through the neighborhood in his pajamas or standing in the corner of the living room, staring at his feet.
My father speeds us to the airport, focused and tense, and we arrive so late that he has to drop me off at the curb. My mother will walk me to the gate while he parks the car and tries to catch up with us. I hustle to my gate but put off boarding the plane while I look around for my father. I’d hate to leave without saying goodbye to him. I live two thousand miles away, and it may be a full year before I see him again.
When they call for final boarding, my father still has not shown up. Reluctantly I get on, find my seat, and shove my baggage into the overhead bin. The cabin door is about to close when the flight attendant announces my name over the intercom and motions for me to come to the front.
My victorious father is there, having pushed his way through and demanded to see me. Every ounce of anger I have been feeling vanishes. We hug and accidentally kiss on the lips. I go back to my seat, buckle up, and promptly burst into tears, gripped by a powerful fear that I will never see him again.
I never do.
Tama J. Kieves
My employer tells me I’m the first line of defense in the “war on terror.” That’s a lot of responsibility for an airline baggage handler whose paycheck has been cut numerous times (while the corporate heads have done everything in their power to secure their own salaries, pensions, and lifetime flying privileges). Management once expressed its appreciation for my hard work by giving me a chocolate-chip cookie adorned with a smiley face.
“If you see an individual without the proper badge in a restricted area of the airport, you are to challenge that individual,” says the authoritative voice on the training video. This “challenge” involves approaching the suspect and asking for evidence that he or she belongs there. The narrator goes on to say that if the suspect fails to produce proper identification, the employee is to escort him or her to the nearest exit.
Call me stupid, but if I am a terrorist intent on causing destruction at an international airport, and I’ve managed to get by the Transportation Security Administration, the airline’s gate agents, the airport police, and the numerous key-coded security doors, do you honestly think being “challenged” by an underpaid, overworked employee is going to stop me?
Los Angeles, California
At thirty-five, blinded by the desire to have a baby, I rushed into marriage with a man I’d been dating only four months. The night before our wedding, my fiancé held me by the neck and threatened to kill me. I married him anyway. Within three months I was pregnant.
Throughout that short union I lived in constant fear and often locked myself in the bedroom to escape my husband’s rage. One hot summer night he told me he would kill me and take the baby if I did not shut up. I moved three states away, taking our four-month-old son with me.
After a prolonged custody battle that forced me into bankruptcy, my ex gained visitation rights. My son, now seven, flies once a month as an unaccompanied minor to see his father. As we head to the airport together, there is a routine I follow: a certain toll road, a certain parking garage, a certain check-in line, a certain family bathroom, a certain airport store, a certain McDonald’s, a certain time when the flight attendant takes my son away from me.
It is never easy, and, inevitably, after my son has walked away, a bystander asks me how I do it. This unsuspecting soul has no idea how painful it is to relinquish my child to the care of his father. I wear sunglasses so no one will see the tears in my eyes.
Back in my car I feel my son’s still-warm seat and put in the CD we were listening to together just a short while ago. As I drive home alone, I watch the airplanes fly over my car. One of them carries my precious boy.
At the age of thirteen I walked through JFK International Airport holding tightly to my mother’s hand; my younger sister walked on her other side, clutching her favorite stuffed animal. Our mother wore a print dress that showed off her figure, beaded necklaces around her neck, and a knit cap that covered her red hair. Though her clothes hadn’t changed since her flower-child days, the lines on her face betrayed the intervening years of hard living.
My sister and I were headed to California to live with our grandparents. Everyone had agreed it was for the best. I was even looking forward to life in my grandparents’ tidy house, where dinner was always on the table at six and making the rent was never an issue. At the same time, I clung to the hope that our mother would come with us to California; that, in the end, she wouldn’t be able to let us go.
But when the three of us came to the security check, my mother stopped in her tracks.
“I can’t go through,” she said.
I knew what the problem was. “Don’t worry, they’re only looking for metal.”
She refused to budge. I wasn’t going to let airport security ruin the chance that she might come with us. “I’ll take it through,” I told her.
We went into a stall in the women’s bathroom, and my mother passed me a small bag filled with white powder. I tucked it into the waistband of my jeans and smoothed out my shirt to conceal the bump. My mother looked anxious. “We can’t,” she said. She was afraid that a belt buckle or something would set off the metal detector, and they’d have to search us. “You don’t know what they’d do to us if they found it.” She took back the packet of powder.
