The problem with love is the pain of departures. Waving good-bye to our daughter as she weaves through the airport security line inevitably breaks into waves of tears from her mom that are as predictable as the ocean tides. I tell my wife, “At least, you have me at home,” but this sets off a flash flood. The worst soakings happen at these airport departures. Mom and I stand at the curb like elderly street urchins longing for more time as The Kid sets off to study across the sea or across the continent. Our pathetic display of parental pleading does not seem to abate as the holy child grows older.
On our daughter’s last visit home, we discovered she was flying from Fort Wayne to a wedding in New York. A parental lecture ensued: to always stick with the group, to always be aware of her surroundings, to never stay out too late, and to never take candy from eye-patched, woodened legged pirates who might try to lure her close to their ship.
“Guys. You know, I am 28 years old.”
How does that matter one iota? She will always be the Cocoa Bean, the little Beanie Baby. I’m almost 60 years old, and my dad at random moments will pat me on the head and say: “My boy, my little Scottie.”
Like grown-ups who get stuck in the music of their youth from its sweeping power to recollect the memories of formative years, we parents get stuck in the era of our children’s youth from the wonder of those experiences. Plus they were cuter and easier to steer.
As we age, departures become harsher because of their frequency and force. We experience more endings. We lose more than we find. The body begins to bail on us. We decline and learn to adapt to wrinkles, rolls, sags, and pulls. Through my forties, Deb said I would pole vault out of bed to meet the day, but no more. I hobble to reach the bedpost and stretch the calves so my planter fasciitis doesn’t flare up and pitch me into the wife’s closet. Shuffling to the bathroom, I dim the lights so the flash of brightness doesn’t knock me back into a laundry basket.
In time, we lose the white teeth, muscle mass, keen hearing, sharp vision, and car keys. We remember less and babble more. We start in the wading pool with our parents holding our hand, and we end in the wading pool with our children holding our hand. Such is this life. Though these bodily losses cause physical challenges and discomfort, other losses trigger an even deeper ache.
Two Christmas vacations ago, a tradition began that lessened Mom’s tears and tempered the pangs of departures. Our son-in-law, Brian, spent the holidays with us. He is the best answer-to-prayer son-in-law any parent could have. We prayed for him twenty-five years before we knew him. On their airport departure after New Year’s, Deb and I, as usual, walked alongside them adjacent to the security line until they reached the first checkpoint. From here, we took our familiar place by the glass partitions that overlook the security area. We watched them unload all their personal effects into bins. When they looked our way, we overcompensated with grins and waves like amped up teenagers in a Mountain Dew commercial. At the end of the bin assembly line is the dreaded escalator where they would ascend out of sight and leave us. With the first floor ceiling blocking our view, they would disappear halfway up the escalator. Through the years, Cora would wave and give a “thumbs up” in an attempt to assuage her parents’ strained smiles, but her efforts never stopped the dam from bursting in her mother’s eyes or the pang of the moment from hitting me with dull force. We would walk back to the car feeling a little older.
This specific spot outside the glass walls of security in the Fort Wayne International Airport is not a favorite site, but it allows us to keep saying good-bye for as long as possible. The irony is that right to next to this place is the double door entrance for arrival flights where people wait to meet and rejoice upon the appearance of loved ones. Here, in this area, the joys and sorrows of life converge.
During this Christmas departure, Brian and Cora waved at us frequently as they moved through the security checks and before they got on the escalator. Deb and I were holding hands and waving. I pointed to Mom’s tears, which had begun. The kids waved as they ascended up the escalator and disappeared.
The tears and familiar pang returned.
But as we turned to leave…wait…Cora came quick-stepping back down the “Up” escalator and waving at us. She did this long enough that we laughed as she kept logrolling down the “Up” escalator.
But wait…Brian appeared on the stair steps next to the escalator, and he stood and waved for a long time before ascending back up.
Aww. Thanks, guys. We felt better.
But wait…Cora was coming down the “Down” escalator on the other side of the steps and waving at us. Now Mom was laughing more than crying, and she said, “I bet Brian will come down too.” Sure enough. Soon we saw Brian’s feet, then torso, and then smiling face waving both hands as he also descended the “Down” escalator. At the bottom of the steps, they met, hugged, joined hands, kissed, and waved at us. We were all laughing. Their surprise performance induced a cathartic balm, and instead of our pathetic waving with tears, Mom was laughing and waving them forward, motioning them to go up and get to their gate in time. They stopped at the “Up” escalator and waved at us for a long time, then kissed again and waved and ascended up the escalator and out of sight.
