Up In the Air: A Mommy-Moment on a Plane

Can you see what's on my big boy's shirt? Mr. Strong. I'm a lucky, lucky mom.

Can you see what's on my big boy's shirt? Mr. Strong. I'm a lucky, lucky mom.

Regular readers may have noticed I didn’t post last week — that’s because we were in Florida for a bit over a week, visiting my parents, who some years ago joined the throng of Northerners who take off for southern climes in January and don’t come back until April or so, leaving their progeny with the snow and the gloom, as well as with the option to come on down for some sun & fun.

This year, we were there for slightly longer than usual (the school vacation combined with the jacking up of February-break-time airfares make planning a vacay awkward, so it ended up being less expensive to stretch the trip a couple days beyond the week the kids had off from school. Sounds like a good idea? In theory, yes. In practical terms, not so much. I love my parents to pieces, and some niggling family dynamic issues notwithstanding, we get along. My boys adore them, they show us a good time, my husband gets along famously with both my mom and dad. So what’s the problem?

A wee bit too much togetherness, with me, in the center, as the link connecting my kids to my parents, and my husband to my parents. The end result is that the boys had fun, but I felt slightly stressed. Also, truth be told (and I’m all about telling the truth about child-rearing, right?), it was just plain old too much kid-time. Me and my boys, 24/7, is only fleetingly wonderful. Overall, sure, it’s precious. I am keenly aware of the passing of time, of how quickly my babies stopped being babies. Now seven, Daniel, in particular, is breaking my heart on pretty much a daily basis. He’s still so young, but then he is busting his britches for more independence. He’s just so… big. And strong. And his own person.

I want to build times like this vacation into our years, to enjoy this before they scoff at the idea of spending a week with mom and dad, much less Grandma and Grandpa (oh, and did I mention that we also spent time with my in-laws, who also snowbird it for a month or so, conveniently not too far from where my parents winter? Yep. It was a Grandparent-palooza!). But that doesn’t mean that each and every moment of the past eight days was swimming in a sea of mommy love. No, it was not. I found myself wishing for a shorter trip, to get back and get them back to school, to leave my parents to their golf and their friends and the relative peace of their condo without Cars cars and crayons underfoot.

Then a funny thing happened on the plane on the way home yesterday. Not funny-ha-ha, but funny in that niggling way that sticks with you. Seated behind Daniel and me (my husband was sitting across the aisle with James) was a mother with two young children, a boy and a girl, I’d guess about a year or two older than Daniel. The boy, quite suddenly, let out a loud, long yell. It shook me out of my seat. Then he did it again. In the exact moment that his mother reached across her daughter in the middle seat to touch her son’s arm, I registered that she wasn’t about to angrily shush him. I realized that he wasn’t being disruptive on purpose. The child had a problem — Tourette’s maybe? Or autism? The mother did her best to soothe him, but he wouldn’t stop until we were in the air and he could fire up his portable DVD player and watch a movie.

The boy, whose name was Colin, I found out, yelled out in that sharp, startling way a few more times over the course of the flight. Daniel jumped every time, but I quietly explained to my son that this boy had a problem, that he couldn’t help what he was doing. I forget exactly how I explained it, but I said something like, “that boy has something just slightly wrong, maybe with his brain, that makes him unable to control what he’s doing. He can’t help it.” Daniel still winced at the yells, but otherwise wasn’t bothered. I winced, though. The mother was totally calm, even cheerful, which I’m sure must be her way of coping with his issues (and also went a long way toward making those around us understand, without having to say anything, that there was nothing she could do; no one said a word).

In the last 20 minutes of the flight, my boy pulled up the armrest, and put his head down on my lap. Before long, he’d fallen asleep, my big second grader, his large, heavy head with its untamable mop of dark brown hair resting on my leg. I held my book with one hand, and stroked his cheek with the other. Just as when he was a baby and slept on me, he both drooled and sweated, gradually dampening my jeans.

Meanwhile, Colin yelped and shouted.

Like I said, it was a small moment, and the obvious feelings — of gratitude and great love — bubbled up. It’s natural for any mother to feel that “but for the grace of God” sense when she sees another mom with a much, much greater burden. Then the funny thing happened. At one point, I put my book down and put both hands on my kid. I did all my usual mommy things, like cleaning a little stray wax out of his ear (gross? Sorry; it’s a habit I picked up from my mother, who couldn’t let any earwax or navel lint sit for long, either); trying in vain to smooth his hair, still stiff from yesterday’s dose of pool chemicals; shifting the collar of his shirt where it looked like it might be tight against his neck; slipping a hand under his shirt to feel his breathing and his skin over ribs newly exposed by a growth spurt.

I realized in that small, necessary moment that I wasn’t just lucky to have this kid and his little brother, busily coloring across the aisle with his dad. I was lucky to be able to do these tiny bits of mother-care, to literally feel him growing under my hands. I don’t know for sure if that moment was connected to being confronted with a boy like Colin, but I feel somehow that it was.

But whatever prompted it, I’m glad it happened. Though it didn’t stop me from being very, very grateful that they are both safely and happily back in school today, back up north in the tail end of a snowy winter.