“Why don’t you just throw it away?” I pleaded. I had never made a request like this before, probably because I knew the choice she would make.
Our mother cried as she was separated from us at security, holding tight to the purse that contained her stash. When my sister and I passed through the metal detector, it didn’t make a sound.
The daughter of a U.S. diplomat, I spent most of my childhood in foreign lands and chose a similar life as an adult. After two years in the Peace Corps, my husband and I began careers teaching in American schools overseas. I have passed through airport after airport, traveling home and then back again, until the distinction between “home” and “away” has blurred or disappeared entirely.
We were in Liberia in 1990 when the opposition forces reached the outskirts of the capital, and the expatriate population was fleeing in a panic. Our three children watched wide-eyed as my husband and I gathered what we could for the trip, leaving behind the bicycles, the car, the furniture. I thought about the friends I’d never see again, the ones who might die after I boarded a plane for the safety of my own country. We traveled to the airport at 2 A.M. with hundreds of others in a military convoy and shook hands with the U.S. ambassador and his wife as we prepared to board the plane. The airport would be burned down within weeks. I would never see that home again.
My husband and I vowed that, from then on, if there was civil unrest in a country, we’d stay put and ride it out. When we lived in Pakistan in the late nineties, we faced a series of evacuations. Each time we declined to leave, determined to keep our home. But after 9/11, we gave in. It took us days to get home to the U.S., which wasn’t home anymore. Pakistan was home now, and we wanted to go back.
A month later we returned to Islamabad, having convinced ourselves that it was safe; our school would never be intentionally targeted. Even after we lost a student and her mother in a church bombing; even after a teacher had to throw her body over her child and absorb shrapnel to save his life, we held fast to our decision. But when men armed with AK-47s attacked an American school near ours, killing everyone they saw, we knew it was time to go. Once more we boarded a plane in fear and watched our home slip away below us, getting smaller and smaller until it disappeared.
In October 1973 my friend and I were released from a Colombian women’s prison, where we’d been held for three months on drug-trafficking charges. Physically and emotionally spent, we wanted to get home to the U.S. as soon as we could. Our plan was to fly into Mexico City, take a puddle-jumper to Tijuana, then walk across the border — all this to avoid interrogation at a U.S. airport.
At the Mexico City airport, my friend and I waited nervously in the customs line. A year earlier, a runner we knew had been arrested at Mexican customs and had spent a year getting raped in prison. When it came time for our bags to be checked, several plainclothes cops took over the inspection of our luggage. In a matter of seconds they found the false-bottomed aerosol cans we each had in our bags, and they took us away.
We’d held on to these empty containers, which were expensive to manufacture, in hopes of returning them to the mastermind of the drug-running operation, to make up in some small way for what our bust had cost him. Since the Colombian authorities had never detected the cans, we’d been lulled into thinking they were foolproof.
We were brought to a windowless room, where six black-haired, mustachioed federales began screaming at us, their faces inches from ours, demanding to know who’d given us the cans and threatening us with time in prison. They called us “whores” and “stupid mules.” The thought of what had happened to our runner friend terrified me. I was sure at any moment one of the men would strike us, and when I began to cry, they screamed even louder.
Finally I threw a name at them, telling them it was the person who’d given us the cans, and I begged them to let us go. They toyed with us a while longer, photographed us, then released us. I clung to my friend’s arm and somehow managed to walk the rest of the way through the airport.
In all my years of traveling since then, I’ve never flown through Mexico City again.
In the late fifties, when I was dating my first husband, one of our favorite ways to spend a Saturday night was to head over to Idlewild Airport (now JFK), park ourselves at the cocktail lounge by the international terminal, and watch the arriving and departing travelers. Neither of us had been any farther from New York than Maine. London, Paris, and Rome were places I’d seen only in movies. I was fascinated by the elegant women dressed in high heels, hats, gloves, and furs, and I fantasized about their lives, which I knew had to be ten times more exciting than mine. I wanted to go with them.
Sixteen years later my husband and I divorced, never having taken so much as a weekend trip together. When I remarried, it was to a man who worked for Pan Am airlines, and he immediately whisked me off to London for my first transatlantic vacation. Paris and Rome became familiar places to me. I had become a voyager instead of a voyeur.
