When the children’s father booked the two of us on three consecutive flights from Washington, DC to Dunedin, New Zealand, with the idea that we could make an international connection in San Francisco with only a 90-minute layover… there were larger issues at stake than the fact that this kind of ticket has “I’m just asking for it” stamped under “time of departure.”
Six weeks before making this reservation, our son Andrew, whom we had not seen in over a year, had witnessed the birth of his own baby boy in scary and dramatic circumstances. Although a fine team of physicians ultimately placed a healthy baby in our son and daughter-in-law’s arms, Clay and I had not been there to support them because the hospital where this unexpectedly traumatic event occurred is 13,000 miles away on the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island.
Clay and I work, we don’t have a lot of time to take days off, so the goal was to make the 26,000-mile round trip as efficiently as possible.
So sure enough, our flight from Dulles to San Francisco doesn’t take off—it’s delayed exactly 90 minutes, and even as I am texting Andrew, “Still on tarmac. Going to miss connection in CA,” Clay turns to me and says confidently, “We can make it.”
Clay and I are, in fact, sun to cloud. He would assure you your lab results will be perfect while I’m wondering if you have chosen an executor for your estate. He would tell you dark energy and gravity hold the universe in perfect balance, while I would remind you there’s a voracious Black Hole at the center of the Milky Way and, holy cow, we’ve seen it. Our conflicting paradigms make me want to write meaningful haikus like a 7th grader. Haiku poems reflect a spiritual truth by evoking an image from nature. They are traditionally 5 syllables, followed by 7 syllables, then 5.
Here is an example by haiku master Natsume Soseki:
“Crow has flown away:
swaying in the evening sun,
a leafless tree.”
And here’s mine which I have titled: “Clay Makes the Reservations.”
“Plane delayed. Lands. Run!
Next flight leaving now…too late.
Gone. Like hawk on wing.”
I have a less evocative version as well…
“Optimist books flights
as if planes take off on time.
Miss connection. Oops.”
Five hours after finally taking off from Dulles we are taxiing in on the runway in San Francisco, at the exact departure time for our next flight, which, from the airport map, appears to be 22 miles of concourse away and in another hub of the airport. Our son is going to be standing at an airport gate in New Zealand, holding a baby we have never seen, waiting for parents who never arrive. Our scant time together just lost an entire day. I’m so disappointed I can hardly breathe and Clay repeats, “We can make it,” scrambling to get our luggage from the overhead compartment.
We’ve been told that because the plane was delayed, a representative for our carrier, will meet us at the top of the jetway to facilitate international connections (implying that if our plane isn’t already in the air, just maybe, an official can still get us on our flight). Grateful and encouraged, we squeeze past other passengers, race up the ramp, and burst from the arrival gate, only to discover the promised guide isn’t there. “We can make it, anyway,” Clay says. We hit the concourse at a dead run. We have to get to Gate 52A and we’re not even in the international terminal.
I am now jogging with 25 pounds of carry-on luggage in my arms which is much like running clasping a toddler who’s trying to get down. We weave through the milling throngs, outpace the moving sidewalks. My calves burn, my arms ache.
We sprint down escalators because they’re too slow. We slip through groups of reuniting friends just before they reach each other, the way fugitives blast through barricades at railroad crossings, seconds before the train. I’ve lost all sense of social protocol. Instead of calling out, “Excuse me, please,” I’ve begun snapping, “For God’s sake, get out of my way.”
We’ve run at least a mile and we’re only at Gate 43B. I know the flight attendants have sealed the doors. I know it is pointless to persevere when the goal was impossible from the beginning. The plane should have been airborne 20 minutes ago. “We can make it,” Clay calls out over his shoulder, still running.
Aren’t there times when you’ve wondered if the person you chose to spend your life with when you were still an adolescent, could possibly be the right choice? I mean, what are the odds with 7.5 billion people on the planet? I know we tend to attach ourselves to people with much to teach us, but aren’t there times when you think…What if I am supposed to be living an entirely different life with a different person? What if…at 19 years old… I boarded the wrong plane?
We can make it, Clay says, but as you can see I’m pretty cranky by now and I’m thinking, Yeah? Make it yourself, mister. I don’t even want to anymore. Aren’t you the one responsible for this mess with your relentless, stupid optimism–well mine’s been gone a long time now—like hawk on wing.
We are running down a nearly empty concourse—most gates closed for the night– when I hear my name called over the public address system, look up and see Gate 52A. Two cheering agents have positioned themselves sideways, arms extended, to snag our boarding passes as if we are exchanging batons in a relay race. Another 50 feet down the jetway, and we bound onto the waiting plane, bump down the aisle to our seats and collapse.
The cabin door closes with a soft shushing and a thump. The plane rocks back and the world outside the small oval window slips slowly past, but I can no longer tell who is moving. Two careful turns and the engines power up, the lights dim, and the plane begins the race for ascent.
For the next 13 hours there is no life question to ponder or second guess, nothing to decide. Someone else will be in charge of my fate as we fly from the northern hemisphere toward the land of the Southern Cross; where today is already tomorrow, where spring is fall. Where there is a waterfall that flows upwards, they say. Where there waits a son I sorely miss, and a tiny grandson I’ve never met.
Beside me there is only radiant affirmation that expecting the best is the only way to live; that the universe is a place of abundance if you allow it.
I can’t even look at him yet. I can tell he’s got his high beams on. I can tell he’s over there in the next seat, stowing stuff away, rustling around, examining all the electronics. Figuring out how everything works, when clearly, he already knows.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.