The story of flying solo with a toddler winds up being more about the nature of people—how some are very kind, some are not so kind, and most hover in the cleft in-between—then about how Opal actually did on the plane.
My primary fear in flying alone with Opal was that, while in the airport, she'd run into a mass of exiting passengers and either get swallowed by the parade of mindless speed or run over by a a half-dozen unyielding rolly-bags. I opted out of putting Opal on a kid-leash, in spite of the many unexpected recommendations to do so, and was armed with a decent umbrella stroller to wheel her right to the gate (Grammy's brilliant idea) along with two carry-ons that dangled from the handles, meticulously stuffed with toys, food, the essentials.
The characters who made appearances throughout our journey were numerous.
Susan was the first. A woman with kinky hair and slight lisp who stood in front of us in the security line at the Denver airport. She was a mother flying alone this time, who offered to help with the whole disordered process: taking Opal out of the stroller before collapsing it, removing our shoes and jackets, separating the food and liquids from our bags and prying B (the blessed bunny) from Opals clutches. In the midst of Opal's missing-B wails, the bag of her toys fell over and spilled its contents onto the floor as I tripped and almost took a face-first fall into the chest of a random security guy. But Susan stayed close, even went so far as to pick up the contents from the spilled bag and asking they put a rush on the bin containing B. Her kindness had a powerful buoying effect as we gathered our pieces, re-grouped and descended into the shuttle (real choo-choo!). I felt unfazed by the chaos and protected by her brief alliance long after we parted. A hefty reminder of the powerful impact a stranger can have.
And there were many others like her. The two men who shared a row with us on—an Indian man who called himself Z and a twenties-something boy in hip-hop garb who smelled fainting of liqueur—both offered friendliness, camaraderie, support. The man across the isle, close to my age, had two daughters and a single thumb that'd been adorned in red polish before he left. He showed Opal photos of his daughters and his dog on his I-phone and helped me with the crucial shlep that took place as we exited from our seat to the gate-checked stroller. Even the flight attendants' generous dolling out of smiles and sweet comments made a difference. I slurped up the support like a horse at a trough.
Opal did amazing, in spite of the mounting factors that added to the situation's overall discomfort. The fact is, Opal cannot sleep on an airplane. In her little toddler-brain, slumber is synonymous with darkness, quiet and comfort, all of which are grossly lacking on a flight. She is also used to having room to run around, stretch out and lie down, again factors that are non-existent in the two-foot lap-space we paid for. Expecting a toddler to understand that she should remain still and quiet for the 2.5+ hour duration of the flight is nothing less than ludicrous. She was neither still nor quiet, but she was remarkably pleasant and receptive to the toys and distractions I brought for her, becoming restless and annoyed only at the tail end. And by then, her UPPA MAMAs were drowned out by the harsh white noise of the landing aircraft.
By the time we reached Ama and Stella who stood with wide open arms in front of the quintessential Columbus Polar Bear mural, we were surprisingly un-shabby. It wasn't until we reached the safety of Ama and Papa's house did little Opal allow herself to fully melt down from the cumulative exhaustion of travel along with no naps and a rough night of sleep the night prior. She cried for hours that evening and night, not wanting to be put down. By that point, I was airing heavily on the side of depletion so Ama stepped in to help (bless you, Ama) and by the next day, Opal and I were both back in action.
The flight home was tougher. Again, filled with the kind people and the thorny people and the day-altering variables that are far beyond reach, the kind that only really exist in the bubble-world of travel.
The travel-home day was kicked off by the fact that there was a 2-turned-to-3 hour departure delay, discovered only upon arrival at the airport.
I waited in line for over an hour behind scads of angry travelers who needed to re-route their connecting flights. Finally, a fellow traveler who was behind me in line took my plight into his own hands and asked the ticket lady why I should have to wait if all I (and many others who were needlessly waiting) had to do was check a bag. She blew him off. I went back to the counter to a different lady, repeating my case and she said I could've gone to one of the kiosks at any time. Ugh. When asked why this information wasn't communicated, she replied with sincere overwhelm, "Sorry, we are just SO busy."
Luckily, my mom was able to wait at the airport with Opal and I. She wheeled Opal around in the pretty-pink stroller to regard the airplanes and zoo-animal murals and then bought us dinner at Max and Erma's, where the glass of wine I ordered wound up being exceedingly helpful in the coming hours.
I allowed Opal much more freedom in the airport on the way home. She got out and pushed the stroller, ran around in empty areas, climbed onto the chairs to look out the window at the taxiing airplanes and tiny frenetic trucks buzzing below. She stood off to the side and hollered greetings at kiddos and passing travelers. And the few times she resisted my shepherding, all it took was a mention of some key words—choices, listening, time-out—and she was quickly back at my heels. I now see how off the mark it was for my main concern to be whether or not Opal would behave in the airport.
