Faith in Flight

If Mom could get over her fear of flying, could I get over my fear of life after divorce?

Posted in , Nov 11, 2013

Antoinette Rainone

Mom was 75 years old, but she’d never been on a plane. She was terrified of flying. She was even terrified every time I flew, which was often, since I was a travel writer.

She’d make me give her the flight number and arrival time. She would pray the entire duration of the flight and wait by the phone until I called from the airport saying I’d landed safely.

So when Mom announced that we were going to Las Vegas, I just assumed she meant a road trip. We had always talked about driving cross-country from New Jersey.

“I don’t have enough vacation time to drive there and back,” I reminded her.

“I know,” she said. “That’s why we’re flying!”

If she had said we were going to swim with sharks, I would have been less shocked. It must have showed on my face because Mom said, “This is happening. We’re gonna go and have some fun. You need this.”

I knew better than to argue. Once Mom made up her mind there was no changing it. And she was right. I needed a break. I was 36 and in the middle of a heartbreaking divorce.

What would have been my tenth wedding anniversary was just three weeks away. The date loomed in my head, a symbol of personal failure. A vacation might keep my mind off how scared I was of starting over all alone.

I searched for flights and hotels. The Paris Las Vegas–with its replicas of landmarks from the French capital–had just opened, and rooms were available. A little cheesy, maybe, but it sounded like fun.

If we were going to fly, we might as well see Paris too. Mom would love it, even if it wasn’t the real Eiffel Tower.

“Are you sure you can do this?” I asked her right before I booked the tickets. “I’ve lived a long life,” she joked. “If the plane crashes I’ll miss your father, but he’ll be okay.”

Friends suggested tranquilizers for the flight, but Mom refused. She wanted to experience everything with a clear head. Seeing her get ready reminded me of my own first flight.

I was 21 and on my way to Disney World aboard a Pan Am jet. It was just a two-hour flight to Orlando. Still, Mom was worried. “Make sure you sit in the back of the plane,” she instructed.

“But, Mom, that’s the smoking section!” I protested. At the time, smoking was still allowed on airline flights.

“Studies have shown it’s the safest place to be in a crash,” she said with the somber authority of a leading aviation expert. “Just cover your mouth and don’t breathe in.” So I bought my ticket, sat under a heavy cloud of smoke and tried not to inhale.

Now it was Mom’s turn. A few days before my anniversary, we lined up at Newark Airport to board our plane to Vegas. The captain was standing outside the door, greeting passengers. Mom shook his hand and introduced herself.

“It’s my first flight,” she said. “Be careful.” He smiled and invited her to take a look inside the cockpit. She sat in his chair and tried on the copilot’s sunglasses, while I snapped a picture. Then she spotted the cup in the captain’s hand. “What are you drinking?” she asked, arching an eyebrow.

“Soda,” he said, laughing.

“Good,” she said. “Just checking.”

We made our way to our seats and settled in. I sat by the window, assuming Mom would be too scared to look outside.

She checked to make sure both our seat belts were fastened tightly and listened intently when the flight attendant took us through the safety procedures. She studied all the evacuation brochures closely and took note of where the emergency exits were.

The plane rolled down the runway and took off. Mom clutched her armrests. “What’s that noise?” she demanded. “Is this normal?”

“Relax, Mom,” I said. “That’s just the sound of the wheels retracting.”

Once we’d reached our cruising altitude, she peeked over my shoulder out the window. The clouds looked like wispy layers of cotton candy.

“Do you want me to close the shade?” I asked.

“Oh no,” she said, mesmerized. “It’s so pretty.” She pulled out her camera and took a picture. I laughed. “Mom, you wouldn’t want to sit by the window, would you?” She quickly unbuckled her seat belt and we switched seats.

Five hours later, the plane touched down in Vegas. Mom gave a little whoop. We arrived at our hotel and put on our best Parisian outfits–striped shirts, berets and Eiffel Tower earrings.

For the next week, Mom kept me too busy to worry about my anniversary and divorce. We went dancing, ate fresh-baked croissants, watched the fountain show at the Bellagio, took scenic drives and went to a spa.

And then it was time to go home. We boarded our red-eye flight and this time Mom automatically sat by the window. I settled into my seat, feeling a bit blue.

We’d had a great time in Las Vegas. What did I have to look forward to when we got back? No husband to welcome me home, 10 years of marriage down the drain.

Lord, they say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. But I wish I could take home the peace of the last seven days. I reclined my seat and closed my eyes.

I woke to an insistent tapping on my shoulder. I opened my eyes, groggy. It was early morning and the plane was completely dark. All the other passengers were bundled up in their blankets, still asleep.

“Wake up, wake up,” Mom whispered excitedly. She pointed out the window. “You have to see this!”

The sky was pitch black. It didn’t look like anything spectacular. Then I saw it. A scintilla of light amidst the darkness. A yellow-orange dot with a golden crown, slowly growing bigger, more and more intense. Close enough to touch. We were flying into the sunrise at 35,000 feet.

Soon the sky was flooded with light, washing away any sign of the nighttime sky. I could almost feel the sun’s warmth. Its radiance. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful!” Mom said, breathless.

I sat back. As the cabin filled with light I was filled with an overwhelming sense that everything was going to be okay. It never stays dark forever. There is always a dawn.

Mom was glued to the window. She probably hadn’t slept the entire time. At 75, she was on her second flight. She wasn’t going to miss a minute. If she could face her fears, after all those years, I could conquer my own fears of starting over.

“So,” my mom said, turning to me. “Where are we flying to next?”

I didn’t know. But I couldn’t wait to find out.


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