As an anxious air traveler I am frequently not the most serene person with whom to travel. Consequently, on a recent Sunday morning, traveling from Florida to New York with my husband and son, I was pleased by the ease of a process that is often so taxing. With few travelers about, flights on time and virtually no lines, we sped through security exceptionally fast.
Upon boarding, I noticed a boy, actually a young man – he looked to be about eighteen or nineteen, seated in my son’s assigned seat, 29A. It was a window in a row of three seats.
Unable to get three seats together, my seventeen year old son requested the solitary window seat immediately behind my husband and me.
Thinking the airline may have double booked the seat, I asked the teenager if he had 29A. He replied no, that his seat was in fact 29B. Then, with a shrug he offhandedly continued, “But, it doesn’t matter.”
Stuffing my bag in the overhead, I paused and calmly replied that actually it does matter and that my son was holding a ticket with seat 29A. “It doesn’t matter,” he curtly retorted and again I reiterated this time more firmly, that yes, indeed it does matter.
Flyers prone to anxiety can easily become a bit anal and/or mercurial and I’m no exception.
A courteous request on his part to switch seats would have diffused the situation. Given this cocky aloofness however, I concluded that here, in row 29, was an obstinate jerk.
While grudgingly rising, this young man turned to my son who was now settling into his window seat, and flatly stated, “I hope you don’t to need to leave your seat because I’m not going to get up.”
Did this snarky entitled brat just tell my kid he wouldn’t get up should my son need to use the bathroom?! Was this his idea of some kind of payback for losing the coveted window seat?
The outraged mother bear when awakened can render years of practiced yoga breathing virtually obsolete. Nonetheless, I stifled the impulse to go on the attack. After all, at almost eighteen, my son needs to learn how to handle himself in difficult situations.
Also, wanting to avoid a scene, especially since my son was unfazed, I channeled my mature, even keeled passenger self and responded, “This is air travel, let’s try to be kind.”
Before settling into our seats, however, I turned to my husband and not too quietly pronounced, “If he keeps up, I’ll have that freakin flight attendant here faster than you can say ‘Fly the Friendly Skies!”
My son’s red face coupled with his discreet, “Mom, stop,” was all I needed to sit down and start a few rounds of mindful breathing.
When a dad with a squirmy toddler took the empty aisle seat next to this kid, completing the row’s sandwich, I admittedly felt a tad of smug gratification.
I texted my son and offered to switch seats; surreptitiously savoring the opportunity to have a few words with 29B. “I’m fine, mom. I like him. I think we’ll be good friends,” he wittily replied.
I wish I could say my offering the young man the granola bar my son declined was a gesture of compassion but truth be told it felt less like genuine thoughtfulness than a callous attempt to use kindness as a weapon. He refused it.
Settling in, I remained hyper attuned, eyes and ears open, ready to pounce should there be just cause. That’s when I noticed 29B’s behavior during the safety instructions. If I was hyper attuned to him, he was even more hyper attuned to the flight attendant; following each set of directions with an acute attentiveness rarely seem among fellow passengers. He attentively examined the safety card instructions and he was wide eyed while noting, as directed, the location of his seat cushion, oxygen mask and nearest exit.
The perspective shift, the “ding ding” moment, was swift. Could it be that this kid was scared?? “Of course, that makes sense,” my husband, (the one who frequently sees what I can’t when I’m angry) remarked when I shared the observation.
Suddenly, I wasn’t sure if this was an obnoxious brat or a kid full of anxiety and dread.
Having parented and worked with children who have suffered trauma and adverse life experiences, I know all too well the myriad of ways stress can manifest itself and how crippling it can be when it does. Outrage, even among those of us who should know better, can be intoxicating and can easily blind us to alternative perspectives.
Still, I was cautious. Observing him as he boldly leaned over my nodding-off son to peer out the window during takeoff I wondered if this was in fact nervousness or just plain disrespect
Mid flight my husband again offered my son and 29B a granola bar. This time they each accepted. I turned to let the young man know the bar contained peanuts in case he had allergies.
He asked me if I knew when we were landing. He appeared nervous. When I told him we were scheduled to land around 2:00 he appeared agitated asking me if I was sure as he thought it was 1:30. I confirmed it was closer to two. He took a deep breath and sat back.
The final approach was quite unnerving. While the skies were clear, the winds were high and despite the pilot’s forewarning that it would be bumpy, the jolts and bounces were above and beyond what I’ve previously encountered.
My typical unease however, took a backseat to my interest in how 29B was faring.
I noted he had his forehead pressed against the seat in front of him.
“Is it always this bumpy?” I heard him timidly ask my son.
I recalled asking the same of a flight attendant back in the 80’s when I was scared and traveling alone.
“Are you okay?” I heard my son ask a minute or so later as the turbulent descent continued. “Is this your first flight?” my son continued.
Though fully immersed in my own stomach churning hell, I did hear the young man say, “It’s one of my first.” “It’ll be okay,” I heard my son remark.
They continued chatting and as we approached the runway I heard 29B fretfully ask, “Where’s the runway? I can’t see it.” It was at this point I wished I could have switched seats with my son.
Though my son’s remark that he too couldn’t see the runway, but that it “must be there somewhere,” was truthful and innocuous, I wanted 29B at that moment to feel comforted; to know how normal it is to be unable to see the runway until seconds before landing.
No matter how much we know or think we know, life’s journey will continue to test, to trigger and to awaken us to the fact that we know fare less than we think we do; especially in regard to the stories of our fellow human travelers.
Who would have thought, “I’m not going to get up” was in actuality, “I’m not going to be able to get up?”
Author, Neal Gaiman in his forward to the book: All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown, writes:
The gulf that exists between us as people is that when we look at each other we might see faces, skin color, gender, race, or attitudes, but we don’t see, we can’t see, the stories. And once we hear each other’s stories we realize that the things we see as dividing us are, all too often, illusions, falsehoods: that the walls between us are in truth no thicker than scenery.
29 B helped my husband get his bag down and quickly departed the plane. My husband and son exited shortly after and, after gathering belongings I trailed behind a few minutes later. My son later informed me that when he deplaned 29B was waiting at the gate for him.
Apparently the young man waited to shake my son’s hand and to tell him it was nice to meet him.
Suzy DeYoung has three children, ages 24, 20 and 18. She started her career in television working as a production assistant and segment producer for a variety of programs. Following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, she became active in Newtown’s recovery efforts joining a number of community initiatives including co-founding the annual, Newtown YogaFestival. Presently, she works with The Avielle Foundation in Newtown, CT, established in honor of seven-year-old Avielle Rose Richman who lost her life in the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shootings. Her first book: A Gift of Hindsight: Reflections on Successes, Failures, and Lessons Learned from Seasoned Parents and Parenting Experts will be published this year.