The world changed forever on September 11, 2001. In a lot of ways, namely the way we fly on planes. And then it changed again on August 22, 2017. Because that was Tess’s first plane ride. And I’m pretty sure that the FAA just added her to the no-fly list.
I mean, I’ve flown with babies before. Nate and Sam each took their first flights when they were about the same age—six months. They were both great, even Sam!
But this flight—Tess’s flight—was delayed by 70 minutes due to weather in Baltimore, our destination. Which meant that I’d be committing the cardinal sin of flying with an infant: don’t fly at bedtime.
I hoped, prayed, that my little lap passenger would fall asleep at take off and stay asleep for the full two hour flight, preferably in a position that would allow me to comfortably listen to my headphones, reach my snack with ease, and sip a drink without spilling it.
As we stood waiting to board and listening to multiple announcements—more like menacing, foreshadowing threats—that this would be a full flight, Tess flashed her bright blue eyes and smiled at the people around us. They smiled back and told her how cute she was while secretly praying to their gods that she didn’t end up seated near them. I get it.
I snagged a window seat, and a very large man quickly took the aisle seat in our row. While he joined the “Tess is cute” bandwagon, I got myself situated, making sure our snacks, my nursing cover, her blanket, sippy cup, and a few toys were accessible. I started to reach for my headphones, too, but decided that was pushing my luck.
Suddenly the boarding stopped. I looked around the plane and saw that there were no passengers still standing. All the seats were taken except the one between us and our heavyset friend on the aisle.
“How’d we do that?” I smiled to him.
“Well, I stuck my gut out as far as possible and you have a baby. Good work, baby! No one wants to sit with us.”
But his triumph and my relief were short-lived. Moments later, I heard an “excuse me, sir, is anyone sitting there?”
I looked up to see The Second Most Unlucky Person of The Evening squeezing into the seat next to me.
And that’s about the time that Tess started to lose it. For the next hour or so, we battled. She wanted to nurse. But she also wanted to sprawl out and sleep. She wanted to chew on the toys I packed and lick the baby snacks I supplied. She wanted to look out the window at the bright lights below and swat at the tray table. She was overtired and over-stimulated and this combination of sensations exploded into first squeals and frustrated squawks and then, too quickly, full-blown screaming.
Like, real screaming. A panicked and angry frenzy all at once. Just as the complimentary beverage service was starting.
I was trying to stay calm and composed, but inside I was dying.
This is real. This is really happening to me. This trip is not worth it. I have so many regrets right now. Why did I let Tighe talk me into this trip? Why am I doing this to this poor baby? She’s miserable! And to these poor people! They hate me. They hate Tess! I wish I could tell them what a great personality she has. [Repeat to self]
The Second Most Unlucky Person of The Evening was struggling to stay composed. He was wiggling himself away from me, to his left, both in an effort to escape the noise and to avoid looking at my boobs, which I was desperately trying to shove in Tess’s face.
Eat, baby, eat! Please just eat and fall asleep!
But our heavyset friend on the aisle wasn’t yielding him much space. And so The Second Most Unlucky Person of The Evening was stuck. As Tess squirmed and flung herself around, he leaned forward, pressing his hands together and burying them between his knees.
When her volume spiked into the shrillest of screeches, his head would tumble back, slowly, as if in pain, until he’d let it collapse again into his hands. He repeated those motions again and again, and in such a confined space, I’m not sure what else he could have done.
Aside from the screaming, she had also begun to kick him. At which point, she decided she liked the dry-fit texture of his shirt. So she sat up and began to smack his shoulder. Aggressively.
“Keep your hands to yourself, baby,” I cooed to her, pulling her hand away.
“She can touch me,” he muttered. “She can touch me.”
His head was buried in his palms and he was massaging both his temples in a circular motion with his fingers. He repeated himself the way that crazy people do. See: Jack Nicholson in The Shining. I started to grow fearful. All screaming and no quiet makes the guy next to me a dull boy.
Leaning forward, I squished Tess for a second—she was already crying anyway—and reached down into my backpack. I pulled out my crumpled drink voucher, courtesy of Southwest Airlines, the best airline ever. Seriously.
He couldn’t hear me over the screaming.
“Sir?” I was louder this time. “Would you like this? I think you’ve earned it. In fact, I think you need it.”
He took it from me, squinting in the dim light to determine what exactly I was giving him. Once he figured it out, he clutched it to his chest, and began scanning the aisle for the flight attendants.
