In a strange turn of events and tears, I actually lost not one, but both of my babes to coming of age this summer. There were no warning signs, no emergency preparedness kits. Flight attendants are always telling us to “put our oxygen masks on before assisting others,” but they don’t tell you how to breathe when you realize your precious cargo are able to take care of themselves.
Just days before, while waiting to board a jet plane home from Los Angeles, I was a mother’s mess of tears dripping in a pre-flight salad. So much so, that a lovely woman nearby says, “excuse me, I’ve been watching you and I just have to ask, is everything okay?” Embarrassment radiates, but gives way to relief. Thankful to have an ear and not be judged, I share the story of how my teenage daughter is chasing her dreams in L.A.
Universe, thank you for having my back on this day. Not only does this woman understand, she is leaving to go home to Arizona after visiting her dreamer daughter, a twentysomething girl that got her “break” last year and moved to Hollywood to pursue a career in screenwriting. There we were, two strangers, eye-to-eye and mom-to-mom, speaking in the language of letting go.
Don’t worry, I pulled it together though. Two tissues and a swipe of lipstick after liftoff, and I was ready to come home and see my boys. A couple weeks of 10 year old hugs and cuddles can do wonders for the soul. Plus, we will all be back together soon I think to myself.
Then my husband flies to California for a national softball tournament. This is not a new experience for us. He has been coaching our daughter since she was 3 years old.
What is different this time, is that while my husband and our teenager will be in the same town, she will be missing games for auditions. The sport, the span of years they have spent together for the love of this game, is at a crossroads. In the year ahead, we worry there will be more acting opportunities for our girl, and as parents are starting to realize not enough time for her to be wholly committed to a competitive position on the team. In the meantime, my husband is asked to coach an older group of girls, many of which will go on to play college softball. Taking the invitation almost certainly means he will have to travel a lot. For that reason, he makes the very good decision to turn it down.
Next, the plan is for my Dad and son to fly down to meet everyone in L.A. From there they will split their time at the beach and the baseball stadium, before making their way home together on a road trip with the girls through two national parks. I would be going too, but have a conflict with a work conference.
Excitement is brewing, bags are packed. I take them to the airport, where they wait, and they wait, and they wait. Eventually, after several hours, they find out their flight is canceled. This particular airline only flies on certain days of the week, and my Dad and son meet passengers that have been stranded there for days. I get the call to pick them up, only to wait even longer because their luggage has to come off the plane that failed to launch.
On the ride home, I try to cheer my son up… “What should we do for your birthday? Let’s plan something fun I say.” No change. “Hey, how about we go to the store and get that new game you’ve been wanting?” Even this grand gesture doesn’t help me to turn a frown upside down. “No thanks, Mom. You don’t have to buy me anything. It’s not your fault, I’m just sad.” Ouch. I’ve been so focused on our blooming teenage girl, but this boy in front of me has done such a great job of enduring and supporting the “summer of his sister.” I would literally do anything to bring joy back in to his eyes right now.
Luckily, I work for a great company that puts family first, and they would no doubt have let me hop a flight on another airline with him except, at the conference I’m going to, I’ve committed to being a panel speaker. Also, we have a dog that needs to be cared for. Desperate for options, I remember my parents once let me fly by myself to San Francisco to visit my Aunt and Uncle and cousins. How the heck did they do that? Pretty quickly online, I realize there are a google of Unaccompanied Minor Flights. “Hey buddy, if I could get you on a plane out of Portland and Papa could watch our dog, would you want to fly by yourself to Dad and Mimi?” I fully expected my young dependent to turn down the idea due to fear, but instead an inquisitive smile spread across his face the length of Santa Barbara. “Do they really let kids do that?” he says.
Here comes the big call. “Mom, what do you think about him taking a flight by himself?” Brief pause. “Well… actually maybe that could work. I think it’s fine. Remember those kids in the movie Sleepless in Seattle flew to New York by themselves?” Oh that’s right, I start feeling better about the idea. Sleepless in Seattle IS a great movie I think to myself… and weren’t Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks the best? The music is so good, and that house on the water – wow, that was really amazing. Then I snap out of it. “This is a crazy idea! People don’t send their beloved children in to the air, in to the world, by themselves in 2017!”
Meanwhile, my husband, my Mom and Dennis are talking amongst themselves about the options, as if I’m not in the picture at all. My mom hands the phone to my husband, “Hey, the airport at LAX is completely under construction, we would have a really tough time getting to him. I found a flight for Niko in to Long Beach, and it will be easy to pick him up.” At this point, I’m having “Sleepless in Seattle second thoughts,” but he sounds so reassuring. My husband always sounds this way. It’s one of the things I love most about him. From that point, I have no idea what words I actually used over the phone before we booked that ticket, but the message had to be something along the lines of… “I brought this boy in to this beautiful world with a lot of hard work and all my love. If I’m going to put him on this plane to L.A., you had better promise me with everything in your heart to catch him softly there.”
Everything about the Unaccompanied Minor Flight through Jet Blue is a perfect experience. The check in process is simple and smooth. A warm-hearted woman at the check-in counter puts a large orange tag over his neck. It can be seen from a mile away, and I’m suddenly comforted that someone is taking this whole thing seriously. My son is having a blast. We have lunch together, pick up a sports-themed neck rest, gummi bears and a small Sudoku book.
Together at the gate, it is a full flight and he is getting a lot of attention from the other passengers. Everyone congratulates him for taking his first flight alone. Finally the time comes to board, and the gate attendant comes to take him on the plane. I hug him tight, he hugs me back. I give him a big kiss, he kisses me back. I tell him how I proud of him I am. “Mom, don’t worry. It’s not going to be hard. I just have to sit there?” As he walks on his flight, he turns and casually waves goodbye.
It’s at least another half hour before they lift off, and there I am waiting at the window.
Thankfully, the Unaccompanied Minor Flight seems to come with free Accompanied Minor Parent Support. Two Jet Blue employees encourage me to stay as long as I like, and assured me that their own kids fly all the time. By the time that plane leaves for L.A., I realize I’m not letting him go, I’m letting him grow!
“You know, now that our kids are getting older, maybe we have to start thinking about how we are going to live our own lives to the fullest? What a real compliment to be invited to coach that team. It would be fun for me to watch you take that on, and the kids and I can still go to your games so we can be together. Call and let them know “you’re in.” Those players are waiting to hear and they need a great coach.” In my head and my heart I’m thinking, this is the lesson I’m to learn this summer. “Kiss me and smile for me.” Stunned to have my full support in following his own dreams, my husband tells me he loves me, and changes his mind to take a step forward on that journey.
So I ask… is there anyone in your life that needs you to give them the freedom of John Denver’s bittersweet gift, “Kiss me and smile for me. Tell me that you’ll wait for me. Hold me like you’ll never let me go. Cause I’m leaving on a jet plane…”
And we sail on.