I don’t like airplanes. You can lecture me on vertical velocity all you want, but it just doesn’t make sense. Balloons float. A 200,000-pound hunk of metal falls.
Each year, my family and I make the over 3,000-mile trip in an airplane across the country to see our families in Bellingham, Washington—about 90 minutes north of Seattle. And each time, I say the Takeoff Prayer. “Dear God and Jesus,” I begin as if I’m a third-grader writing a letter to Santa, “please watch over us so that we may arrive safely at our destination. Amen.” It’s a stupid prayer. When I say it, I close my eyes and pretend to be asleep because saying a prayer during takeoff feels so cliché. But it had been working my whole life. I hadn’t plummeted to the earth. Yet.
This Thanksgiving, the weather in the Pacific Northwest turned unseasonably cold. Like, Antarctic snow, ice and wind gusts. It decided to do this right before we boarded our 30-minute flight from Seattle to Bellingham. First there was a delay. Then there was deicing. In an attempt to distract myself from the wave of anxiety pulling me under, I started an argument across the aisle with my husband about how “deicing” and “defrosting” were not mutually exclusive terms. You see, when I’m anxious, I get really annoying. Before takeoff, the flight attendants walked up and down the aisles reminding us that they expect a good amount of turbulence due to the weather. Then they announced over the loudspeaker that there would not be a beverage service due to the weather. Then we’re told that no one, at any time during the flight, should attempt to move about the plane . . . due to the weather.
“They aren’t instilling a lot of confidence,” I said too loudly to my husband who was pretending to sleep so as to avoid my annoying remarks.
Because I know so little about airplanes, I take my cues from other passengers whom I assume to have a greater breadth of experience. Their idle chat during a rock ‘n’ roll ride, soothes me. My husband is a plane sleeper, so as long as his eyes remain closed I think that there’s nothing to worry about. But today, the woman in front of me fancies herself a stand-up comedian. When everyone waits patiently and quietly on the Tarmac, she called out, “Does anyone know a good joke?” Ha. Then she looked out the window and announced, “There’s a screw loose on the wing. No, seriously. It’s just hanging there.” She, along with the flight attendants who at that point were hand tightening my seat belt, made me consider rushing the emergency exit.
But I couldn’t do that because after 10 hours of travel, I desperately wanted to get home. And I didn’t want to freak out my 4-year-old sitting next to me, squealing with delight as the deicing machine sprayed a pinkish liquid against her window.
“It’s a magic princess potion,” I explained to her. But I was really thinking, “We’re so dead.”
Cleary, we aren’t, because I’m writing this today. But something in me did die that day—the pretense that I was in control.
Halfway through the flight, the airplane began to violently list side to side. Ava yelled “Yee-HAW!” and flopped around in her seat. The two women behind me chatted about the vigorous training pilots go through to prepare them for flying in stormy weather. Ray slept. Still, I wasn’t breathing and my body—set for flight-or-fight—turned to stone. A few seconds later, the plane felt as if it was strapped to the back of bull set on trying to throw its rider. The women behind me fell silent. Ray woke. Ava buried her head in my lap and asked, “What is happening, Mommy?”
I pulled her tight and squeezed my eyes shut and silently begged the pilots to turn around. To go home. To save our lives. But I knew that there was no turning back. So I prayed.
I said the first couple of lines of the Lord’s Prayer, and then snuck a quick peak out the window. We were still so high up. Too high up to survive a crash. That’s when I decided that I we were going to die. And in those terrifying moments between what was certain death and then unlikely survival, I realized that I was not scared of dying as much as I was scared of taking my daughter and husband with me. More than anything, I needed them to survive. Because to go down in that plane with my family, would be like dying a thousand times over. And there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.
The thought was so unbearable that upon our safe landing I burst into tears. Ugly, square-mouthed silent sobs. Ava looked at me curiously and Ray rubbed my back. When we met my mom at baggage claim, she said, “You must be freezing—you’re shaking!”
Becoming a mom has changed me in so many ways. Enjoying a dessert by myself and sleeping in are forgotten dreams. But the fear that accompanies the absence of control—the inability to protect the people we love—is sometimes too much to bear.
“That turbulence wasn’t as bad as that time we flew into Nebraska,” my husband said, recounting a trip we took some 15 years ago when were first dating. Maybe not, but I was a different person then.
I was just one.