It’s getting late, about 11 p.m. on a Sunday night, a few days before Halloween. After several flight delays, I’m still at the American Airlines terminal at Chicago's O’Hare Airport, waiting to board the plane to Dallas, where I have an interview in the early morning on the next day.
I pace around restlessly. Then I set down my fold-over carry-on bag, the strap of which is digging into my shoulder, and I wearily drop into the nearest plastic-form chair.
Sitting opposite me is a young girl, about 13, and her older brother, about 17, I would say. They’re wearing jeans and sneakers and look a bit tired and rumpled. They trade banter and tease each other affectionately. The girl is holding a plastic trick-or-treat bag that she keeps rummaging in, perhaps a gift from a grandmother. She takes out a homemade cupcake with orange icing and a chocolate jack-o-lantern face. Then a younger sibling, a sister with long brown hair, perhaps seven or eight, arrives, with their mother in tow. The girl is carrying an identical trick or treat bag. The mother is a cheerful and sophisticated-looking woman, dressed in business attire. She’s wearing a wedding ring.
For me, the frequent flyer, airports are all alike, and so are the people I see there. Yet for some reason, I find myself staring.
They don’t stare back but smile good-naturedly at me.
This scene of relaxed family togetherness seems so ordinary, yet so poignant: Families, it always seemed to me, are the possessors of happiness. I wonder if they are aware of their special lot, enveloped in their cocoonlike interiors of closed doors, warm glowing lights. Their secure worlds seem all so different from those of parents like me, raising a child alone. “Families, I hate you,” Andre Gide, the French essayist and novelist, once said. But I don’t feel anger or envy as I gaze at that closely knit group, only fascination and some sadness.
Maybe I’m just tired and moody, or maybe it’s just the season, the darkening days of late October with the promise of the holidays soon to come, or maybe it’s the cupcakes, a reminder of life’s simpler pleasures. Most likely, though, it’s simply the nature of my work, of newspaper work in general.
For the past five years, I’ve moved six times without the prospect of ever settling down. Too often I’ve had an assignment in one place, had to leave my child in another. This time, though, I am finally in a position to choose, am in a position where my daughter and I will finally be together.
I should consider myself lucky, I tell myself. After all, I am interviewing for a job that I will most likely get -- a job that I worked hard to get, one that is a major career opportunity.... Nevertheless, tonight, I find myself particularly pensive and alone....
It’s time to board. Passengers begin to line up single file at the gate. I just sit there, not wanting to wait in that long queue with that bulky canvas bag. The family across from me begins to collect their coats and carry-on luggage.
“Wait!” the 13-year-old suddenly cries out. She cannot find her pass. The teen rummages in her purse, in her pockets. Suddenly, her older brother reaches into her Halloween bag and pulls out the pass triumphantly. They all laugh.
As they begin to make their way across the terminal, the little one pipes up – her pass is also missing. “You too!” says her mother good-naturedly. There’s another bout of rummaging, and together they manage to find it.
I cannot take my eyes off them, those children so rambunctious and carefree, that mother so indulgent and so patient. Perhaps I idealize, a mere observer, looking on from the other side of the fence. But on days when I am rushed and tired and far from any place I can call home, it seems that I see families everywhere, reminders of a lifestyle I have not been able to provide.
“Mom,” you mustn’t be so impatient with me,” my teen-age daughter had said to me this morning.
It saddens me to realize that the expression of patience and joy on the face of this Dallas-bound mother is not one with which I have often been able to turn to my child. More often than not, mine was one of impatience and worry. If she would have misplaced her pass, I know I would have said, not without exasperation, “Find that boarding pass quickly! We'll miss the flight! Why don’t you know where you put it?”
She grew up a hurried child, without that cushion provided by a family of two parents, grandparents and siblings. She grew up in a world where I had to make our way, a world filled with appointments and sitters and deadlines and schedules, a world that did not wait.
“Let’s go,” I’d say to her when she was a toddler, “or I’ll be late.” I had to get her up early so I could get to school and work. Drowsy with sleep, she’d dawdle. “Hurry,” I would tell her. “Go eat your cereal.” “Make sure you have your scarf and mittens. Where are your mittens?”
She was often out of step in a world that moved more quickly than she did. “Late again,” the elementary school teacher would say when she arrived, more often than not still munching on a slice of peanut butter toast. “You’re always late….” The teacher would tell her. “Your homework is late.” My heart would sink those many days as I sat helplessly tied to my desk at work thinking about those carefully lettered assignments still on the kitchen table, about her trying to negotiate her way alone to school or back home, about her taking the bus to her dance lessons.
