Friday, March 19, 2010

The midwest, family and other things with wings

Ladies and gents, it's time to take out your pencils and check off another milestone from the list. Baby Opal has officially joined the ranks those who fly the friendly skies.

Jesse, she and I flew to Ohio last Friday to visit the conglomerate of remaining family members who have not yet met her. The sweet Aunts and Uncles, cousins and friends who have been dedicated to Opal's photos on face book, commenting on their favorites and requesting her presence in Columbus. Of major importance was my grandpa; Opal still needed to meet my only living grandparent, my dad's dad, who had overcome all odds the summer before Opal was even conceived by surviving a ruptured aortic aneurysm as well as host of related ailments that followed. I dearly love this man and introducing Opal to her great-grandpa Jack was one of the cardinal anticipated moments of the weekend.
And, of course, we were all ecstatic to visit Ama (my mom) and Papa (my dad), Uncle CB (my brother) and big cousin Stella (my niece) who would be turning five during our trip. Ama has been out to Colorado three times since Opal was born and my dad, brother and Stella have come out once. But Opal is clearly familiar with --and very fond of-- them all.

The airplane.
I was told if I put Opal in a carrier with no buckles, I'd be able to go through security without having to take her out it. Another example of a helpful bit of information that traveled down the pike from someone else's experience, making a situation all that much easier. Also, my brother provided the carseat and stroller and my mom borrowed a Pack-N-Play from a friend, so there was practically nothing to schlep. From the curbside back-check to the near-empty line for security, getting to our gate was a cinch. Opal had eyes like the shiny bottoms of two teacups, facing my belly in the sling, and attempting to turn her head 360 degrees like an owl to gulp up her over-stimulating surroundings. And even though I led our small clan to the wrong gate (read the ticket wrong, oops), no harm was done and we sifted into our seats with little effort. The plane had two rows of two seats and seemed ridiculously tiny to me. I couldn't walk through the center isle without bumping into people and there was no area at all beyond the final row of seats. This made things difficult when Opal did not effectively fall asleep at my breast as I had hoped and proceeded to squirm and fuss in the seat because her body was playing tug-of-war between full-on sleepiness and being hopped-up on the hardcore stimulant that is the airport. But we prevailed, myself having to deal with a bout of claustrophobia, and landed in the midst of a torrential downpour. Something happened as we climbed down the flight of temporary and incredibly steep stairs from the plane and ran across the tarmac into the Columbus airport in the middle of an impressive rainstorm that popped any sort of anxiety-induced residue and spit us out into our adventure like a group of shiny Sedans straight from the car wash.

Ama, Papa, Uncle CB and Stella were the welcoming committee, perched with wide-open arms in front of the food court.
And thus, the lovefest began.

I wasn't sure how Opal would do with a near constant stream of visitors or if she would be able to nap in the midst of so much excitement and in an unfamiliar environment. But it took less than a day to realize that she was adjusting with absolutely no difficulty. She fell asleep without a peep that first night along side her essential nighttime crew- the dog, the giraffe and the sound machine-- and slept through the night just as she does as home. We were utterly amazed! And naps came effortlessly as long as we put her down before she became overtired. In essence, during our four day kith and kin extravaganza, she played hard and she slept hard, maintaining a well-balanced temperament in the middle. Her adaptability was astounding.

There were too many precious moments to list here verbatim, but let's just say a level of effervescent solace filled the house from beginning to end, like a feast baking in the oven or a fresh fire in the fireplace. Papa played his guitar for her. Stella sang to her and gave her endless lessons in the interests of a five-year old. (Stella really did an incredible job. Not an ounce of jealousy or competition, just straight-up pure love and affection. Go Stella-bean.) Ama held her endlessly, got down on the floor with her and took dozens of adorable photos. CB was a pro at laugh-inducing silliness. Abby the elder golden retriever preferred a spot on the floor next to the baby. Auntie Steph gave her a stuffed bunny that she greeted like a long lost friend, as if to say where have you been? Friends and family filled the living room with Opal in the center, showing off her ability to roll over, play throw-the-toy and blow bubbles, shrieking with delight as she quickly understood the sure-fire ways to get her audience to laugh and cheer. Cause and effect, baby. And so it begins.