“Thank you,” he mumbled. “Thank you.”
Please stop repeating yourself!
But the screaming continued. I tried to rock her and nurse her, flashing more nipple that Elaine Benes’s Christmas cards.
Then, finally, “Excuse me, ma’am?”
I looked up from trying to cram my boob into Tess’s wailing mouth to see a woman in her mid-sixties standing over our row.
“If you trust me, may I take your baby and try to distract her?”
A real-life baby whisperer? Yes, please! Anything!
“Sure!” I was humiliated, frustrated, hungry, exhausted, but so grateful for this woman’s compassion.
“She’s just tired,” I advised. “She can’t get comfortable in this seat.”
The woman nodded and clutching Tess to her chest, began walking up and down the aisle while I quickly stuffed some cookies into my mouth.
She’s still screaming! I can hear her!
I stood up in my seat to see where they were. All the way in the back of the plane—I was in the fourth row—and I could still hear her.
The woman returned. Tess was still screaming, her face was blotchy and her eyes were red and wide with panic.
“Could it be her diaper?” she asked, still trying to be the hero.
“Well, I just changed it, so probably not. I think she’s just really, really tired.”
“Okay!” she nodded doubtfully and turned back down her well-worn path in the aisle.
As she did, Tess spun her head around to hold my eye-contact. “Who is this woman? And what is she doing to me?” her expression seemed to say.
And her vocal chords said, “Waaaaaaaah!” But louder than the volume you’re imagining.
The woman returned again less than a minute later.
“It’s her diaper,” she assured me. “Do you have a clean one?”
“Sure,” I said and passed one down the row.
It’s definitely not her diaper, thought every other person on the plane.
The woman came back a third time.
“It was her diaper!” she proclaimed.
Then why is she still screaming? —Everyone else’s inner monologue.
“I’ll just take her now,” I said, shimmying myself past The Second Most Unlucky Person of The Evening and my heavyset friend on the aisle.
“I think I put the new one on backwards,” my heroic friend whispered to me as she handed me my daughter.
“Ohhhh. Okay. Well, thanks for all your help. I really appreciate it.”
She definitely made it worse.
But Tess quieted as soon as she was in my arms, and gripping one another, we scooted toward the back of the plane. I rocked her gently and avoided eye contact with every single person I passed, trying to pretend this wasn’t the worst night of my life.
“Is there something we can do to help?” asked one of the flight attendants, cocking her head to the side and pouting her bottom lip in sympathy. They were finished serving drinks and enjoying their own happy hour in the back.
“Is it too late to add her to the checked baggage?” I was half-joking.
They smiled and assured me that although the fasten seatbelt light was on, Tess and I could hang out in the back of the plane as long as we wanted—we still had another hour to Baltimore. I continued rocking and swaying, like a crazy person, and soon she was asleep.
So, the flight attendants and I had a great time getting to know one another in the back of the plane. One has a five year-old son, one is just starting the adoption process after years of infertility, and one likes to make her own hummus. They offered tips on how to remain standing in rough turbulence, and we debated where they should eat when they land in Dallas the next night.
And of course there was a steady stream of bathroom goers waiting their turn to cram themselves into the bathroom and empty their bladders. They offered sympathy and consoling tales of their own nightmares when flying with babies. Some were even worse than mine.
“At least she’s very vocal and you don’t have to worry that she’s autistic,” one man told me.
Hmm. Interesting silver lining.
She slept the remainder of the flight, including my cumbersome return to my seat when I had to scrunch up her legs, spin myself around and collapse on top of my seatbelt, which I never bothered to fasten. She even slept through our bumpy landing!
While I waited for the car seat at baggage claim, I called to check in with Tighe.
“Tighe, Tess and I live in Baltimore now. We have no way to return to Kansas City. Tess can never board a plane again, and I’m not driving her back. Not any time soon, anyway.”
“It was that bad, huh?”
“Yes. It was that bad.”
But seriously, the flight back to Kansas City? She slept the entire time. Because, remember, she’s the favorite.
Epilogue: In case you were wondering who The Most Unlucky Person of The Evening was, it wasn’t me. Not even Tess. It was the woman in the row in front of us who was suffering a migraine headache night. She never said anything to me, nor do I know who she was, but I heard about her later from one of the other passengers. Ma’am, my apologies and respect. A true migraine is no joke.