"My honey, please...." I would say..... “Be careful.” "Be prepared." “Be on time,” I would admonish her.... “The world is a serious place.”
“But Mom….,” she would inevitably reply. Then she would explain about the magical new snowfall that she had to explore, about a stray cat that she had found on her way to school and had to bring back home, about the library book she had forgotten and had to return for….
Despite all my worry and endless direction, she simply continued to wander on blithely through life, carefree as any child, and just assumed that the world would love her.
And it did.
Yes, she often filled her mother with much consternation, yet she also won much approval and applause. She fascinated her teachers with her tales of her misadventures, her soaring flights of imagination, and her infectious laugh. She had walked into her school for an interview and on the spot was given a scholarship to attend. She waltzed into a professional dance audition and was the one invited to stay. She was a spinner of cartwheels, a master of mime, a fount of insatiable curiosity, always posing her inevitable "but why?" Where, her teachers have often asked me, does all her confidence and spontaneity and joy come from? Where, I have often asked myself, does it all come from?
Yes, I would have thought that this young girl would have turned out to be cautious, overly conscientious, and careworn like her mother. How, I had often asked myself, could I continue to provide her with all she that she needs to grow and to flourish?
Yes, there were many times in my daughter’s life when I could not be there, and there were times when I had to keep her waiting, when I was late. When parents talk to me about letting down their kids, they tell of tantrums and tirades and tears. But she never railed against me or blamed me or complained or made demands. When an exam made me late for her school pageant, she waved to me in her cat costume from the stage. When a flight delay made me late for her graduation, she stepped out of the ordered procession of mortarboards to greet me.
As I now look as this Dallas-bound mother, I wonder at the constancy I demanded of my child as I tried to make our way, juggling schools and jobs and schedules.
Just this morning while packing, I had spoken sharply to her. “You’re so thin,” I said, my offhand comment couching my concern only as a criticism. “Giving me more to worry about,” I said to her.
"Mom, you mustn't be so impatient with me," she said in reply.
As I sit and wait here in this airport, her gentle plaint echoes.... When I begin to think about the life that she and I had, I cannot begin to tally the toll. My school…. Work…. The travel…. The dislocations…. The years she spent in boarding school…. The demands of my work and providing access to her growing opportunities…. I could not begin to fathom how to balance it all. There was just too much in her life that I could not control.
No, the circumstances for her growth have not been ideal.
She is a caring child who deserved to be doted on, who should have had a rowdy bunch of brothers and sisters, a loving father, a few aunts and uncles, perhaps, even two pairs of fond grandparents. But there was nothing I could do about that. Instead, I got her a shiny red bicycle that she drove around the campus where I worked, went sledding with her at Riverside Park, signed her up for those dance lessons she so wanted to attend, promised on this trip to bring her back a pair of cowboy boots….
It’s almost midnight when I hear the final call for boarding. I see the family with their trick-or-treat bags go through the boarding gate, those denizens of an insulated world where planes can wait and children are cherished. I gather up my raincoat and luggage.
“Cupcakes,” I say to myself when I walk onto the plane. “That’s what I’ll do. When I get home, we’ll make Halloween cupcakes.”
But as our life would have it, as soon as I return, my daughter announces that she has another scholarship, an opportunity of a lifetime.
“I won’t take the job,” I tell her.
“But the scholarship doesn’t matter,” she said heatedly to me.
“Oh yes, it does,” I said back to her.
“So, your reason for coming here is gone?” says the editor who interviewed me, when he calls from Dallas.
In a way, our life has always been like that O. Henry Christmas story, each one of us willing to sacrifice the things that mean a lot for the other, but neither one of us willing to accept that sacrifice from the other. Yes, O. Henry, the master of the unexpected ending….
Weeks later, that airport scene still lingers in my mind. I mention it to a colleague, a married mother of three.
“Lord knows!” she exclaims. “That woman must have been on valium! And those kids, she adds, "they must have been on their best behavior. At home, I’ll bet you that they’re constantly at each other’s throats.” “Besides," she continues, “Maybe they weren’t even her kids. For all you know, they might have been her step kids whom she sees once a year. Or maybe they were kids from her first marriage, living with her ex.
I consider all the possibilities. I want to believe her. But somehow I cannot.