In my twenties and thirties, I loved flying. Going to the airport meant I was going on an adventure. It didn’t matter if I was headed to Appleton, Wisconsin or Konya, Turkey, I got the same rush of excitement. I loved the hubbub of the airports and was sure everyone else was feeling the same thrill. But since my health has deteriorated, that zest for adventure has been replaced with terror.
My brother John has been ill recently, so I wanted to visit him. This meant gathering up all my courage and making plans to fly to Chicago. I started packing two weeks before my departure, hoping that would calm my nerves. Being prepared helps, but since I started having panic attacks in airports and on planes a couple of years ago, I never know how I’m going to feel when I travel.
Don dropped me at the airport(LAX) at 4:30am, a good hour before my flight. I hoped an early morning flight would be less chaotic, but I was wrong. The airport was already packed with travelers. Getting through TSA is a time-consuming process for me because I can’t separate from my little backpack. It’s not because I’m neurotic, although I can be, it’s because I’m attached by a tube that runs from my stomach to the 500-ml bag of enteral feeding formula, that my little backpack holds. I am dependent on it, as it provides 90% of my nutrition. So, when I fly, I allow a good 15 minutes for a special “pat down,” by a female TSA agent. They are always respectful and polite, and I try to make it easy for them by smiling and being cheerful. Onlookers must wonder what’s up with this skinny lady, getting the big search? Do I look like I might be concealing a weapon? Maybe I’m not as innocent as I look. Let them wonder.
After finishing with TSA, I headed for my gate. I missed Henry already. He’s flown with me for the past four trips I made home to Wisconsin, so it felt weird without him. But I knew taking him to my brother’s house was a bad idea because his dog is not friendly, and I didn’t want to cause any trouble.
As I walked to my gate, Henry-less, I noticed the airport employees setting up for the day. They were unlocking shop doors on the concourse, counting money in their cash registers, turning on lights and restocking shelves with merchandise. I wondered what it was like to come to the airport every day. It couldn’t possibly be the hot-bed of terror for them that it was for me. I put myself if their shoes for a minute and saw the crowded concourse as an entertaining, lively place to work. It couldn’t get boring with so much activity. If I was still well enough to work, I could see working in an airport. With daily tasks to perform, I would appreciate the hustle and bustle around me. This is the same feeling I have about parties. Festive gatherings and celebrations make me nervous, but if I have a job to do, I can enjoy them.
I pictured myself working at the Duty-Free shop, waiting on customers, bidding them a safe trip and straightening up the shelves. Briefly, as an imaginary airport employee, the frenzied terminal felt like a fun place to be.
For the next thirty minutes, as I waited to board the plane, I indulged my daydream and detached from the reality of my surroundings. Once I got in my seat, I knew I’d be fine. I chose United Airlines because they had a direct flight from LA to Chicago, even though they’d gotten a lot of bad press recently about beating up customers. When buying my ticket, two months in advance, I spent extra money to sit in the Panic Prevention section in the front of the plane. Most people call this section Business or First Class, but it’s ideal for people like me, who freak out on planes. Even though I’m 5’4” tall and weigh 75 pounds, for some reason, I’ve started to feel squished into airline seats. I don’t know how average and husky folks can stand it.
I was not impressed with United Airlines. The aircraft was old and scrappy, and the flight attendants were brusque. The Panic Prevention section was disappointing too. Nothing about it helped me feel protected or pampered, except that I was near the front. No more United for me.
Thankfully, the flight was uneventful and I got to my brother’s house emotionally un-rumpled. Spending a few days with him, in his lovely home in Highland Park, Illinois, was a treat. I’m so thankful he’s alive. I’m so thankful he’s getting stronger again, after the H1N1 virus put him in a coma and nearly killed him. He’s come through a lot of physical therapy, and has learned to eat and walk again. I’m happy we could walk a few blocks to downtown Highland Park to watch the parade on the 4th of July. He’s on the mend, and I’m so grateful.
Now I’m off to my mom’s in Wisconsin, where all four siblings will gather for her 80th birthday.