The airport is one of my least favorite places and being alone in one is even worse. Like many things, flying has become harder as I’ve aged.
Not too many years ago, my younger daughter asked if she could stop sitting with me on airplanes. I was too tense for her. How could I blame her? I wouldn’t want to sit with me either.
My kids were astonished when I told them that, during a particularly awful landing in a thunderstorm several years back, I had grabbed the hand of the complete stranger next to me (more horrified to learn that I’ve done this more than once). On that flight, everyone on the plane erupted in applause when we landed in Philadelphia, which doesn’t happen often and reassured me that others shared my concern. What was most reassuring was being on the ground. I like the ground.
Without fail when I am waiting to board a plane, I think of the poem Passengers by Billy Collins, excerpted here –
…. when you consider the altitude,
the secret parts of the engines,
and all the hard water and the deep canyons below…
well, I just think it would be good if one of us
maybe stood up and said a few words,
or, so as not to involve the police,
at least quietly wrote something down.
Family members on my mother’s side are particularly prone to phobias – being in closed places, leaving the house, sleeping alone in a house, flying, you name it. Like so much we inherit, phobias come along for the ride and it is hard to shake lose of them. From my own experience and from observing family, I know how limited my life could become if I have to stop flying (my mother hasn’t been on a plane in nearly 20 years). I am determined not to let it happen.
With this in mind, I told my doctor I needed help – some kind of antidote for white-knuckled flying. She prescribed anti-anxiety pills that I never leave home without now when flying. I don’t always take one, but I always have them. I don’t hesitate if the forecast is bad or turbulence is expected. They aren’t magic, but they do take the edge off, kind of like a poor eraser blurring dark lines.
Other than the obvious reasons flying terrifies me (I don’t like heights, or hearing that planes disappear or fall into oceans), I feel completely powerless sitting on a plane. On the ground in a car, I also like to be the driver, not a passenger, for the same reason. It’s about control. And the rational arguments for flying – it’s safer than driving as a statistical matter – I understand completely. It just has no bearing on my feelings when I’m in a bumpy plane.
Flying leaves me at the mercy of the pilot, the weather, the mechanics of flight, the plane’s condition. I can do nothing but sit, checking my watch to see how much time has passed, or more often, hasn’t. All of this feels even worse when flying alone. Selfishly, I am calmer flying with loved ones, knowing I’d have them near in an emergency. Perhaps this isn’t perverse at all – who wouldn’t want this?
In any case, I think more about flying now because I see more of it in my future. My 80-year-old parents live more than 500 miles away and need more help now than they ever have (my mother reminds me she is not 80 until December). Most recently, I flew to my parents last week after my father had surgery so that I could help my mother and siblings with his care. It was hard being far away while they all rallied around him before the surgery.
And to be honest, fleeing my life at home felt good. My youngest had just left for college and home didn’t feel like home. I didn’t want to be there, and I found myself looking forward to my parents’ weakening yet welcoming arms. I just wish I didn’t have to fly to get there.
Beth Burrell is a journalist who has worked primarily in daily newspaper reporting and in school communications producing parent newsletters. She currently freelances from her home in Merion, Pa., just outside of Philadelphia.
Image: Plane landing against the Manhattan skyline by John Wardell via Flickr