By Karen Dempsey
Brennan, Liddy and I sat by the gate, waiting for our flight to board. Holding sections of newspaper in front of them, they took turns reading aloud from fake articles on subjects like poop and exploding toilets, sending each other into fits of laughter.
The airport speakers rasped out: “Standby passenger [indecipherable name].” A few rows down, an adult-sized head of erratic blonde curls bounced up, followed by a chubby-cheeked miniature version of the same person.
“Okay, Isabel. They need us one more time,” the mom said to the little girl. She stood up to reveal a Baby Bjorn strapped to her chest and struggled to maneuver a floppy baby boy into the arm- and leg-holes.
An airline staffer looked on from the check-in desk, radiating impatience.
“This will just take one second, Isabel,” the mom said. “Just. One second.”
“His leg is stuck,” an older woman called out unhelpfully, her own arms folded across her chest.
I recognized the desperate look on Isabel’s mom. She was me, seven years before. I stepped toward her as she worked the baby’s errant foot down through the carrier hole. “I’ll watch the bags,” I said in a low voice, in violation of all those warnings posted around the airport.
She took me in with a grateful glance and mouthed, “Thank you.”
At ages seven and nine, my kids are just recently easy — even pleasant — when it comes to airline travel. And nothing makes that clearer than seeing another parent perform the juggling act I struggled with for so long.
The call to begin boarding came just as Isabel’s mom began nursing her baby. She stopped, he cried, and Isabel squirmed under a row of seats and refused to come out. The mom piled the two suitcases on top of her stroller and began negotiating with Isabel.
I reached for the stroller. “I can wheel this down.”
“I think we’ll be fine,” she said breathlessly, tugging Isabel out by an ankle.
But my hand was already on the bags. Brennan and Liddy were lined up with our bags and the other passengers had already boarded. “I’ve got it,” I said. “I’ll leave it on the jetway.”
She didn’t say anything as I walked ahead and I instantly knew I’d overstepped — inserted myself into her situation and probably made her feel worse. She’d said they were fine. Why hadn’t I let it go?
On the plane, Brennan and Liddy settled into a pair of seats across the aisle from me, pulled on their headphones and plugged into a movie. I looked at them — frightfully independent and funny, so much of the time now, and wished I could travel back in time to my early days as a mom and give myself a preview of moments like this.
I was still flustered about whether I’d crossed a line with Isabel’s mom. She would have figured it out. We all do. And I’ve had my share of “well-meaning” strangers interfere, like the librarian who warned three-year-old Brennan he looked cuter without his pacifier, and the woman on the beach who tried to distract Liddy out of a tantrum and made everything much worse.
But I thought back to the stress of boarding a plane alone with tiny Liddy and toddler Brennan, and the relief I felt the time a stranger took the infant carrier from my hands and deftly installed into the seat for me. He had a three-week-old at home, he explained. He was actually a pilot for the airline, “catching a ride home to see her.”
I remembered other moments when someone offered a small gesture that made a difference. When I was hugely pregnant with Liddy, I was struggling to collapse Brennan’s stroller on busy Mass. Ave in Boston, and a woman pulled over, hopped out of her car, and folded it up for me. “I just couldn’t keep driving,” she said, gesturing at my belly, with a huge smile. “Good luck!” And there was the time Brennan and I took the subway and got swallowed up in the crowds headed to Opening Day at Fenway Park. The stroller wheel caught in the door to the subway car, and a group of young guys in Red Sox gear wrenched it free for me, then ran onto the train whooping and cheering in triumph.
My reverie was suddenly interrupted. Two little stocking feet dangled in front of me.
“Sorry-can-you-take-him-I-have-to-get-Izzy-to-the-bathroom!” Isabel’s mom was behind my seat, literally dropping her baby in my lap in a deft move that only a parent can pull off — when she has someone on the other end who gets it. She must have scoured the rows for me when she realized she needed her arms free.
I cradled that still-sniffling little guy in my lap — the tiny flapping arms, the giant crocodile tears, and smiled. “Okay little man. You’re right here in my arms,” I said, and heard echoes, again, of myself years before, comforting my own tiny kiddos.
I looked over at Brennan and Liddy. They were completely oblivious.
“Are you having a tough flight, little man?” I asked the stranger baby. “Are you happy to be going home?”
In another five minutes, Isabel’s mom was back, still looking completely frazzled. But grinning. And here too was an expression I could interpret. Relief. (They must have gotten to the bathroom in time.) Pride. (They got to the bathroom in time!) Disbelief. (This stranger is holding my baby so I could get Isabel to the bathroom in time.) And gratitude. (This stranger is holding my baby so I could get Isabel to the bathroom in time!)
“Thank you,” she said simply. “So much.”
I was still smiling when Brennan, Liddy and I made our way through the airport to the baggage claim.
“Did you guys see that I got to hold that tiny baby?”
“The woman from the airport?” I began. “We took her stroller onto the plane…?”
“You took her stroller onto the plane?” Brennan exchanged a glance with Liddy, confirming again their shared world view that adults, especially parents, are crazy.
I laughed at their expressions. Never mind, I thought. You kind of had to be there.
Karen Dempsey’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Babble and other publications. She lives in Massachusetts with her family. Follow her on Twitter @KarenEDempsey or read more of her work at kdempseycreative.com.
Illustration by Christine Juneau