Now I am a grandmother taking my sixteen-year-old granddaughter to the airport, where she will board a flight to New Delhi, India, to join her parents in their second home. She walks up to the ticket counter totally at ease, having done this many times before. After she passes through security, she turns to wave to me one more time. I watch her until I cannot see her anymore, and a feeling wells up that I haven’t experienced in years: I want to go with her.
Manchester, New Hampshire
My younger sister and I started flying alone after our parents divorced in 1974. At the age of nine, I quickly became familiar with the short flight from Phoenix, Arizona, to Albuquerque, New Mexico. After the plane landed, I would descend the rolling staircase onto the tarmac and hold my little sister’s hand as we walked toward the faux-adobe terminal. Our father would be inside wearing sunglasses, pressed bluejeans, a big turquoise belt buckle, and new running shoes. He would pick up my sister, then hug me too hard. He smelled funny. Later I would learn that the smell was pot.
When one summer he wasn’t waiting for us, I didn’t panic. I stood around and held my sister’s hand until we were the only ones left at the gate. Then we went down the escalator to the baggage claim to get our suitcase. Our father wasn’t there, either. I found a pay phone, expertly dialed 0 before my father’s number, told the operator I wanted to make a collect call, and gave my name. It rang forever. The operator suggested I try again later.
I dragged our suitcase into the ladies’ room and helped my sister use the toilet and wash her hands. Then we sat on a heavy wooden bench and ate the peanut-butter crackers we had in our backpack. Flight announcements echoed off the high ceiling and shiny Mexican-tile floor. People hurried by to catch their flights, never noticing two little girls alone.
I called our father countless times over the next several hours. When he finally picked up, I could hear him smile at the sound of my voice. Then I told him where we were. His voice grew curt, and he said our mother had given him the wrong date.
An hour later he picked us up and drove us to his house, rapping his chunky turquoise rings on the steering wheel and sipping the cold beer he had wedged between his legs. I hadn’t even considered calling my mother while we’d been stranded. I didn’t want to rat out my father; my tenuous grasp on him was always in jeopardy. I never told anyone what had happened.
My sister and I still pass through the Albuquerque airport on occasion. The last time was a trip to celebrate our aunt’s seventieth birthday. No matter how much time has passed and how the airport has been remodeled and expanded, we still see it as it was when we were two little girls.
Mill Valley, California
The most-severe panic attacks I’ve ever had all occurred in airports. The panic would be triggered by feeling trapped in the fluorescent-lit concourses crammed with rushing people. The worst was Chicago’s O’Hare, where the crowded tunnel between concourses was outfitted with flashing neon lights and piped-in hustle-bustle music designed to get everyone through as fast as possible. For me the sensory overload was so great that more than once I clung to the tunnel wall, shut my eyes, and felt my way from one end to the other, crying and praying the entire way.
My panic disorder was at its zenith in the summer of 1976, when I’d survived a protracted and brutal divorce and was faced with raising two young children alone. There was one bright light in my life: I was in love with a man I’d met in my therapy group. But then, at summer’s end, he got a job more than a thousand miles away, in Denver, Colorado.
I was determined to fly out and visit him, even though it meant changing planes at O’Hare. A friend rationalized that I had an invisible handicap and needed a visible one instead, so that the airline employees would help me. She lent me a pair of crutches and told me to wrap my leg in an Ace bandage and say that I had a broken ankle.
Another friend, who lived in Chicago, agreed to meet me when I arrived at O’Hare. I got off the plane to find my friend waiting for me, along with an airport employee who had orders to put me in a wheelchair and take me to the gate for my next departure. My friend insisted we have a drink first, so the employee wheeled me over to the nearest airport lounge and said he’d be back to get me in half an hour.
After a few drinks it suddenly dawned on us that he’d forgotten me, and my plane was due to depart in two minutes. My friend yanked me out of the wheelchair, and I put the crutches under my arm and ran down the concourse. When I got to the gate, the doors of the plane were closing, but the crew took pity on me and let me squeeze on.
The man I was flying to see has been my husband for nearly thirty years. Together we have traveled the world.
I’m flying home from college for my mother’s funeral, and some friends have come to see me off. While we’re sitting and talking in the coffee shop, I miss the boarding call for my flight. I end up running to the gate, but the jetway door has already closed.
