I had plenty of things I wanted to tell the couple. The thoughts floated in and out of my head like colorful fireworks going off on a clear Fourth of July night. They would blast onto the scene, make a bright entrance, and then disappear into a dark void.
I wanted to tell them to try to brush the orange Cheez-Its crumbs collecting on the carpet as best they could under a chair, making it easier for the cleaning staff to clean up, and stop worrying about the dirty looks some of the other passengers, the Nervous Nellies, in the airport were giving them.
I wanted to tell them to be thankful for the nonstop questions from their son and to encourage his curiosity and wonder. Why is the plane late? Why can’t we take that plane over there? Can I fly the plane? I wanted to tell them that the questions will stop around the start of middle school, when his hair covers his eyes, and won’t start up again until the boy is taller and more muscular than the both of them and heading out for his first apartment.
I wanted to tell them that the feeling of exhaustion and worry never really goes away, but it does get easier, that you learn to take one step at a time and keep moving. I wanted to tell them that there comes a time when you don’t think anymore about the exhaustion and just solely about their welfare – their wins and losses, highs and lows, their joy and happiness.
When the boy grabbed a dinosaur, I wanted to tell the father grab the other one, a giant purple-colored T-rex, get on the floor, and play with his son. I wanted to tell him that, yes, there were tons of strangers watching and, yes, he might risk making a fool of himself, but how often do you get to be a kid yourself. (For the record, this has always been one of my favorite parts of being a father. For a moment or two, forgetting about the mortgage or car bill or what work email I have to write or what project needs completed, and, instead, being a grown-up kid. What a blessing.)
Later, I wanted to tell them to grab that small, clammy, smudged hand, to hold it tight, and to never let it go. And, of course, when the little boy got frustrated and started to have a temper tantrum because he wanted something his mom wasn’t giving him, arms-folded and a deep scowl on his face, I wanted to tell her that this too shall pass. I wanted to tell her that there will be plenty more disagreements and fights, but keep loving him and he’ll come back to you.
They were waiting to board their airplane, like everyone in the roped off area, and everyone was getting antsy. The father would check his watch and then look back up. The boy’s mother, gently rocking a young infant, would check her phone and look back up. Neither move seemed to get them any closer to boarding.
From my far corner, I gave the parents a smile. I’m not sure they even saw me, but I recognized the exhausted look on their faces. They were in another zone. They just wanted to get on the plane and into their seats. Thankfully, the announcement came to start boarding their plane and the family got up to go.
I wanted to stand up quickly and tell them everything I know as a parent, but I’ve learned too that you have to live it, to learn it. So I did the next best thing: I said a prayer for the couple to help them through their flight and thought happy thoughts of my own kids: everything from diapers, Cheez-It crumbs, school events, birthdays and trips, to a host of other memories.
Finally, when the announcement came for my wife and I to board our plane and we started walking down the jetway tunnel, it hit me that my best message for the parents and, really anyone, is a simple one: I’ve survived and you will too!