There was the time I boarded my one-way flight to San Francisco, my mother waving tearfully behind me, my uncertain and largely unplanned future ahead of me.
Then there was the time I boarded my flight back to Atlanta to see my Grandmother, the matriarch of my life, in a way I’d never before seen her: Lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV, and without her full face of Clinique, although I clung to the comforting notion she’d at least be wearing that signature yellow moisturizer.
There was the time I flew to London to see the man I’d met 4 months earlier in a city I almost never lived in, in a bar I didn’t want to go to, with a friend whose tenacity and zest for life was infectious enough to convince me otherwise and change the course of my life in the most profound and miraculous way.
None of those flights had distracted me from their respective destinations, the ultimate purpose of my being on board holding too much promise, or excitement, or something I couldn’t even understand. I always requested a window seat, where I could watch the wing. I watched the control surfaces with intense fascination; the apparent contradiction of such seemingly flimsy parts controlling the course of a comparatively gargantuan machine. Turbulence electrified me if it got my attention at all. I felt one with this unsung hero of modern engineering, a confident and seasoned traveller with a platinum skymiles card and a conversational knowledge of avionics, weather, and commercial air travel. I could navigate my way through most of the major airports in the US and a handful overseas without so much as moist palms. Until that one flight.
On my way back from New York one autumn night, having turned down the job in the city in favor of buying our first house in the suburbs, starting our married life finally after over a year of red tape for a green card. Our plane took off through the brisk air of imminent New England autumn, and I left behind memories of horseback riding in Central Park. As the sun set on the Manhattan skyline, I turned to thoughts of home, my husband, our life together, and my inflight vodka-cranberry. The warm thick air racing up the jet stream meeting with the thinner, drier northern air rattled the plane no more than usual at first. Then I felt my vodka buzz drop from under me, as the plane seemed to do the same.
I was used to turbulence over the Atlantic, the Rockies, the Appalachian during the stormy Southern summers. I was also used to a discernable altitude change followed by a speedy return to my magazine and cocktail. But on this night, we pitched and rolled for over an hour, and no amount of booze could soothe my growing fear that the plane would tumble to the earth somewhere over Virginia. I called my husband in England from that marvel of dated technology our children have never seen on a plane: the airphone. Five hours ahead and groggy, he assured me I’d survive and that he loved me just in case.
An hour later on the ground in Atlanta, adrenaline got me through baggage claim, and a long commute home, in record time. For me, the next 8 years of air travel looked markedly different than the previous 7. One in-flight cocktail turned into 2 or 3, which was later replaced by a Xanax before takeoff and a week of taking over-the-counter sleeping pills leading up to work trips. Thankfully, my British husband had completed immigration, so our romantic airport scenes ala Love Actually were now a pleasant memory rather than an every-other-month reality. I avoided air travel whenever I could. I forced myself to travel the world with my worldly husband, and I enjoyed every bit of it between landing in our destination and 2-3 days before boarding our return flight. 3-day weekends any further than driving distance were completely out of the question. And I might have reached greater heights in my career by air travel if only I hadn’t been afraid to fly.
Last Summer I dutifully, and reluctantly, booked tickets for a long overdue visit to my husband’s family in England. I took into consideration seasonal weather patterns, historically “unlucky” dates, superstitiously unlucky dates, and even avoided fares with 3 consecutive 6’s in the price. But I got it done because I love my husband and I wanted him to see the family he left behind to marry me, and my kids to have world travel experience they’d almost certainly thank me for one day. I tried not to think about it after that.
For the next several weeks, I turned my attention to the rigorous task of packing for 2 children under 5 for 4-6 hours in airports, 18+ hours on planes, and 2 weeks in a foreign country. Despite my having traveled to the UK a dozen or more times, my father-in-law still hadn’t managed to convince me that the country had enough comparable modern amenities to avert such catastrophes ranging from uncurled hair to the actual black plague. I wasn’t taking any chances. I covered every possible contingency and managed to fit it all into British Airways’ luggage allowance. The only thing I was helpless to prepare for was an overnight trans-Atlantic flight without Xanax or a drop of alcohol; I would be 23 weeks into my 3rd pregnancy on the flight and my only safe alternative, Benadryl, was just as likely to turn me into a raw nerve as keep me calm.
