Sunday, April 17, 2011

Seeking a higher plane

As a typical Leo, I have always longed for time in the spotlight, and if what Andy Warhol said about us all is true, we're all looking for our 15 minutes of fame, whatever our star sign. It is, however, with a great deal of relief and joy that I'm writing this post as opposed to actually getting my name on the front page of the papers in the past week. Let me explain...

We had a wonderful week-long break in North Carolina. Blake spent lots of time doing early morning arts and crafts with Granny Karla, which meant Matt and I got pretty used to getting to sleep til about 7:30. We got to catch up with the Thompson clan and see how Henry has grown since we first met him back in December 2008. The Jones girls are true sweethearts, very polite and grown-up, and Davis Egerton is also a cutie. It was so nice to catch up with Lela, Kathryn and Katie...on the two nights I got to hang out with them I swear it didn't feel like we were too different from our teenage selves. We met up with the Watsons and Fieldses in Greensboro and I managed to do a bit of shopping. We explored some of Hickory's parks and Matt finally got to see Lake Hickory, which he'd thought was just a myth based on his previous 3 visits. We ate Homer burgers and Bojangles chicken and biscuits, drank sweet tea, and had several indulgences with ice cream (Noah is a fan). The azaleas and dogwood were starting to bloom and it was a lovely spring week in NC.

We were due to fly back on the Thursday before Noah's birthday, and that afternoon we had a little mini party for him. Henry and Colby, along with their cousin Callie, came over, and we had some cake and ice cream for the kids. Noah seemed to love the cake (and it wasn't homemade!). Soon after, we headed to the airport to get our flight back to London. Saturday was his actual birthday, and we had Bishy, Tom, Lykke, Emma and Maya coming over to celebrate. Traveling with young kids, you'll know if you've ever done it, is not the easiest thing, but on Thursday we were all doing pretty well. We were nice and early at the airport, everyone had had some food and we were ready....if all went well, the boys would sleep during the flight and we'd wake up in London on Friday.

We took off in early-evening mellow sunshine, but about a minute or so in, there was a loud, mechanical pop from the right side of the plane. Matt and I looked at each other over Blake's head and I'm sure the worry in Matt's face was immediately reflected in my own. Several seconds later, a metallic-smelling smoke filled the cabin, and Matt said, "That's not good." I am no stranger to the skies, but my previous scary flying experiences mainly had to do with bad turbulence, and one incident where the plane I was in was struck by lightning (they're apparently designed to handle this, so although it was terrifying at the time, it turns out it wasn't in any way a worrying situation). Trying to contain my anxiety, I held Noah tightly and gave Blake a pat. Surely it was going to be ok, I told myself. A few moments later, and the pilot came on to report that there'd be a failure in the plane's right engine. I didn't even think to question at the time, but there were only 2 engines. And now one of them wasn't working. And we're airborne. The good news, of course, is that we had only just taken off and were therefore well within landing distance back at the Charlotte airport. The pilot came on again to announce that he would be performing a "normal landing" back at Charlotte, and the way he stressed normal implied to me that it would, yes, be a normal landing - as in no emergency exit doors or slides needed, no need to figure out if the seat you're sitting on will actually double as a flotation device - but in a fairly emergency situation. He thought we would be on the ground within 10 minutes, but explained that because the plane had a full tank of fuel which would normally be used to get us across the Atlantic, our landing was going to be tricky because of the plane's being so heavy. Great, I hadn't even thought of that part! Apparently in situations like this some planes actually drop fuel, but that wasn't the case with us, I'm pretty sure.

It has probably taken me about 10 minutes to write the above, and in my daily life 10 minutes just passes by in a flash. Let me tell you that those 10 minutes on that day were surely the longest I've ever lived. The atmosphere on the plane was calm - apart from a screaming baby in the row behind us - and I would have to say that I was trying to project a calm exterior for the boys but on the inside I was just running through all the horrible possibilities, and I'll be honest, fearing the worst. To think that we put so much faith in some pieces of metal and forces of physics which I'll admit to not ever really probably wanting to learn much all suddenly seemed crazy. The fact that Noah was wondering why the lady he'd been playing Peekaboo with had suddenly lost interest was heartbreaking - I just kept thinking, "Two days before his birthday...please let him get to see this birthday and many more...please..." Blake was being somewhat quiet and pensive, and Matt explained to him that the plane was "broken" and that we were going to have to turn around. Blake seemed to accept that but I do wonder if he didn't think that was strange.

Finally, it was time to land, and I held Noah as tightly as I could while Matt gave Blake a reassuring cuddle. I remember feeling helpless that I couldn't manage to hold all three of them at the same time. The landing was smoother than many landings I've had, so we were thankful that that portion of the situation didn't present any issues. Applause rang out in the cabin and the sense of relief was palpable. We had to stop on the runway while the brakes of the plane were examined, to check they weren't damaged by the heavy landing, and then the good engine was shut down and we were towed to the gate.

In the queue where we then stood to be re-booked onto different flights, there was a range of emotions on display. A woman behind me who had been headed to the UK on vacation with her friend had decided just to cancel her trip, saying that she wasn't a "good flier" and that she didn't think she could do it again. Fair enough, but not really an option for those of us who were trying to get home. Her friend said that she had been scared, but that she couldn't imagine how awful it would have been for those of with kids. I smiled dumbly and nodded: it was pretty awful. Some people seemed annoyed and irritated, and although I think I probably felt some of that, the overriding feeling I had at the time was thankfulness to be alive. Gratefulness that it had happened when it did, and not 5 hours into the flight over the darkness of the North Atlantic. Relief that we'd had a competent pilot and crew who landed us safely, in relative calm. Relief to be on terra firma...