All in all, a ton of joy.

But by Tuesday, Opal had still not met Grandpa Jack. As luck had it, he came down with a case of pneumonia just before we arrived. He was no longer contagious after a few days of antibiotics, but he just wasn't feeling up to visiting until our last evening in town. It would have been heartbreaking not to have been able to introduce the two of them during this trip, because our next time out would likely be after her first birthday. Fortunately, he snuck in at the 11th hour and was able to spend a short amount of time with Opal before her bedtime. He watched with a comic-strip grin as she performed her mastered tasks like a one-man show off Broadway. He was also there to witness her very first word: Hi Da (Hi dad.). Whether or not it was intentional or its meaning understood, the word came out clear as a bell and how wonderful for Grandpa to be a part of the intimate crowd who responded with shrills and clapping.

During this brief, but rich and impactful, trip, we noticed Opal collaborating with the world around her in a way she hadn't before. She's no longer a scrumptious, yet passive, bystander and she's capable of so much more then just lying adorably still for photos and plopping onto a variety of laps. Beyond a doubt, she was interacting with her visitors, studying faces, reaching for toys, fingers, the dog, rolling, tumbling, smiling, repeating the actions that resulted in the most attention from her fans. It really was something to watch her engaging in this way.

This quality of being an active participant in her environment bloomed with wild freedom during an afternoon visit to the Franklin Park Conservatory, which is an other-worldly botanical landmark and one of Columbus' finest treasures. An indoor horticultural paradise, it is also home to a butterfly house and many of the blown glass works of art by artist Dale Chihuly. We had Opal in the sling, facing out, and walked her through room after room of protected ecosystems--the desert, the rainforest, the palm house--taking our good old time letting her gaze at the different colors, soak in the varied climates and run her fingers over leaves and through moss, like so many heads of hair. I could feel her body respond to the cascading shades of green, presumably understanding these unspeaking layers of life on a much more visceral level then any of her adult attendants were able to. She was clearly digging the whole experience, but the piece de resistance was the butterfly room.
Technicolor pieces of Chihuly's glass rose from the earth among the plant life, having the appearance of being organic while at the same time looking outrageous enough to stand out from the serenity in screaming juxtaposition. The butterflies flocked to a red and orange swirling glass piece as tall as the ceiling that was part fire, part water, part wind. Opal squealed, kicked and squiggled as if to say, let me go play with them!! She flapped her little arms like wings.
At one point, a butterfly landed on another, much younger, baby who was visiting the gardens with her parents passively from her stroller. The father, a friendly, familiar fellow, handed the butterfly over to me, placing it right on my finger as if it were a trained parakeet. The butterfly didn’t fly but didn’t seem physically wounded, either. It crawled around on my finger and fluttered its wings like a dog wagging its tail. Opal was elated! She pointed and gently touched it, as if to say LOOK MOM! giggling, squealing and kicking her little legs like a swimmer. It was truly the kind of brilliant moment that stopped us all in our tracks. Strangers even stopped to have a look.
Opal was captivated in a way we had not yet seen and she was more than happy to generously share her blissful little corner of experience with the rest of us.

It was truly a successful trip on all counts.

When I returned home, my mother-in-law said that children naturally experience "milestones" during travels; they grow up a little bit each time. Maybe it's because they are challenged in ways they may not necessarily be at home, or put in situations that allow them to behave differently. Or maybe it's as simple as being taken out of their comfort zone. Regardless, she said she saw it happen every time she took Jesse on a trip. He returned having matured in some tiny way. And once they were home, he was no longer the same boy as before they left. That younger version of him was left to memory.

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