Separation Anxiety

Before I get on an airplane, I prepare to die. My terror cannot be assuaged by anyone’s quoting safety statistics, the laws of physics, or the training regimens of commercial airline pilots. I cannot make myself believe that enormous busses full of people ought to climb 30,000 feet into the air. I know they do, but I don’t think they should. People, born to the earth, should have the good sense to stay on it, I say—an opinion corroborated, it seems to me, by the occasional, über-deadly, airplane crash.

Still, I do fly, and with some regularity, too. I like to visit my big, nutty family in Los Angeles, half a continent away from my Wisconsin home. Plus, I enjoy seeing new places. Travel is educative, essential. I do not wish to be the sort of person who misses all the wonders of this bright planet because she’s afraid to fly. I want to travel, even if it kills me, which while I am airborne, I am pretty sure it will.

On board an airplane, I am an unobtrusive phobic. If you saw me, you might note that I looked a little pale, a little sweaty. You might offer me a Saltine or an airsick bag, as a gesture of brotherly love. You wouldn’t know I was having a near-death experience. In public, I try to keep it together—as might a condemned woman being carted to the gallows. I look for seat 22C. I sit. I say good-bye to the beautiful world.

Over the years I’ve perfected my cool charade. I am patient through long lines. I am genial to the unhelpful gate crew. No matter how strong the urge to do so, I never ask flight attendants to reassure me that the pilot is not a high school student/drunk. Only once, during air turbulence, did I grab the hand of a stranger beside me and weep. (Only once!) But in recent years my ability to keep my head during air travel has been roundly tested.  

Now, when I travel, it is always in the company of my two small children.

•    •    •

Traveling with small children is challenging no matter how smooth the journey, no matter how patient the crowds at security, no matter how reasonable the TSA workers, no matter how abundant and clean the bathrooms, no matter how available the bottles of milk for purchase. It is difficult even if airline personnel at the gate are helpful, even if the flight attendants are happy and well-compensated for their work and possess a scintilla of sympathy for a passenger such as I, a passenger holding a sticky eighteen-month-old in one arm and hefting a 40-pound backpack, while clutching in her free hand a fat plastic bag full of beverages and the baby’s blanket, while prodding her five-year-old and his rolling travel bag down the narrow aisle, while trying to keep her own anxieties from tipping off the ragged edge of self-control.  

But, generally, a parent’s journey through an airport is hardscrabble, to say the least. Anyone who has ever travelled with small children will tell you similar war stories: Once I was asked to take a sip of my own pumped breast milk, to prove it wasn’t Napalm; once, my child threw his pacifier into an airport toilet; once, five hours into a long delay, a man wearing a poncho advised me to discipline my kids; once, a TSA worker asked me to step into a glass box, a “holding cell.” My two-year-old son, able to see me, but kept apart from me, screamed like he was on fire, and when the TSA worker tried to pick him up he vomited all over her shoes. “Oh my god,” she said, “HERE,” and she thrust him into the cell with me.  

That’s family life in the airport! Despite all these bizarre stresses, my children know me as an especially sweet, accommodating parent when we travel together. In the midst of airport hurly-burly, I croon to them: Take your shoes off, darlings. Put your shoes on, my loves. I let them get into and out of the stroller at will. “Watch out for people!” I call, as they caper through the wide, shining passageways. I buy them stupid snow globes, key chains, bags of Starburst, greasy “Happy Meals”—stuff I would never buy for them in our real lives. I let them climb up into the shoe-shine chairs, and I let them press their grubby noses and hands to the shining duty-free shop windows. Gently do I wipe their little fingers with the anti-bacterial Wet Ones.

I am, of course, a wreck.

“The airplane ride is going to be so much fun!” I sing, compensating for my terrible anxiety, my certainty that bringing my children on an airplane could lead to their deaths. “Do you see the big airplanes, honey?” I coo. My son runs ahead to the terminal window, his Lightning McQueen shoes flashing like mini-ambulances on the airport’s corporate carpeting. A lump swells in my throat. What kind of a mother puts her children in harm’s way like this? What kid of a monster am I?

These, the darkest visions of a fearful flier, often bring me to the brink of turning back, of stuffing the boarding passes in the trash can, gathering my babies, and heading for home. I don’t do it, though. I don’t do it because the truth is that if I did not fly with my children, I would not be able to fly at all.

Don’t speak to me of logic, of reason. Yes, I know it is crazy for a person terrified of flying to be unable to fly without her children, without putting her children at (imagined) risk. All I can say in my own defense is that I have never spoken to another mother who did not feel the same way.

“I don’t mind flying,” said Heather, my neighbor, “as long as the whole family is on the plane, as long as we all go down together.”

“I’m so much more scared of flying now that I have kids,” said my pal Kathy, “unless my kids are with me.”

I asked a professional therapist about this phenomenon. He shrugged. “Some things are worse than death,” he said. “Grieving a lost child is worse. That’s how it seems, and maybe it’s true.”

“But grieving a lost parent?”

“Grieving a lost parent also seems really, really bad,” he said, “especially to the parent envisioning his own loss.”

No, we’re not talking sense, here. We’re talking about deep parent/child bonds. We’re talking, I think, about love.

•    •    •

And so, after much wandering around the terminal with my children—after the milk, water, gum and Starburst have been purchased, after the McDonalds has been eaten, after the potty-trained have peed and the diapered have been changed—my kids and I board the plane—a plane that has as much chance of crashing as any other plane. My daughter’s breath is hot on my neck. My son grips my hand taking the big step over the four-inch gap that separates the jet way from the airplane itself. Already we are too, too far above the ground.  

