Not all that long ago, I flew to the West Coast to visit my mother. Originally, the tickets I had bought were superb: one layover for less than an hour. Just enough time so I didn’t have to worry about missing the connecting flight, but not so much time that I would be strung out.
Then, a few weeks after I bought the ticket, an email arrived in my inbox. The original connecting flight had been cancelled. I was now stuck with five hours at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas. Five hours.
So what’s a middle-aged, middle-class white girl to do with five hours in an airport? Especially if she’s unwilling to pay to for wifi?
In the city called Wait,
also known as the airport,
you might think about your life –
there is not much else to do.
There are bars, which is not typically my thing. I will admit that just before I boarded the connecting flight, I did a shot of tequila. It seemed the best way to say good riddance to those five hours.
What is it, that you need so badly?
Think about this.
And inbetween? During those five hours of laying over?
You’re headed for five hours of nothing.
And how long can you think about your own life?
What else? Make friends with the single moms and their adorable toddling children, that’s what. Well, in this case, it would be singular: with one single mom with one adorable, and reserved nearly two-year-old who had a layover much longer than mine, who had been waiting long before I encountered them and who were r e a d y to be home, but were nowhere near home.
What I did, to save myself,
was to look for children, the very young ones
who couldn’t even know where they were going, or why.
Some of them were fussing, of course.
This is my personal recipe:
- Smile at child. Smile at mother. Especially if it looks like either one is about to melt down.
- Make sure the mother knows. Because otherwise it’s creepy.
- Perhaps play peek-a-boo (with child).
- Remove from your own bag the reliable, colorful plastic toy kept solely for the purpose of helping single parents who are dealing with cranky kiddles. Hiding it from the child’s view, ask mother if it’s okay to offer it to the child.
- Give child toy; give mother respite.
- Take delight, because it’s there for the taking.
But even more wonderful, and maybe the only thing
To put your own life into proportion,
were the babies, the little ones, hot and tired,
gurgling, chuckling, as they looked –
where they were going, or not yet going,
in their weary parents’ arms (no!
their lucky parents’ arms) –
upon this broken world.
(“Logan International,” Mary Oliver)
Later, following the advice of a friend back home, I went seeking the airport chapel. (Who knew that airports have chapels?) It was not easy to find; the signage was confusing. It required asking multiple people, some of whom had no idea and some who thought they had the right idea, but not so much. Eventually, I found it.
When I entered, there was a Latino man in a forward pew, praying. His two children, grade school aged, were in the back (which means only a couple of pews away – this is a small place), playing a bit more boisterously than one usually does in chapel. My quiet entrance caught the attention of the father, who shushed his children, finished his prayers, then shuffled out with his kids in tow.
I sat on a forward seat, placed both feet squarely on the floor, my hands in my lap, and began to notice my breath. I meditated for a short time. As I left, a Muslim man – Indo-Pakistani, if I had to guess – had just arrived and pulled out one of the prayer rugs from a box in the back.
I left that chapel feeling I had just been blessed by the richness of humanity, as well as having found some of my patience and acceptance.
In Naomi Shihab Nye’s short story, “Gate A-4,” from her collection, Honeybee, she tells the story of helping an elderly, distraught Palestinian woman (with little English) when her flight is delayed. Shihab Nye is, herself, Palestinian-American; she uses her halting Arabic to soothe the woman’s worries. The friendship between them blossoms into abundant sharing among all the delayed, fatigued passengers at Gate A-4 as they all share mamool cookies. Shihab Nye ends the story:
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, this is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in this gate – once the crying of confusion stopped – seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too. This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
After I left the chapel and returned to the area where my connecting flight was taking off, I ran into that mother and child again. We chatted briefly and awkwardly, and realized that we were going to be on the same flight, then lost track of each other in the crowd. It was not only a big flight, but a full one; the flight attendant had already announced multiple times how every seat on this flight was filled.
When it was my time to board the planed, I walked the jetway, then the crowded aisle full of passengers and way-too-many carry-ons. I inched closer to my seat at the back of the plane. I found my seat and next to it, a familiar weary mother and her little girl, holding tight to her mother.
Indeed: not everything is lost.