“I have to catch that flight,” I say to the airline employees. “My mother is dead. My mother died. You have to help me. I can’t miss my own mother’s funeral.” Through the window I see the plane begin to move toward the runway. “Please make it stop. Please.”
The man and the woman look at each other, and the man picks up a phone. “It may be too late,” he says.
The woman holds my shaking shoulders and says, “Calm yourself, sweetheart. We’ll get you there.” Her kindness makes me want to cry, but I steel myself and look up to see the plane turning and coming back toward us; the rolling stairway slides up, and the man holds open the door and says, “Let’s go!”
A flight attendant greets me at the top of the stairs. “You must be pretty important,” she says, smiling, as I maneuver into a seat.
I want to be cheerful back, but I blurt out, “No, my mother just died,” and I begin to sob. She takes the seat next to me and tells me during the flight about how her fiancé just died. I am grateful to have had that brief time with her. No one understood better than she did in those first weeks after my mother’s death.
Eager for a change in scenery, I had deliberately left Fort Bragg hours early to go to the airport. I wore my uncomfortable dress greens and carried all my possessions in an army-issue laundry bag. I can’t remember whether I was heading to LA or Boston. My parents had divorced not long after I’d enlisted and were now divided by a continent.
Waiting for my flight, I watched a family gather round a pasty-faced teenager who was trying to look brave. I overheard just enough to learn that he was on his way to boot camp, and I recalled the morning three years earlier when I’d headed off to basic training myself: My mother had been angry and fearful about my decision to drop out of high school and follow in my father’s footsteps. Dad, a former infantryman, was proud of my decision, but he knew he was in a losing battle with Mom, so he couldn’t openly show his approval.
As they saw me to the gate, they held hands, their fingers interlaced. Perhaps they were trying to put me at ease, or to fool themselves about the rough times to come in their marriage. I told myself I was happy to be leaving. Unlike my younger sisters and brother, I would not have to brave the storm to come.
Through the window of the boarding tunnel, I caught a final glimpse of the two of them staring at the airplane, separate and silent. They were no longer holding hands.
Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina
Heading home after my father’s funeral, I sat in the airport in Chicago and waited for my flight to be called. The events of the previous week had left me feeling dazed. Watching the other travelers, I took special note of three young men seated across from me. I couldn’t help thinking they were probably members of a gang. They had that classic gang look: sunglasses; bandannas; slicked-back hair; that rough, street-smart style. I generally try to avoid their type. But they were just sitting quietly, so I decided not to dwell on them and went back to wondering what I was going to do without my dad.
The typical protector and provider, Dad had never burdened me with his failing health or his fears about dying. I thought of our tradition of wearing Groucho glasses whenever we picked each other up at the airport; he enjoyed seeing the looks on people’s faces as we walked by. Dad loved to sing, too, and would often compete with my uncle to see who knew the words to more old songs. I’d seen my uncle cry for the first time that week as he shoveled dirt into my father’s grave.
Just then the airport TV began playing “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” Dad’s favorite Glen Miller tune. He’d taught me the words, and we’d sung it together often. When I heard that song, the tears just came.
After a few minutes, one of the three questionable-looking young men across from me asked what was wrong, and I told him about my father’s passing. He did his best to console me. He seemed to understand how devastating it can be to lose a parent, and I let him hold me while I cried, feeling sorry that I had earlier judged him so harshly.
© Beau Brashares
In October 1994 my husband and I met our oldest son, Jonathan, at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. His face had a glow I hadn’t seen in a long time as he came rushing into the Northwest Airlines Club. This would be one of his last business trips to Detroit, he said. His promotion had just come through, and, starting in November, he would travel only up and down the East Coast. This meant he’d be home most nights and could go to his children’s skating events and coach the soccer team. He and his wife would have more time for each other. They’d have a life again, “like normal people.”
Six weeks later, on one of those short East Coast flights, our son’s plane crashed on landing at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in North Carolina. He died.
My husband and I flew out to identify his body, landing safely at the airport where our son had died. At the hospital, the doctors discouraged us from viewing our son’s remains. “Just identify the Polaroids,” they said. But we persisted and were finally allowed to see him. He looked just as he had when we’d last seen him, only his nose was broken. The puncture wound to his heart was mercifully covered up.
