I can’t remember my first trip on an airplane. I was a baby. My father was in the Army, stationed in Kansas and my mother, my sister, my brother and I lived in our hometown many states away. It took 3 small planes to get from there to my father. In the photographs of the hello and good bye of these trips we are all dressed up with shined shoes and bows in our hair.
As a child, I flew across the country every other year to visit my mother’s brother, his wife and their kids. The five of us flew with all 21 members of our extended family every Christmas to take a vacation together somewhere warm. I picked a college that was a 4 hour flight from home for many reasons (the school was perfect for me, and the landscape sung my name) and because I loved those flights. I loved meeting my seat mates, I loved making up stories about my life, where I was from, where I was going. I even enjoyed the bento box style meals, the packages of peanuts, the ice in plastic cups, the long wait for the restroom, the magazines, the chewing gum, the hours of reading and staring and musing and fretting and being alone with my self absorption.
Then, I developed a fear of flying. It coincided with getting engaged, moving to a small town and having to fly on a prop plane every few weeks back to where I worked. I blamed the planes. I blamed El Nino. Then, my fear intensified. After having my daughter I was so terrified of flying I grounded myself for a year. I tried therapy and self hypnosis. I took a class called SOAR, taught by a United airline pilot. And still I was terrified. Then my best friend said to me, “It’s because you now have something to live for, and something to lose.” It sounds overly dramatic but it’s true. Motherhood grounded me. But I don’t think it’s just about vulnerability or the unmitigated fear of loss. I think it’s about control.
My fear of flying is exactly like my fear of motherhood. It’s fear of the unexpected, fear that the decisions I make are no longer about me, but could have a negative impact on someone else, someone I love beyond measure, beyond sky and clouds. . . fear of putting “our” safety in someone else’s hands. Fear of sharing my family’s fate with strangers. Fear that I’m not doing everything I can to make things comfortable and make everyone happy.
When I fly with my children I take Valium. I sit at the window and stare out, my focus and concentration keeping the plane aloft. I have to listen to Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb” as soon as they allow us to use our electronic devices. And I recite poetry to myself during turbulence. I am ridiculous.
Recently I flew alone to my mother’s house for a long weekend. I had a board meeting less than a mile from where she lives. My mother and I have not spent 3 nights together without one of my children in 13 years. It was a lovely visit. We ate my favorite foods, looked through old pictures, drank, walked through the autumn leaves, sat up into the night in our pajamas and talked. I tried on her fur coats from the 80s, her jewelry and her shoes. My mother is aging. She’s shrinking, literally. Her world is getting quieter, more intimate. I won’t say smaller because she is a big thinker. And still a big dreamer. She is healthy and will live a long, long time. But given Milo’s special needs and the widening of the country between us, I don’t know how many chances I’ll get to spend such private, thoughtful, girly time with her. It was precious.
And the second best thing about it? I flew without valium and without fear each way. Two regional jets, two big jets. Four, count ’em, FOUR, different planes. Through dark clouds, rain, clear skies and wind. I was. . .fine. Of course I was alone, which helped. But I think it’s also a lesson from living with Milo. The relentlessness of his pain and the disruption his pain causes to our lives has taught me that things can be difficult and frightening and still your life goes on. You can feel fear and calm at the same time. You can fly across 1/2 of America while sitting perfectly still. You can surrender to the the lack of control and still feel safe.