Like pigeons pushing the lever for food pellets, we stayed for a moment longer in case they had more for us, but we knew this was the end of the presentation. We experienced a moment that would not be forgotten.
What made their Parental Live-Aid Charity concert even better—we were not the only ones who witnessed the performance. On the other side of the arrival entrance sits a small café and gift store. The escalators and steps can be seen through the glass partitions from any table in the café. Unbeknownst to us, two dear friends from yesteryear, Dan and Terri, were sitting in the café waiting for their plane to depart, and they watched the whole episode take place. Dan said he almost teared-up when he saw the spontaneous drama unfold. They understood; they were parents too.
When others identify with our struggles, the acknowledgment of shared experience has the power to make us feel better, knowing we are not alone. This is empathy in action. We talked with Terri and Dan for a good thirty minutes. Deb and I walked out of the airport in lighter spirits and with thankful hearts. We felt younger.
Encore appearances on the escalators have since become a tradition. Now instead of inescapable crying, the administrative pragmatism in my wife will take over and wave the little ones forward as if to say after a couple encores: “Okay, thanks, now don’t miss your flight, get going, move on with your life together.”
This last spring break, I took a working vacation in Atlanta, Cora and Brian’s current residence, to hole up with them and finish a school project where Cora proofread and edited all my work.
When it came time to leave, the kids accompanied me into the airport to make sure I made my flight. The “convenient” airport check-in touch screen buttons confuse me. They never work correctly like people purport, and I get agitated, frustrated, and wander about the terminal trying to figure out where I’m supposed to be. When I go out in public places someone should just tape a sign to my back: “Help Me Please.” In the ATL airport, Brian and Cora parked and came inside to scoot me in the right direction. My previous Atlanta visit, I almost missed my flight. When my name was announce over the speakers, I thought I won something, but it was the last call before losing my seat. I get distracted too easily by the twinkling lights, all the bustling people, and the neon wonder of the big city airport. Fifty years ago, my dad took me by the hand in crowds, and now my daughter does.
Brian and Cora found the proper security line for me. Good thing because I was heading in the wrong direction. We hugged, prayed, and waved good-bye. They departed once I was safely confined inside the security line ropes. “Dad, stay between these ropes, follow the yellow brick road, and you’ll make it home.”
I zigzagged through the queue, guided by the ropes, until I approached a young lady in a biker outfit at the end of a formidable line of people. I said to her that the line looked long, and I hoped to make my flight because I almost missed it the last time. She sighed and turned the other way to express with icy clarity she had no interest in conversing with a talkative old guy in a Cubs hat that didn’t quite fit. Fair enough. I obediently shuffled between the ropes in silence for about 30 feet, until we came to the place where the terminal concourse could be viewed from our line. There stood Cora and Brian in the middle of the causeway.
They saw me.
They began their performance.
They danced down the ATL main terminal in a combination tango, salsa, hip-hop, disco, and freestyle medley pausing only briefly between dance moves to wave at me. I waved back. They spun and shimmied through the length of the corridor, until they came to the end where they kissed, waved, and with a concluding flare finale, exited stage right.
During the performance, the ice lady with the dragon tattoos began a heartfelt commentary of oohs and aahs as she watched the entire dance routine: “Ooh. That’s special. Aww. How do you know them?” This seemingly hardened lady caste in claws thawed quickly, and after the performance she did not stop asking me questions: “She is your daughter? You were here visiting her? Do you visit often?” Even as we dismantled our personal items into the security bins, she stayed close by me and continued to inquire: “How long have they been married? Do they like living in Atlanta.” I was not at a loss for words, and as she asked about Brian, I told her that I have now two wonderful children. Brian is the best son I could have, an answer-to-prayer child. As we passed through the security check and parted ways for our respective gates, the last words this biker lady said to me: “You are very lucky.”
On the flight home, I became aware once again that the treasure in this life has little to do with the accumulation of things, or the accolades of achievements from our talents. Not to brag, but my stellar list of abilities is most impressive: my deft, fine motor skills can change a diaper in less than five minutes; my acute intellect can still recite a good 25-plus state capitals; my bench press maxes out at almost over 100 pounds; and my tech savvy abilities continue to astonish the younger generations: “How do I take your picture on this phone when it keeps showing me…me?” The value of my life is not wrapped up in this remarkable array of abilities. The latest performance of my two grown-up children evokes reflection. Worth does not revolve around what I have or accomplish. The great wealth and joy of my life, which includes the paradoxical pain of departures, comes from the fact that I am loved.
Happy 29th Birthday, Cocoa Bean.