Baby Steps: Up In The Air

Our columnist finds compassion in the most unlikely of places — on a plane.

The calm before the storm.

Not long ago, my husband and I packed up our family — our 4-month-old daughter, Maxine, and 2-year-old daughter, Edie, plus several suitcases nearing the weight limit — and jetted down to join his parents for a short vacation outside of San Diego.

The stay was wonderful. Maxine beamed as she wiggled her toes on the beach; Edie chased seagulls and sculpted turtles in the sand. We visited the famous zoo, and the girls got to spend leisurely mornings with their grandparents in the hotel. Then Eric headed home for work while I stayed on a few extra days.

My extended trip meant more sunshine at a time when Portland was flooding — a definite plus.

It also meant I would be flying home with the girls on my own. Less of a plus.

My anxiety neared 30,000 feet in anticipation of the return trip; and I tried to channel it into preparation: The diaper bag bulged with my iPad, a new coloring book, enough snacks to feed an entire preschool and plenty of outfit changes. I knew, though, that a reflux-y infant and a toddler who’d skipped her nap could derail even the best-laid plans.

On the much-dreaded day, the ordeal threatened to go south even before we reached the terminal. Recently toilet-trained Edie had an accident when we were checking our bags. Yet instead of melting down, she was all smiles as she sprinted ahead of me to the bathroom for a costume change. Crisis averted!

Memories from the beach make the pain of flying worth it.

And when the Alaska Airlines staff greeted us with wide smiles instead of the usual reproachful looks reserved for kids on planes, I felt a glimmer of hope that we just might make it through the day.

At first, my overstocked bag proved invaluable on the flight. Edie plowed through the activities I’d packed while I bounced Maxine in the aisle — the only way she’ll sleep when we’re out and about.


Shortly after Edie began throwing her magnetic paper dolls rather than dressing them, though, she darted into the aisle. She refused to return to her seat — apparently that little illuminated seatbelt sign means nothing to toddlers — and then collapsed in a tiny, teary heap.

Passengers en route to the bathroom stalled on either side of the human roadblock. I asked, I coaxed, I bribed, I demanded — nothing would move her. I ended up bending over, lifting her up and depositing her on the seat.

Suddenly we were that family. With a toddler in nuclear-meltdown mode, I felt all eyes on us as I tried to calm Edie down. Then I heard a sympathetic voice.

“It’s okay,” a woman with short gray hair told me. “I’ve been there.”

Those five little words gave me more peace than any others could. They gave me the self-control to weather Edie’s storm — and fire up a new Sesame Street app. With one stranger’s empathy, I suddenly felt like we could endure the rest of the trip home.

The remainder of the flight passed smoothly — until Edie again dissolved, this time because she didn’t want to get off the plane. As I schlepped Maxine, an overloaded diaper bag and a bawling Edie down that narrow aisle and up the ramp, several other people offered to help.

I couldn’t believe it.

Maybe my desperation was a magnet for kindness. Maybe my flight just happened to be filled with good Samaritans. Or maybe — just maybe — people really are compassionate, even to the most dreaded plane passengers.

Catherine Ryan Gregory
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