When we left Oakland, the flight was full and since we were flying standby, my little family was split up among a number of middle seats, rows apart. It wasn't our usual practice, but since it was a relatively short trip, we slid into our seats and off we went.
My wife and I have had a practice for all the years that we have traveled together on airplanes, where we hold hands as we take off and land. It became a little more important ritual after my father died in a small plane crash. We came to understand just how difficult those transitions are: leaving the ground and returning to it. We like those processes to be as gentle as possible. This time, as we were separated by more than arm's length, we were left to make the leap all by ourselves. I certainly began thinking nice thoughts, but I was suddenly overtaken by a vision of a fireball hurtling toward me from the front of the plane. I imagined how quickly things could go wrong. I was stuck there until I heard the landing gear retract into the belly of the aircraft.
For the rest of the flight, I found myself wedged between two gentlemen who had less to say to each other than they had to say to me, so I was left with my thoughts. I tried to brush off those scary visions, and took comfort in the relatively quiet passage over the Rocky Mountains. When we made our final approach, the image of the cockpit bursting into flame and collapsing into the poorly navigated earth came rushing back. I closed my eyes and listened to the standard sounds of a jet opening its flaps and braking to a stop. Everything was normal when I opened my eyes again. Where did all this doubt come from?
On our return trip, my wife and I made a point to get seats next to one another, while my daring teenage son decided to stake out his own window seat. The takeoff was simple enough, and having that familiar hand to hold pushed those dark thoughts from just a few days previous to the back. In the row in front of us sat a father with his three-year old son, and they kept up a lively chatter about how planes work and what was happening next until it was time for the little guy to fall fast asleep. Just a few moments before landing back in Oakland. There was a little bit of what the captain referred to as "choppy air," and the plane swung and hopped just a bit on the way in. That's when little Rowan evacuated his complimentary beverage. And his peanuts. Both packages. I didn't have time to think much about what was happening, but as this little traveler and his dad began to deal with the after effects of re-entry, I noticed I was still holding my wife's hand. We smiled at each other, partly in reminisce of our own little boy, who was dealing with things rows ahead of us, and partly because we had made it back to the ground. Where we belong.