After being rebooked on Saturday's flight (one direct flight a day to Gatwick, and Friday's had filled up by time we got to a ticket agent), we had to take all our bags and try to find the van to the hotel where we would stay for the night. Matt had thought we should try to get back to Mom and Dad's but by the time we were through with the re-booking, it was so late and I thought it would be safer for us to just get somewhere nearby and let Mom come for us the next day. By this point it was 11:00 at night, and we were all pretty exhausted. We waited for the van for a bit, but then finally gave up and went to get a cab, but then had to deal with the hassle of waiting to find one that had not one, but two, carseats. In the end the boys rode in the middle seat of a mini-van in these folded-down seats with kid-sized straps on them. I couldn't imagine what would happen in an accident, so I sat behind them with my arms over each of their chests. They were asleep the entirety of the 15-minute ride.

In the hotel room, our musical beds for the night and trying to predict what configuration would give us all the best night's sleep meant that Matt slept with Blake, and I slept with Noah. Lying in the dark, I could not stop my thoughts. I kept imagining how awful it would be to hear reports of what the black box had found, and how I just couldn't imagine anything happening to our precious boys. Finally, eventually, I fell asleep.

There were some good things to come out of our delay. The next day we went back to Hickory, and that evening I finally got to see The King's Speech, something I'd been wanting to do for at least 8 weeks. On Saturday we got to see my cousin Amy who had been in the area on a work trip, and we had a really nice breakfast with her and her friend Carol. It was a sunny day and we made the most of being outside and trying to again remember why we were thankful. We said goodbye to Dad at the house and got back in the car with Mom to go back to the airport. After a few jokes with the check-in staff about surely being able to get out that night, we went through security, had some food and got ready for departure. Only, about half an hour before we were due to go, there was some horrible weather in the area and they actually closed the airport due to lightning and reports of tornadoes. That situation didn't help what was apparently an uncertain status with regards to the health of our plane, and our departure time came and went before they cancelled that flight, again due to "maintenance". This time we were more savvy, and I phoned immediately to a hotline they had opened; we were able to get booked on Sunday's flight. By an hour after the flight had been cancelled, we were safe and comfortable at the hotel and ordering room service for dinner. Much, much better. Still, not that comforting that they couldn't find a plane to get us to London, though [and for those who are wondering, we were flying with US Airways, not that I think they did too badly a job throughout everything]. At some point we recognized the fact that nearly the whole day had passed and we hadn't sung "Happy Birthday" to Noah, so while he was in the bath, Matt, Blake and I stood in the bathroom and sang to him. The grin on his face summed it up: he didn't care if he had a homemade cake or a party, as long as the three of us were with him and loved him. It is an image I don't think I will ever forget.

On Sunday, Mom drove back to Charlotte and we spent the day at Discovery Place, truly the best way of spending the extra hours we had. The place was amazing and we could have spent longer there, but as it was, we needed to get back to the airport. Through security again, same places for me to get hot water and milk to make now it felt exactly like Groundhog Day. On the drive to the airport we'd said that surely 3 times would be a charm. Surely. There were some delays with boarding, which was not making me feel reassured. The agent at the departure gate made an announcement about delays with the catering for the plane, but by this point I was wary. Turns out that was partly true, but there were also some mechanical issues at play. Nonetheless, we boarded eventually, but then sat without air conditioning for over an hour while they tried to get the auxiliary power unit which starts the engines to work. I was so nervous by this point and just desperate to get home. I spoke with a flight attendant who assured me that it was nothing to do with the plane, but only an issue with the external unit that was needed to start the engines. I sat down. Finally, we felt some cool air and could hear that the engines seemed to be running, and then some ten's of minutes later, we were finally in the air.

It wasn't helpful that we had turbulence for a good portion of the flight. Blake fell asleep really early in the flight, but Noah didn't seem to want to close his eyes. We gave him another bottle, and he threw up the entire thing all over me a few instants after he had the last drop. Despite all my attempts to pack with an eye to being prepared, I didn't have a change of clothes for myself (just 3 each for the boys!). I had to go mop off my lap, change Noah, and then swap my drenched shirt for the jumper that Matt fortunately had with him. Eventually Noah dropped off too in my arms, and I started to read a book and try to enjoy the wine I'd ordered. My nerves were so frazzled that I finally just had to let all my emotions of the past 3 days out, and had a pretty big blub midway through the flight as I observed the peaceful slumber of the two most beautiful children in the world and pondered what it had taken to get us back home. I have never been so happy to smell that early-morning-but-really-middle-of-the-night breakfast service on the red-eye flight which signalled that we were getting closer to London. Finally, we were home and could put the 72-hour-delay in the history books. All that mattered was that we were safe, together, and finally back home.

Since then I've had some pretty philosophical thoughts about what I've done to this point in my life and reflect on what legacy I would leave, and ponder how unremarkable (or remarkable) my achievements thus far have been: I have made and kept fantastic friends, I have been a good daughter and a good wife, I've produced two children for whom I couldn't find enough words to say how wonderful and amazing I think they are, and I've tried to chronicle much of my thoughts in this blog. I haven't climbed any high mountains, or discovered any cures for diseases, or had my time in the spotlight. And right now, that's ok, because fortunately, even though it seemed iffy on that plane just over a week ago, I've got more time to make my mark in the world. I thank you for reading this blog, for caring about what goes on in our lives that helps give an air of significance to them, for being a friend to me and my family.

As for our vacation plans for the rest of the year, come and visit! I don't think we'll be flying anywhere for a while...

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