Sunday, March 30, 2008

I used to love flying. Since I didn't take my first flight until I was in high school, it had, by that time, come to represent something exotic and elusive, some kind of fancy big-city thing that other people did, but not me. It says something about the amount of flying I've done since then that I can't remember exactly what my first flight was--it was either to Colorado with my family for vacation, or to San Diego for a church convention. What I do remember is the feeling that most of us have experienced: the slow, plodding movements of the airplane as it taxies to the runway, followed by that unbelievable, rattling, rushing burst of speed. And then the moment of lift-off, a sudden, nearly imperceptable lightness of being.

Following that first flight (whenever it was), I was hooked. I wanted to fly everywhere, whether I needed to be there or not. I even remember researching the role of an air courier, but nothing came of that. I was, alas, on a college student's budget, so my dreams of ceaseless flight were not to be. But I made up in distance what I lacked in frequency, flying to Honduras, the Philippines (oh, the agony of the trans-Pacific flight!), England (twice) and California (twice, too) during my college years. And after college I flew a few times as well--to Seattle, from San Francisco (days after September 11), to and from Ireland, New York City.

I remember details from flights. My first big trip, over to England to visit Jeff when he was studying in Oxford, had the drama of a passenger fainting mid-flight. The "whump" of his belly-flop onto the carpeted aisle woke me from an already troubled sleep. He was fine, but the wheeled out the O2 tanks, just in case. I didn't sleep after that.

The flight to the Philippines was epic. Chicago to San Francisco, then San Fran to Taipei, then finally to Manila. Over 20 hours total. At one point I bargained with my seatmates in the five-seat center-plane section to allow me to lay on the floor under our seats. "You can put your feet on me. I don't care. I just need to lay prone," I begged. It didn't help much, since I was just a little too tall. I could choose which portion of my anatomy would be whacked by the passing drinks cart: top of my head, or my feet.

I spent much of the return flight devouring an enormous package of dried mango I'd purchased in the airport in Manila, not really thinking about the effects such mass quantities of dried fruit would have on my digestive system. Fortunately, I wasn't bothered by the return of the mango until we landed.

The flight from San Francisco on September 17, 2001 was strange. We had originally been scheduled to fly out on the 14th; fortunately my cousin Lisa and her husband, who lived in the Bay Area, were kind enough to let us stay with them when our free trip accomodations ran out. When our flight was finally rescheduled, the line to get through security wrapped around the check-in area. But no one cared. Everyone was respectful, quiet, reverent. People made eye contact and smiled just a little. On the airplane, the captain made a brief announcement before taking off, encouraging us to turn to our seatmates and introduce ourselves. I felt like I was in church.

No matter the flight or the destination, I loved the whole experience. I loved checking my bags, scanning my carry-ons, buying airport coffee, walking through the terminals. I loved the little plastic cups for beverages, the in-flight movies, even the in-flight magazines. I especially loved when we touched down, knowing I had covered such distance and was now someplace new, where no one knew me. An adventure awaited.

But somewhere along the line, that changed. Really, it's not that vague--I know exactly when it changed.

The first flight I took after I found out I was going to be a mother was in March 2006, from Columbus to Des Moines to visit my family in Iowa. I was almost seven months pregnant, just large enough to be uncomfortable, but not quite big enough that people knew I was gestating. Something was different on that flight. All the ingredients were in place: the bustling terminal, the airport bookstores, the jostling acceleration of the plane. But something else was in place, too: Charlotte.

I suddenly became one of those sitcom characters who grip the armrests, close their eyes, and wish away the flop sweat. My heart began racing when the plane began taxiing, and didn't stop until I deplaned. Charlotte flipped and swirled and kicked in my belly, and I had Braxton-Hicks contractions more fierce and un-ignorable than before. On the flight back, I swear she rotated from head-up to -down. Something dramatic happened, anyway--and boy, was I uncomfortable.

Then there was the first flight after Charlotte made her out-of-womb debut, again from Columbus to Des Moines, this time for my cousin's wedding. Jeff and I were the classic fumbling new parents. Underestimating the time it would take us to get ourselves plus a suckling infant into the car, to the airport, parked, checked in, and through security, we managed to miss our plane. That caused us to miss our connection in Chicago, putting us in Des Moines hours after our original arrival time. Charlotte didn't care, and was fantastic the entire flight. She was more than happy to nurse on every take-off and landing ("What's this? A nipple? Again? Why, certainly!") to help pop her ears. But I was a mess. Every little bump and shift of the plane convinced me we were doomed. We landed safely, but I had a tension headache for days.

Just weeks after that flight, I came home from school and listened to a strange-sounding message on the answering machine from my mom. She wanted me to call her at work. Before I did that, I went upstairs to change clothes, telling Jeff how weird it was that my mom wanted me to call her at the library in the middle of the day. Jeff told me on the stairs: "Carrie called this morning. Leslie Van Hemert died last night."

When my friend Leslie Van Hemert O'Bannon died in a small plane crash in Indiana, she left behind her husband, John, and their baby daughter, Ellie. That horrible, tragic accident cemented my perhaps fears: flying was dangerous. And now that I had someone other than myself to live for, someone counting on me for so many reasons, I wasn't interested in any danger.

Tomorrow I fly to Kansas to visit the university--by myself. I have never slept a night without Charlotte within a fifteen-foot radius. The longest I have been apart from her is probably eight hours. It goes without saying that I am nervous and worried. When I put Charlotte to bed tonight, I spent several minutes just rocking her after she fell asleep. It still takes a while to persuade her to sleep, but when she finally drops off, you know. Her round little face smooshes up against my shoulder. Her hand holding the stuffed animal du jour relaxes. Her chubby legs stop fidgeting and just rest.

I think that's what I'll imagine if I get nervous on the flight: that compact, rounded form, those softly closed eyes and slightly open mouth, the sweet curling blonde hair. I think holding her is actually the closest I've gotten to flying.

1 comment:

eeink said...

What a lovely post! Sorry it took you a while to realize who I am by my alias name. I didn't mean to be so mysterious. I just forgot that most folks don't recognize my blog aliases.