“…As long as we all go down together.”

My nerves are copper-plated. In this moment I could use a dose of peace, an unburdening of my arms. Now is the time for a brief mediation, a settling into upholstery and fate. 

But my kids and I don’t have seats together. Because we mostly fly Delta, the only carrier that travels non-stop from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Los Angeles, there is a 0% chance that my children and I have seats together, or even anywhere near each other. (I do book our tickets early. I always check-in, on-line, twenty-four hours before take-off.) Because we fly Delta, there is also a 0% chance that the airline workers posted at the gate, handling standbys and strollers, will help me with my seating woes prior to boarding. There is an 80% chance that they will lie, telling me how they’ll be happy to work on getting us seats together while the gate fills with passengers. They will smile falsely, knowing with 100% certainty that I will have to beg and barter for my seats all by myself.  

In the airplane’s foyer/galley I get right down to business with a couple of flight attendants who are greeting passengers. “Excuse me,” I say, stopping traffic, “my children and I are not seated together.” My voice is high and tight. I can tell by the totally lint-free dishabille of the flight attendants that they are not only childless but also petless—maybe even carpetless.  

“Just take your assigned seats and we’ll work it out later,” says the chipper redhead, her Delta scarf, pouffed and tied.

“I can’t take my seats, because I can’t leave my children alone.” A clot of passengers is collecting behind me, pressing in.

“Just do your best,” says the in-shape young man with veneered teeth.

Do my best? I wander off, adjusting my grip on the baby to accommodate for the narrowness of the aisle.  Watching my son struggle with his rolling suitcase, I get a little teary, but just for a second. Pushed to this limit, my fear of flying is turning like magic—like hair turning white before the firing squad—to rage.

I choose a row in which one of the children has been assigned a seat.  

Do my best? Fine.

Once, when a Florsheimed, briefcased man did not want to give up his seat, I handed him the backpack/diaper bag. “You’ll find everything you need in here,” I said. “If you have to change a poop, there are plastic bags and some Purel in the side pocket.” I told another reluctant seat-trader that I paid babysitters $8.00/hour, that I wouldn’t pay him a dime less.  

“Aw geez! That’s my seat,” said a woman, seeing me planted in 38E with my kids at my sides.

“That’s okay,” I said. I’ll let you have your seat.” I moved to get up, and my son screamed like he did the time the TSA worker put me in the glass box. “Honey, try not to puke,” I said to him, only half-kidding.

Always, during these negotiations I am breathless with disbelief at my own rudeness, my own rising ferocity. I shouldn’t be surprised: If it’s true that I would sooner die with my children than be separated from them, then the smaller threat—some might say the metaphorical threat—of separate seats, separate rows, separate emergency exits, triggers something uncivilized and instinctual in me.

The last time I flew, the airplane was jammed, the seating arrangements particularly tangled. A man in cargo shorts who looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks, who looked like he’d been wandering airports from Jakarta to Minneapolis, displaced my daughter, sat down in our row’s aisle seat—his assigned seat—and refused to move.

“I’m too tired,” he said.  

I installed my daughter in the center seat and stood in the aisle, staring down at Mr. Cargo-Short’s ball-capped head. A few passengers squeezed past me with their duffels.

The flight attendant spoke doom into the mike: “If you don’t all take your seats and stow your luggage, we won’t be cleared to take-off on time.”

Where was I to go? My children gazed up at me, worried.  “We’ll be fine,” I told them.

The flight attendants weren’t so sure. They begged Mr. Cargo-Shorts to take a window seat two rows back.

“Only if you give me free tickets,” he said.

“We don’t’ do that anymore,” said the flight attendant.

The man shrugged. The flight attendants scrambled. They managed to move a passenger, to liberate a window seat behind our row.

“You can sit with your daughter, here,” the flight attendant said to me, “and your son can sit in the row behind you, just one seat behind you.”

My son, only six, looked scared.

“I will not be separated from my children,” I said.

“Just one seat behind you, ma’am,” said the flight attendant.

“I will not be separated from my children,” I repeated, this time loudly so that the passengers around me quieted down and listened. I could feel my chin quivering with nerves, but I could feel, too, the warm rightness of my position. I stood up taller. “This plane does not fly until I am seated with both of my children.”

Mr. Cargo-Shorts shook his head at me.

I picked up the baby and we stared back at him—a two-headed mommy monster. “I am not fooling around,” I said.  

I could see that a group of expletives were congregating behind his teeth, but he did not utter them. What stopped him? Was he a little bit afraid of me? Of me? I put my hand on my hip and raised my eyebrows, like a mother waiting for her child to shape up.

He finally gathered up his magazine and his water bottle and moved. The people sitting in surrounding rows burst into quick applause.

I did a little curtsey and took a seat.

“You did good, Mama,” said my son.

“I did well,” I said. I fastened our seatbelts and pulled a coloring book and crayons out of the backpack.

“I was worried,” he said.  

“I told you we would stick together,” I said. The plane pulled slowly away from the gate. On the tarmac below a member of the ground crew swung his marshalling wands toward the west. “There’s nothing to worry about, sweetheart.”

For the first time in my life, I almost believed it.


Allyson Goldin Loomis teaches creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Her work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Pleiades, and Harper’s Magazine, among other fine publications. She wishes you all a safe flight.

Categories: Airports, Airplanes, Death, Features

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