In December of last year, another of our sons was flying into Raleigh-Durham for a job interview. He was excited about the opportunity, but apprehensive about the flight. He boarded the plane clutching his grandmother-in-law’s Saint Christopher medal and my own traveling mezuza. The plane arrived safely, and the job interview went well. He accepted the position and moved to the area where his oldest brother had died.
In a few days I will fly to North Carolina to see my son. I, too, am apprehensive. The last time I flew there, we were met at the airport by a grief counselor. This time I will be met by my daughter-in-law and granddaughter. I will face my fears and perhaps put them to rest.
I ran into my mother once at the Minneapolis–St. Paul airport. I was on my way from California to see her and my dad in Boston; she was on her way home from the Mayo Clinic, where she had taken a spur-of-the-moment trip in search of a cure for an undiagnosable — and probably imaginary — ailment. I hadn’t even known she was traveling.
I spotted her at the gate, her gray hair in a bandanna, eyes blinking nervously as she scowled at no one and everyone. I watched her for several minutes, aware that I was getting a rare glimpse of how she lived in the world. She exuded awkwardness, a discomfort in her own skin, and a vulnerability that came off as anger. So she wasn’t like this only when I was around, as she had always claimed: I wasn’t to blame for making her nervous. Seeing her wrenched my heart, and it also pissed me off.
I took a deep breath and walked over to her. Bursting with excitement, she embraced me and ran to ask the gate agent if he could seat us together. I cringed as she told everyone, “This is the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me!”
Returning home from a windsurfing championship in Barbados in 1986, I had a layover in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Because my plane arrived late, I missed the last connecting flight home and had to stay overnight in San Juan. I was twenty-one years old and could ill afford a hotel, so I decided to spend the night on the molded-plastic seats in the airport.
At 2 A.M. I was jolted awake by a cry so primordial it terrified me. I sat upright, hugging my bags close, and saw a woman doubled over near the gate, crying, “Dios mío!” over and over. A policeman was trying to put an arm around her. I asked a man standing nearby what was happening. He told me the woman had just received word that her son had been killed in a motorcycle accident. I have no idea why she had received this news at the airport in the middle of the night. Until then I had never witnessed someone’s heart breaking, never imagined how deep a mother’s pain can go.
Two decades later I have a young son of my own, and that mother’s cries still resound in my memory. Every time I fly through San Juan, I think of that broken mother, who has become for me every mother who has ever lost her child.
U.S. Virgin Islands
and Portland, Oregon
On a Friday in late May, we had been waiting nearly nine hours at the airport in Chicago for a flight to Rochester, New York. My son Joseph was graduating with honors from Rochester Institute of Technology the next morning at eight o’clock. He’d already received his undergraduate degree from Clark Atlanta University, where he’d excelled in the dual-degree program for black engineers.
Joseph’s father had died suddenly of leukemia when Joseph was six, and I, a housewife, had raised him and his older sister, Sheila, with the help of family, neighbors, and friends. Now eight of us, including Sheila and her eight-year-old daughter, Veronica, were waiting to board the last flight out, our final chance to get to Joseph’s graduation.
When a booming voice over the loudspeaker said the flight had been canceled due to “uncontrollable circumstances,” I just stood there dazed. I looked around for Sheila, who was holding the sleeve of an African American United Airlines employee with a clipboard under his arm. I could hear her asking if there was another flight going to Rochester that night. The young man nodded but said it was full. Sheila told him how important this trip was for us: “Can’t you just get one person on that flight? My mother has worked so hard to see her son graduate. She’s a widow. She has the ice-cream concession here at O’Hare.”
At that the man cocked his head. “What’s your mother’s name?” he asked.
“Jolyn Robichaux,” Sheila said. I started walking toward them, and the man stepped forward and tenderly embraced me.
In a snap, he turned to Sheila and asked, “How many in your party?”
“Eight,” Sheila said.
“Gather them. Fast!” He dialed a number on his phone and shouted something, then told us to follow him. “We have nine minutes to get from here to American Airlines Gate 14 at the other end of the terminal.”
As I puffed alongside him on the way to the gate, I asked this man, whom I had never seen before, why he was doing this for me.
