Flying lessons

March 20,2009
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Now that we're back, my two feet safely on the ground, I have a confession to make: I'm terrified of flying. I know we all have anxieties about flying, but I'm afraid in that stomach-churning, I-can't-breathe, heart-pounding, claustrophobic, walls-closing-in way that only people who are really afraid of flying can understand. I've managed to stay grounded for almost three years, thanks to Amtrak, but also thanks to rail repair and limited train availability I had to take the plunge and find three internet fares for the return home on Wednesday. I was so stressed about the flight home I couldn't eat the entire morning. I didn't always used to feel this way. We flew quite a bit when I was growing up and I don't remember ever being afraid. But all fears begin with some pivotal event and for me it was one terrible flight experience when I was in college, and my sense of safety was shattered. We all have terrible flight stories, of course, so I won't go into mine, but it's enough to say I thought I would die. Yes, die. Years ago--a different lifetime ago, it seems--I flew a lot with L. when he was a baby and we lived in Rochester, New York, and then I made several trips back home when we moved to North Carolina. When my kids were small, and rode in my lap, it was comforting to clutch them against me during take-offs and landings. I'd breathe in the sweet smell of their hair, and feel their warm bodies against mine and I'd feel safer. Holding their bodies against mine was like holding a living talisman--a good luck charm. If anything happens, I thought, I won't let go. When I flew solo with 12-month old L. from Athens, Greece back to the U.S. I held him so close during the first leg of the trip that when we landed in Frankfurt we were both soggy, sweaty messes. I'm surprised a flight attendant didn't have to pry a sleeping L. loose from me, he was that stuck to my body. Now my kids are older, and I have to confront my fears face-on, like a...a grownup, for their sakes and mine. Now I travel with an eight-year old who knows way too much about aviation and flight safety, and who has logged so many hours on Microsoft Flight Simulator that I wouldn't be surprised to see him skillfully land an airplane. An eight-year old who had the foresight the morning of the flight to print out a BWI runway map: BWI Map And to bring along this: Runway Safety a handy pamphlet he received courtesy of his Flight Training magazine. "You know Mama," he pointed out helpfully to me as we taxied onto the main runway. "Most runway incursions occur at this point in the take-off process." Now my kids are too big to sit on my lap, and T. wouldn't even hold my hand during take-off. "Mama, let go!" She admonished me. "You're squeezing my hand!" And then she turned to gaze out the window as the landscape dropped away and we crossed over into that Point of No Return--my least favorite part of the flight. She shouted with glee as we lurched into the sky--the glee of a child who doesn't understand the what-ifs of airplane travel--the glee of a me from long ago. I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth, and felt my stomach turn somersaults. My heart pounded, my hands shook. Then I felt a light tapping on my shoulder. "Mama?" I could barely look at her, because I worried she would see something in my face--something that would show her I was really, really scared. I've told myself that grownups shouldn't show their kids when they're afraid--or should they? I'm still wrestling with this one. But my T., kind and solicitous as always, leaned in and patted my arm again. "It's okay Mama," she said. "Flying is FUN!" And as the plane leveled out in the sky and the engines settled into an even drone I felt strangely protected by my kids: L. busily studying his flight pamphlets and T. patting my arm now and again, her face framed in the white oval of the airplane window. I can't say flying is fun, or that I'm cured of my phobia, or that I will eagerly board another airplane anytime soon so help me god, but I made it. And even if I didn't have a little body to hug close on this trip it surprised me just how much strength you can pull from your own kids--those same kids who look to you all the time, for what they just gave you in return. ********** FYI--I was so impressed with Southwest, even through my fog of stomach-churning, heart-pounding, sweaty-palmed fear. Before we took off the captain and co-pilot let L. go into the cockpit and hang out with them for a full ten minutes! He wowed them with his instrument knowledge and even got to touch some of the controls--something I thought was taboo in this post 9/11 world... Happy weekend!