Fear of Flying

October 28, 2014

For 13 years, I flew like a bird. I did so with such frequency that I earned platinum status with my favorite airline, and I delighted in the perks, like an annual courtesy upgrade to business class and preferential boarding. I enjoyed venturing from place to place and seeing the world. I especially loved wearing those free socks during the flight.

I’m vertically challenged, but I never felt cramped, even in steerage class. I only minded the occasional neighbor who smelled of vodka. Sure, I spent hours delayed in airports, mostly because of the weather. But really, who minds waiting while they de-ice the wings of your plane?

It was my particular career in the nonprofit sector that obliged me to globetrot and I both needed and wanted to work. My travels took me across Central and Eastern Europe mostly, beginning in the early post-Communist era. Locals would tell me without irony that my ubiquitous smile singled me out as a foreigner, but I couldn’t help myself.

Each place I visited offered a smorgasbord of adventure. I listened to conversations in languages I didn’t understand as if at a concert. I decoded native culture by observing the footwear, the supermarket shelves, and the demeanor of hotel desk clerks. I rose well before my earliest meetings to explore each city, and never felt bolder, freer, or more at peace than I did on those trips.

I also found meaning in what I did, which in great part involved visiting elderly Holocaust survivors in their homes. I gathered heart-wrenching stories too plentiful to count and amassed a stash of crocheted doilies, because the folks we visited often refused to let a guest who’d traveled so far leave empty-handed. They pulled their handmade creations out of bureaus, even off the arms of their sofas, pressing them into my hands.

I met them in their community kosher canteens as well, and in their wonderful company, I first sampled hot fleishig borscht and varenikhes. The latter were a bite of Gan Eden, dough filled with meat and flavors of the past. Once, when I waxed poetic to one of the cooks, she packed me a jarful for the road. Still today, if I close my eyes, I can taste them, though I never succeeded in replicating their magic at home.

But nothing lasts forever. Outside forces gradually eroded my love affair with work travel. The first chip in the veneer occurred during a winter road trip across the bumpy Romanian countryside in an ancient, unheated Lada, a journey that had never before bothered me. This time, though, I was pregnant with my eldest and quite morning sick. I turned monstrous shades of green.

With the arrival of our boys, being able to come and go required increasingly complicated choreography. Friends and neighbors pitched in, and I reciprocated in kind. Grandparents helped out, too, filling in the hours when the daycare was closed and my husband was at work. Still, it took an enormous leap of faith to step onto a plane, knowing how easily the entire childcare support system could collapse.

I endured a percussive throbbing of guilt in my brain during long flights, while the search for child-friendly souvenirs consumed any rare free time abroad. Work travel, once beloved, began to represent an unbreachable distance from my boys. I was too torn to carry on, so I drew my working mother line in the sand. I negotiated for an on-land writing-centric position and began the slow and steady end to my career as I knew it.

For a long while after, I had brief flickers of nostalgia that caught me off guard. I’d made myself fully available to my family on these shores, but I feared for the wellbeing of my open-minded global outlook and for my sense of wonder and curiosity, which, if left unfed for too long, might all wither.

Then came September 11. I was pregnant with my youngest, unable to get back to the suburbs that evening from the city. I wasn’t in Albania, yet I was still light years away when I needed most to be home. The world I longed to explore each corner of had become meaner and scarier. There was also my new fear of flying. For a brief period of time, I wished I didn’t have to leave the house.

Just as the US stood ready to invade Iraq in 2003, I had the opportunity to join a weeklong professional development program in Argentina. Here was my chance to visit a country I wanted to see, to step again into the wider working world, all while putting my wings back into the sky. But I imagined wartime airport closings keeping me in Buenos Aires for months. I decided not to go. Was this rational? Of course not. Then again, so much of mothering defies reason.

Time passed. I eventually agreed to family vacations that necessitated air travel, including one that used the last of my globetrotting frequent flyer miles. That gave me a wonderful sense of closure, while conquering – for the most part, anyway – my fear of flying.

At some point, I asked my eldest, the only one I suspected might remember, if it was rough for him those years when I traveled for work. He looked at me puzzled, and asked, “You did?”

This past week, I went to Virginia to address an amazing group of Jewish women, all activists in their buzzing community. It was to be a one-day jaunt, and my husband convinced me to go. Everyone – friends, family, even my children – all said not to worry, the boys are older now. I did not board the plane easily, but I enjoyed every moment of the event, especially the warm reception, the post-speech hugs, the sisterhood, and an early morning coffee with old friends.

And then, kapow.

I turned on my phone to find a curious text from a friend. Every fear I’d suppressed in agreeing to travel far from home washed over me again. I called my husband, who delayed telling me that our youngest had fallen between two sets of bleachers at school, possibly breaking his knee. “You weren’t supposed to know yet.” Our wise child had begged the nurse not to call his mother. My husband, who was already on his way to work, turned around and picked him up instead.

I sat in the airport, awaiting my return flight, delayed by foul weather, the lack of a plane, the lack of a pilot, and finally, the absence of a crew. It gave me plenty of time to beat myself up for not being home. I tried to find souvenirs for the boys, though there was nothing really. In the end, while ordering my second latte, I purchased a Charlotte, NC “Here You Are” mug at Starbucks. For some reason, I told the barista it was a guilt gift.

I didn’t present it with enthusiasm, but the boys questioned why I needed to buy them anything at all if I was gone only one day. They aren’t little anymore, they reminded me. I tried to explain how hard it was to have failed them by putting my career and myself first for 25 hours, by not being the one to pick my wounded son up from the nurse that morning.

In his inimitable way, my eldest told me get over it, and I knew he was right because it didn’t feel like a slap at all. It was said with the kindness and understanding of a boy on the cusp of adulthood, a son giving me license to be myself. A son who next asked if I thought my presentation had gone well.

I made myself a large coffee in that Starbucks cup the next morning. Because Here You Are isn’t a mug series or a city. It’s peace of mind.