“Mrs. Robichaux,” he said, “I have been waiting for two years to thank you for returning my address book.”
And then I remembered: While at a telephone booth at the Atlanta airport, I’d found a blue telephone-and-address book. I’d called some of the numbers in it and told the women who answered what I’d found and that I didn’t know who the owner was. The people were hesitant to give me any information, so I told them I would leave the book at my ice-cream concession at O’Hare. The owner could pick it up there. A week later I heard that someone had picked it up, and I thought no more about it. How incredible that Sheila would grab the sleeve of the book’s owner.
Now this man, Harry, held my elbow, pushing me to keep up with the rest. “I wondered how I could ever thank you,” he said. “This, Mrs. Robichaux, is my thanks.”
During the nine years my Lebanese husband and I lived in Kuwait, he told me that my name was registered with the authorities at the airport and that I could not leave the country without his written permission. He reminded me of this whenever he thought I was becoming too assertive.
So I was amazed when he offered to let me and our two boys travel ahead of him on vacation to visit my folks in Seattle, Washington. He said he would follow as soon as he’d finished an important work project.
At the airport I tried to remain calm while he signed the required paperwork. Hidden in my luggage were the boys’ birth certificates, our marriage certificate (we’d gotten married in New York), and the number of our joint bank account — documents that I had confiscated from my husband’s secure (or so he thought) file cabinet. When I got to the U.S., I was going to find the nearest lawyer and file for divorce.
As we waited to board our flight, my sister-in-law seemed unusually tearful. I wondered why; for all she knew, we were coming back in a month. During our goodbyes she hugged the boys tight and whispered something to each of them in Arabic. As the plane lifted off, my older son said to me, “Mom, Auntie said she feels like she is never going to see us again.” Somehow she knew.
As a young man I got cajoled into leading a Christian-youth missionary trip to Australia. I was in charge of eighteen teenagers, responsible not only for their lives, but also for transforming them into a troupe of gospel-spreading street mimes who would blanket the sidewalks of Sydney and Melbourne with the Good News — silently, of course.
During an airport layover, I decided we should use the time to practice our routines, and we danced around an empty gate, rehearsing a mime version of the Passion. After a while we collapsed in a circle and began to talk.
During our casual discussion I caught glimpses of the pain and confusion in these kids’ lives. They hinted at abuse and loss. For the first time since we’d all met in training camp, cracks appeared in our wholesome facade of faith and purpose. The brokenness I saw in that circle of young people hadn’t been mentioned in any missionary training manual.
We flew to Australia and completed our mission, dancing on sidewalks to Christian rock and pretending to be trapped by invisible walls of sin. But woven through all of our activities were moments when we turned off the boombox, wiped the white paint from our faces, and continued that airport conversation, listening without judgment and offering one another a sort of love and acceptance that were hard to come by in our church back home.
The trip to Australia was a challenge to my faith. The missionary gospel I had been trained to disseminate suddenly seemed superficial and inadequate. Yet our time together had given me hope that, somehow, people who are hurting can find strength by praying together, crying together, and stumbling together after a carpenter king.
In September 2001, fresh out of graduate school, I moved to rural Florida and lived in a trailer park for skydivers alongside the runway of a municipal airport. I taught middle school for a living and went sky diving each afternoon with my fellow residents.
The morning of September 11, 2001, the phone rang in my classroom. I’d given my mom the direct number but warned her never to call unless it was a family emergency. When I picked up, she blurted, “The first thing you need to know is that your father is OK. All right? Somebody crashed an airplane into the World Trade Center.”
My dad worked for a law firm with offices on the fifty-seventh floor of Tower One. He was in a meeting at another firm’s office that day. Had the planes struck just an hour later, he would have been among the throngs trying to escape.
That afternoon, with civilian air traffic grounded all over the country, I came home to find the planes tied down at the airport. Gone was the familiar drone of commercial jets flying in and out of nearby Tampa. In the eerie stillness, I impulsively got on my bike and sped straight down the middle of the mile-long runway — an inconceivable stunt on a normal day. At the end, I lay down on the warm tarmac to rest. Barefoot, hands behind my head, I gazed into that sky devoid of contrails and marveled at the surreal quiet. The serenity seeped into me and stilled my racing thoughts until I could hear only my heart. In the fading light I was suddenly grounded.
New Paltz, New York