The Boeing 737 was late leaving Vancouver. Not very late – only about 15 minutes. De rigueur for many airlines, but not my beloved Alaska, who always seemed to shuttle me back and forth between L.A. and Seattle perfectly on schedule. After a glorious, eleven day vacation in the Pacific Northwest, including several days visiting family in British Columbia, I was headed back – somewhat reluctantly – to Los Angeles. I found my seat in Row 15, on the aisle, next to a pleasant, middle-aged couple that spoke with soft accents I couldn’t quite place. As I stowed my carry-on and got situated, a girl’s voice came on over the plane’s intercom. She sounded green; fumbling her words and nervously halting before announcing our destination or expected arrival time. She’s probably training, I thought, feeling bad for her.
And then came the words I seldom hear but always dread: ‘We are expecting turbulence.’ The young, inexperienced voice inspired little confidence as she informed us that the flight attendants would have to remain seated until somewhere south of Seattle, due to storms in the area. I sighed, opened up a book and tried to read, hoping I’d magically grow so immersed in it by the time we were in flight that I wouldn’t notice the bad weather. I glanced down at the ruby and diamond band on my right ring finger – my mother’s ring – and said a silent prayer.
I wasn’t always afraid to fly. As a little girl growing up in Alaska, I used to fly frequently: to Seattle to visit my grandparents, to Hawaii or Mexico on vacation with my mom and dad. Takeoff was my favorite part: the taxi down the runway and the roar of the jet engines as the plane accelerated into the sky. ‘Up, up, up and away,’ I’d say with delight, as the plane rose above the landscape and the town and roads and cars and buildings were reduced to ant-size. Even the fact that during the cold Alaska winters, planes were sometimes held on the runway in order to ‘de-ice’ the wings didn’t faze me – just par for the course being an Alaska girl. Now, I have no doubt that hearing that phrase would send terror shooting down my spine. Oh, how things change.
On this current Alaska flight from YVR to LAX, we easily soared to 10,000 feet – the approved elevation for electronic devices. False alarm, I thought, just the pilots being extra cautious. I began to relax. But somewhere on the way to 30,000 feet, the bumps began. Not too bad at first, but gradually worse. Eventually, the pilot’s voice – barely discernible over the engine noise – came over the loudspeaker: ‘Well, folks,’ he said, in a vaguely reassuring, grandfatherly tone, ‘we’ve got reports of thunderstorms from here to Portland, and the winds are moving from east to west, causing the rough air we’re experiencing. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to ask everyone to remain in their seats with seatbelts securely fastened for their safety.’
Dammit, I thought. Seeking comfort, I scanned my immediate surroundings for a friendly face. The couple next to me was sound asleep. The kind-faced, older gentleman across the aisle looked like a good prospect, but he was absorbed in his kindle and didn’t make eye contact. Envious of his calm demeanor, I reluctantly put in my ear buds and searched iTunes for the happiest, poppiest song in my library. As Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da by the Beatles played, I stared out the window into the cloudy grey abyss, the plane shimmying, my heart rate rising. What I wouldn’t give for a shot of whiskey – or three – right about now, but the flight attendants had to remain seated too: no beverage service.
Calm down, I told myself, it’s just bad weather. It’ll be over soon. But the plane wouldn’t stop shaking, the visibility wouldn’t get clear, and even Paul McCartney was not helping matters. I looked down at the ring on my finger, twisted it, and asked my mom for help. ‘It’s going to be OK,’ a voice told me. ‘I won’t let anything happen to you.’ And I thought about my mother, imagined her as my angel watching over me, imagined her keeping me safe, and I twisted the ring and twisted it and twisted it. But no calm came. Just the plane, pushing through choppy air, and me, gripping my armrest for dear life and praying for it to stop.
‘Mom?’ I thought desperately. And then, with full force, a realization hit me, as powerful as the storm we were flying through, and suddenly, I was weeping, unable to stop the deluge spilling forth from my eyes. My mom wasn’t going to save me. Not today. Not ever. She never had.
My mother was my best friend, my world, the most important person in my life. I had no doubt of the fierceness of her love for me or her desire for my happiness above all else. But keeping me safe was another thing entirely. My sweet, beautiful mother had always been too fragile for this world, and from a very early age, I grew up protecting her, watching over her, and making sure she was OK. It’s what therapists call ‘parentalizing,’ which is essentially a parent/child role reversal.
From the time I was around 8 or 9, I remember filling that role. Whether I was consoling her after a bout with dad’s drinking, after harsh words from my grandmother that cut too deeply, or one of the many times that she was depressed and so very sad, I was always the one taking care of my mom.
This continued well after I left home and moved to Los Angeles. During our frequent phone conversations, I’d edit the details of my life so as not to upset her. No matter how hopeless I felt during my lowest moments as a broke, struggling twenty-something trying to make it as an actress in Hollywood, I always painted the truth with an optimistic brush. I couldn’t tell her how I really felt – desperate and alone – because I knew that she’d drive herself crazy worrying about me. The few times I tried the unedited truth, the pain it caused her always cost me more than the temporary relief provided by unloading my burdens on to the one person I wanted to confide them in. So I avoided the unedited truth at all costs, and instead I found a way to always make things OK.
And now here I was, 30,000 feet in the air somewhere over the Washington/Oregon border, exposed, vulnerable, openly weeping, gripping the armrest, praying for safety. But no one was coming to rescue me. Like so many times before, I was on my own. I’d just have to steel myself, and wait for the storm to pass.
And eventually, it did. The air smoothed out, the sun broke through the clouds. And everything was OK again. Just like it always was. But as I twisted that ruby ring, breathed a deep sigh of relief and allowed myself to sink back into my seat, I knew something fundamental: my parents were dead and gone, yes. But life circumstance had only made what was always true more apparent. As much as my parents loved me, as much as they’d supported me, I had always been my own safety, I had always been my own security, and when push came to shove, I had always relied on myself.
Ever since childhood, I had been seeking out a safe place to rest my head. But I’d only found more of what I’d already known: people who were broken – just like my mother – and needed me to take care of them. And on that Alaska Airlines flight from Vancouver to LAX, I knew that I had to change. I had to stop trying to fix the broken ones, and I had to find someplace safe outside of myself. Until I did that, I would always be gripping the armrest, hanging on for dear life. I would always be afraid to fly.
Until next time, friends.