Flying through grief
In-flight entertainment included
Disco Diaries is a free publication of micro-essays and vignettes. If you enjoy it, consider supporting it financially. You can send a few dollars straight to my Venmo (@katyabaro). No wiggle room in the budget? No problem. Sharing this newsletter with friends who may enjoy it shows immense support, too.
I want last-minute travel to be whimsical, but this time it is not. Although my partner and I could someday book a sudden flight to anywhere, this trip is happening because of an unexpected loss. It will be a heavy journey book-ended with the tedious mundanities of air travel.
When you’re flying for something fun, boring steps like check-in and security feel like a silly obstacle course to vacation. Squeezing your carry-on bag into a bathroom stall with you is just the quirky start of the adventure. In our case, these moments only hold the stale place between grief alone and grief with family.
We get up early, catch a ride to the airport, and glide through security half asleep. We find our gate, conveniently adjacent to a McDonald’s, now serving breakfast. I love to eat McDonald’s only when I’m traveling. The bacon McGriddle hits the same as always, despite the circumstances, and I am content.
When our flight starts to board, we each run to the bathroom once more. We have time. We’re in Zone 3, because we’re cheap, I guess? I ponder the significance of the zones as we move slowly behind our long line of Zone 3 plebeians.
Inside the cabin, people are settling in. You can tell the frequent flyers from the occasional traveler. People who fly often have their in-flight routine on lock down. They don’t tinker with their carry-on or waste time browsing the seat-back screen.
I don’t yet have the energy to take charge of my own in-flight entertainment. The cabin’s pressure is already making me sleepy. Instead I let the pre-recoded safety instructional video tell me a story I already know.
When that’s over, I peek between the seats in front of me. I must assume that the man who is sitting in seat 28A is not a frequent flyer because he is browsing every last option on the screen in front of him.
He decides on a word game. The gist is that he’s given six letters and 30 seconds to spell as many words as possible. He begins the clock and leans slightly forward, a posture of concentration. He puts in “elf.” Correct! He puts in “elfed.” The screen tells him this is not a word. The man sits back and slumps over the armrest, his hand rubbing his chin in deep contemplation. Time is running out, yet he cannot get past the nonexistence of “elfed.”
I decide to shift my attention away from this man, finally allowing him some privacy. My own seat-back screen is waiting on its screen saver. Despite my lack of headphones, I select a documentary series on big wave surfing. Midway through the flight, my partner and I are both subdued by our activities — I my muted waves, he his second-hand novel.
The flight feels the same as any fortunately uneventful flight. Cheap single-serving snacks and muffled announcements pass the time. It’s only when we land that the context of our travel sinks in again. We stir to sluggish life and pack away our things.
My partner puts his hand on my leg and looks at me above his mask. We are engaged to be married, and our lives and families will forever be mingled. It is a beautiful commitment, even in its heaviest moments.
To be present for grief is a gesture of love. As we move out of the plane cabin, through the airport, and into the afternoon, I’m grateful to have developed the strength and balance to pull it off.