On the day of the flight, I was convinced that every hiccup was a sign of impending doom, from my 4 year skinning his knee 5 minutes before leaving for the airport, to realizing 5 minutes before boarding the plane that we’d accidentally locked out the neighbor who would be feeding our cat for our 2-week trip. I boarded the flight with 2 kids dressed in their pj’s, the optimal amount of carry-on luggage, and enough nervous energy to fuel the plane for the entire route. The flight was horrible. I didn’t even bother trying to sleep. Every bump and squeak in the seemingly antique 777 made my stomach drop. My prescription maternity compression hose were cutting off my circulation at a few points from the waist down. I was near tears the entire 7 hour journey. I never took my eyes off the flight tracker on the screen in front of me. It seemed as if I thought I might notice an alarming drop in airspeed or altitude that the pilot somehow hadn’t, and single-handedly prevent 300 people from clinging to a half-inflated emergency slide in the freezing Atlantic ocean amid a circling pack of ravenous tiger sharks. I imagined, a little too vividly, the scene where I’d calmly alert the flight attendant at the beginning of this scenario, as well as the give an interview recounting the harrowing ordeal at Heathrow at the conclusion of it.
Contrary to my fears, we arrived at my in-laws safely the next morning. With one nerve-racking air travel experience behind me, the next one far enough ahead of me, and my kids’ every need being met by a room full of doting family, I collapsed into an exhausted, adrenaline-wrought heap and remained there until well past tea time. The next week would be filled with outings to museums, hiking the English countryside, catching up with family, and indulging my insatiable craving for fish and chips. I didn’t give a moment’s thought to weather, other than it being unusually warm and sunny in England, or omens or news reports for the first half of our stay.
Then, during an open-air bus tour through London, I couldn’t help but notice how often commercial jets flew over the city. That familiar drop in my stomach returned, unpacked, and planned to stay for the duration of our trip. I managed to ignore it for the most part during the day, but at night I heard the siren call of the fear-of-flying message boards, and spent the sleepless hours scouring them for some comfort. Then, something interesting didn’t happen.
Two nights before our return flight, we went out to dinner with my sister- and brother-in-law. We laughed and talked, and intentionally kept our attentions focused on anything but the return trip, because none of us fair well with farewells. I kept the drop in my stomach at bay with as much curry as I could consume. After all there would be plenty of time for me to be a nervous hot mess the following day, what I had begun to refer to as “day before” day. I usually spent this day wallowing in my fear, walking around with a pained, nervous look on my face that elicited inquiries of concern from everyone around me. People close to me knew to mind their p’s and q’s on this day, because I was typically a raw nerve, and prone to snappiness, yelling, or even tears. I either ate very little or constantly nibbled. I paced, and I repacked the luggage. I was happy to deal with the logistics so I didn’t have to converse about my nerves. Reassuring tones and statistics just irritated me. If you couldn’t guarantee my and my children’s safe passage, I didn’t want to hear it.
But on this particular day-before day, I woke up and immediately made a decision. I’ll never know exactly why, but I think it was simply that I’d run out of options. Stripped of the utility of medication, prescribed or otherwise, and forced to turn to the only thing I had real control over, I ironically had no choice, and yet I decided. I thought, what if I just wasn’t afraid? So I got out of bed, stretched, took a deep breath and decided to be a confident flyer again, just as easily as I decided to brush my teeth, get dressed, and put on makeup.
I decided to eat normally instead of pace and pick.
I decided not to go on the message boards or look up statistics.
I decided not to talk about being afraid, or talk about the flight at all except to check us in with the airline.
I decided not to care that it was raining for the first time since we’d arrived or that the wind was gusting, or that the airline had screwed up our seats again.
I decided each time someone looked expectantly for the signs of fear and worry on my face, I’d smile at them.
I decided to play with the kids and talk to my in-laws, about something other than airplanes.
I decided to breathe, and I decided I was okay.
And just like that, just like I’d decided to move to San Francisco, and decided to start a career in advertising, and decided to take a chance on a long-distance fairytale romance, I decided not to be afraid. I decided to accept the possibilities, the risks, and the realities, good, bad, and indifferent; from the appallingly bad fish and chips at the airport which finally cured me of my craving, to the inherent risk that I might get food poisoning or even become a reported statistic of an air travel disaster. I accepted it all.
And you know what? The 9 hour flight was smooth, comfortable, and uneventful. I even managed to watch a movie instead of the flight tracker, even though it took me the entire journey between rearranging little arms and legs across my lap and getting up to pee and stretch every half hour. Each time my husband looked over to check on me, I smiled. Each time he asked if I needed him to takeover with the kids, I smiled, and without letting on that I wasn’t just talking about wrangling toddlers whose only request at 36,000 ft was to go outside, I replied “I got this.”
© Harper Claire 2014
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