To put it mildly, many of the people on the plane returning from Ohio were unhappy for reasons completely separate from Opal and myself. Their travel days were shot. They missed their families. They were exhausted and still had a lengthy travel road ahead. Some presumably had to miss the following day of work because so many re-routing flights were sold out. And so on.
The temperature of the crowd was evident immediately, when many of Opal's greetings, as we climbed onto the plane, were returned with sapped and stony faces. (Always a heartbreaker for a mama when the efforts of her endlessly sincere child are ignored.)
Mercifully, our seat-mates on the flight home were teddy bears. David wore a kool-aid pink mohawk and his wife, Amy, donned a half dozen face piercings and carried a skull-print duffel bag. They greeted us as old friends— a warmth that was palpable against the steely backdrop—in spite of the fact that they, too, had missed a connecting flight and had no choice but to stay in Denver for the night before being re-routed the following afternoon.
The 3-hour departure delay put us so far beyond Opal's morning nap that she wasn't given much of a window at all on the plane without being dog-tired. The entire flight, also a total of 3-hours, consisted of doing all I could to distract her from this fact, along with her general and compounding annoyance of the predicament at hand. But frankly, she was too far gone to be dissuaded very easily from her fatigue. Food interested her for brief moments. She enjoyed the DVD of the turtle named Franklin that went swimming with his friends (thank you, Ama!) for two delicious stints of 10 minutes each. The Thomas-the-Train Magnadoodle made frequent appearances, as did a few books and the page of return-address labels Ama gave us to use as stickers. But the most intriguing and mercifully time-draining activities of all wound up being pouring cheesy crackers from one cup to another (thus creating another layer of mess and irritation for those surrounding us, but what can you do?) as well as the ever-entertaining SkyMall magazine.
However, these activities hardly filled even a fraction of our 3-hour journey and were punctuated with squirms, whines, kicks and MAMA PICK UPs! As a mother, I couldn't blame her for a moment for her justifiable grumpiness. And though I can't say how the other passengers were feeling, aside from our blessed seat-mates there was certainly an overall air of zero-tolerance.
And then there were the friendly-sky flight attendants.
When Opal got particularly agitated in our seat, I carried her down the isle—seat belt sign permitting—to try and calm her. Requiring a level of concentration in itself to tote a 22-pound toddler up and down the razor-thin rows without bumping and knocking into people, I did all I could. I paused at the back of the plane, where the flight attendants loiter, to stand still and bounce Opal in place. Yes, I was in the way, but I was in the way no matter where I stood or sat, so it seemed. Both flight attendants flashed me unapproving gazes before one of them finally spoke.
In a tone that was so condescending and aggressive, it caused my body to react by flinching, he told me I needed to move out of the way.
Well, can I stand somewhere else? I said, perhaps a little flustered. The baby in my arms had finally achieved a moderate level of peace.
Ma'am, he said, you are breaking the rules to be back here. You need to get out of the way!
I told him he didn't need to be so intense and rude about it. That he clearly hadn't traveled with a toddler and I was just trying to find a place to be, even for a few minutes.
The man then yelled something about how bad of a mother I was to not care if my child hit the ceiling (?) and how rude I was being (for expecting so much of them?). Then he followed me to my seat and continued his rant about how all I wanted to do was to blatantly break rules and he demanded my ticket so he could report me to the supervisor. ( I did not give him my ticket.)
And that was where we suddenly entered the twilight zone. Nobody was defending me from this guy but me, with a crying baby in my lap, no less. Not even my teddybear seat neighbors spoke up. I re-stated (3rd time, 4th?) that I had no problem with rules, but that he simply needed some kindness training. That the level of his aggression was unacceptable.
He concluded our confrontation by yelling (direct quote) your opinion here doesn't matter!
I sat in my seat and cried. A whiny, restless baby continued to squirm in my lap, not a single comforting word or hand reached out for us—and I concluded that I was pretty much on my own here.
For the 1.5 hours or so remaining, I avoided the back of the plane, put on blinders, made no eye-contact and concerned myself with nothing more than caring for my little girl until we slid conclusively into our gate and into Jesse's awaiting arms.
So yes, we made it successfully to and from Ohio, with nothing more than a double-dose of severe exhaustion between the two of us. (We both caught colds upon our return.)
I learned very quickly that the success of traveling solo with a toddler relies so much on variables that are out of one's control. It was essential to feel like I had someone—consistently—on my side and you simply can't predict such things.
But the time spent with family by and large out-shined the rocky travel that bookended the experience. Though I felt it was imperative to document the journey in all honesty, it is the memories from our visit with Ama, Papa, Uncle Chris and Stella that I'll cultivate, allowing—encouraging—all else to fade.
If nothing else, these kinds of experiences do show you what you're capable of. And in the many days that have passed since we've returned, everything home-related seems uncomplicated and exceedingly manageable. A residual bonus that comes from veering away from the sweet comforts of normal life, I suppose, before returning to it like a cherished loved one.