The plane sat stationary at the gate, all but a few passengers boarded and in their seats. It was an evening flight that came at the end of a long day, and the air was heavy with annoyance, with exhaustion, with the frustration that we still weren’t on our way that so often accompanies travel these days. We were waiting, the flight attendants explained as they thanked us for our nonexistent patience, for a few people whose connecting flight had been delayed, and, while I have been in those poor souls’ position many a time myself, I felt a flash of irritation.
I’d like to think that, on a normal day, I’d have had compassion for those running across the terminal to make it on board before the door closed. But on this day, my baser side showed its ugly head.
On this day, you see, I was that mom. I was that mom, the one with the inconsolable six-month old in the window seat of row 23, the one who nobody wants to be seated near, the one with an exhausted infant and a harried look and a desire to be anywhere else. No manner of bouncing or nursing could stop the cries; though she had been content through the car ride to the airport and our first flight and the long layover spent walking the length of the concourse time and time again, a certain baby girl was done with travel.
I tried to soothe her, to hold her head close against my chest, to rock her gently back and forth while crooning in her ear. More than anything, she needed sleep – and so did I – but this is a girl who craves motion, and my pathetic attempts to give her that motion within the claustrophobic confines of an airplane seat simply weren’t enough. And so she wailed. I felt like wailing, too; all I wanted in the world at that moment was to comfort her, to dry her tears, to help her feel safe and secure and loved.
I felt so very alone, as though my baby and I were pariahs on this flight, as though we were making everyone on board miserable, as though those seated around us were grumbling and cursing and generally perturbed that we were in their vicinity.
A flight attendant walked past our row, caught my eye, held my gaze when most were doing their best to pretend I did not exist. She gave a small, sympathetic smile, inclined her head. “It’s okay,” she said, placing emphasis on each syllable. “It’s okay. She’s okay. We’re okay.”
My seatmate – the businessman in the expensive suit, the experienced traveler with the Bose sound-cancelling headphones and the Wall Street Journal and the leather briefcase – looked at my girl’s tear-stained face, at her frightened eyes, at her open mouth, and he made a silly face. The lady directly across the aisle from him leaned over and grinned, shook her head back and forth so her thick mane of red hair bounced around her shoulders.
And, miracle of miracles, the tears stopped. My baby turned her wide-eyed gaze to these two strangers, these two saints willing to look ridiculous for the sake of a child, and a tentative smile played at the corner of her lips. The two adults continued their antics and were rewarded with a soft laugh, the grunting “heh” that has the power to melt this mama’s heart.
And then there was the bustle of hurrying people making their way onto the plane, the flurry of cabin doors closing, and finally, finally we were pushing back from the gate and listening to safety announcements and taxiing to the runway. Distracted by our neighbors and soothed by the motion of the plane, Katie nestled in, her head over my heart. She was asleep before the wheels left the ground and she stayed that way, poor tired girl, until I had collected our bag at the other end and transferred her to her car seat.
It occurs to me, as I think about airplanes and crying babies and the compassion of strangers, that travel, with all of its delays and headaches and turbulence, has the tendency to bring out either the best in us or the worst in us.
But then, so does life. Let it be said of me that I strive for the former instead of the latter, that I see and acknowledge the struggles of those around me instead of pretending not to notice, that I show understanding and concern instead of frustration and annoyance.
And, if it isn’t too much to ask, may I always find seats next to funny-faced people when travelling with my little girl.