I’ve made about a dozen transglobal trips. They never work the way I expect them to; something always goes wrong. I’ve been stranded in airports, rerouted through cities I never expected, and once kept from boarding because of a visa issue until they actually had to hold the plane for me while my now-husband and I raced across the international terminal. And this is all before children.
That said, the pre-children trips were less entertaining than the post children trips. Of course, like all early airplane trips with children, there was the requisite screaming. There was pacing. There was pacing and screaming and exemptions made so that we could pace when the fasten seatbelt signs were on because ever the attendants couldn't handle any more screaming. In the years before the in-seat computer screens, there were the years when the child in the bassinet stood up and made shadow pictures on the movie screen. Fun times. Like the trip sans husband when the little one was potty training. Not only did the little one have the exquisite sense of timing that sent many an attendant scurrying backward with the drink and snack cart, but he had the urgency that made the scurry fast. And once, ensconced in the bathroom with a toilet seat far too tall for a two-year-old’s aim, I was stuck holding the child horizontal, like an airplane, singing the theme song to Superman while the four-year-old, afraid to be left alone, opened and shut the bathroom door behind us joyfully screaming out the Korean word for peek-a-boo. One of the attendants chuckled and told me she wished she had a video camera.
And she wasn’t the only one laughing. We had quite an audience. By this time, I was quite familiar with the types of people who made up these trips: the post-business baby boomers who work/travel/volunteer around the globe, the college students returning home, the immigrant/emigrant families (which one do you choose when you are between borders?) coming and going, and the soldiers. As the children have grown older, I have had them thank those soldiers—men who looked so mature to me when I began making this trip fifteen years ago and now look like young boys—for their service. My big one dutifully bows (the Korean is strong in him) and solemnly repeats, “Thank you for your service. Komapsumnida.” He always adds the Korean for thank you as if he’s not sure what language anyone speaks in this liminal space. The little one, on the other hand, considers every direct order to be a challenge (he takes after his mother). On the latest flight, he considered my directive, turned his sweet little face toward the soldier in the aisle seat, and wailed, “Meee-oooow!”
The soldier, who had nodded at my big one, broke into a grin and began to sing, quite loudly, “Meow, meow, meow, meow,” to the tune of the old Meow Mix commercial. Delighted, both boys danced along to the tune before we were propelled forward by other passengers eager to reach their seats. I don’t know that the soldier will remember the big one’s thanks. I’m certain he will remember the meow. And that’s no comment on the weight of his service. That flight was connecting out of Seoul. I’ve seen enough soldiers coming out of the DMZ to know that he and his colleagues in that row of seats were heading out of the no-smile-zone. But there are days we need to smile. We need to laugh. No matter what we are coming from or where we are going.
And it’s not for the rest of the world to judge how or why we laugh in those moments that we are just clinging to life day by day. That laughter is not about making light of a situation to somehow negate its severity. It’s making light of a situation in the same way that I fumble with a match when the power goes out.
It’s the hair jokes in the face of chemotherapy, the crazy jokes as you pull into the psychiatrist’s parking garage, the integrity jokes when your BFF has stabbed you in the back, the diaper jokes when the baby is sick, the true-love jokes when the love of your life is gone. In bad taste? Maybe. But by and large, they are jokes made when nothing more can be said. They are told only in front of trusted friends. They are an attempt to continue to walk when it feels as if your feet have been cut off.
Because in those moments, you have a choice to make. You can see the world as an enemy who stands against you—and sometimes they really do stand against you. Sometimes, that classmate really meant that slam. There are days that the administrator wants your child to fail so that she can look back at you and say, “I told you so.” The catty in-law may really be waiting for you to fail so that she can bring it up after the blessing at the next family dinner. Your confidant may mean to betray you, and that boy may not be your friend at all.
You can choose to stand against them, and, in seeing all that they do, infer that everyone likewise is untrustworthy. And while that may be a wise course, let me assure you that it leads to strife, arguments, and eventually violence.
Or you can see those who have hurt you as they are and hold out the hope that, even though you may avoid those people and make no bones to others that they cannot be trusted, not everyone is as untrustworthy. You can choose to see that, even if the glass is nowhere near half full, even a splash of water at the bottom relieves a dry throat better than nothing at all. You can choose to reach out. You can choose to laugh.
A dear friend of mine has faced divorce, placement for one child, multiple interactions with CYS over her special needs kids, and the possible prospect of no job, bankruptcy, and losing her home. Every weekday, she texts a bunch of her friends a joke so bad you groan. When there was nothing in her life to laugh at, sure as hell, she still laughed. And now that her life is looking up, she doesn't begrudge any of us our emotional crutches.
So by God, smile and don’t judge.
And, so, as we were leaving one home once again and heading for another home, as my child said goodbye to one family and feared the school waiting for him on the other side of the ocean, I empathized with him when he got excited over a possible water landing and the chance to use the inflatable slides on either side of the plane. How could I reprimand him too harshly when he cried out at each bump of turbulence, “Ohhh, yeah! We are goin’ DO-O-OWN!”? I couldn’t. For a few minutes, I thought that I could stem this train of thought as I explained that if the plane really did have a problem at cruising altitude over the Pacific, there was no way that we would survive the impact. “You mean we’d break into little pieces when we hit the water?” the little one hollered. I glanced at the white-knuckled passengers around me and noticed that their faces blanch even more. Maybe I wasn't making things better. Maybe the better approach is just to chuckle and be grateful that the alcohol is free on transcontinental flights.