As I settled back into seat 19D, nine hours into my journey to Detroit by way of Minneapolis —quite ready for the vodka tonic that passed over my lips— I asked the couple next to me, “So, what did we learn today?”
Nick, an Orcas Island carpenter originally from Minnesota, tipped back his Budweiser, swallowed, then replied, “I think we learned that Mother Nature is still in charge.” His wife, Debbie, a chemistry professor, snorted in agreement, sipping from her own can of Bud. In the wee morning hours, he had driven down from Orcas and she had driven up from Oregon to meet at SeaTac in the hopes of flying home to see Nick’s 92-year-old uncle.
Mother Nature had different plans for us all, including the Minnesotans on the ground, who gallantly attempted to keep the airport open during a monster blizzard. Just after noon, they declared the weather conditions too unsafe for planes to take off or land, sending our flight —and countless others— ricocheting to other airports.
We should have seen the signs from the beginning, though. Prior to take-off in Seattle, we experienced two gate changes, one in response to a fire in the terminal.
Though we were airborne nearly an hour after than our scheduled departure, I didn’t mind. In our extra time together, I made a mental catalogue of the characters around me, thinking that they would take part in my Midwest essays…
…The American Indian woman from North Dakota who complained that Seattle’s damp weather made her sick—then admitted that it could have been the week she spent smoking and drinking every night in a casino.
…The linebacker-sized Vietnam vet wearing a black tour-of-duty T-shirt draped tent-like over his massive gut. Piglet pink and ape-like hairy, his belly peeked out when he lifted his carry-on into the overhead bin. A descendant of vikings, his shoulder-length blond hair and Fu Manchu were midway through a transformation from flax-colored to white.
…The squat mid-50s housewife with short gray hair who smelled like stale cigarette smoke, which had tinted her long, curved fingernails a dingy shade of yellow. Dressed in a pink sweatshirt, stone-washed Mom jeans, and white sneakers, she nervously wrapped and unwrapped her furry pink scarf around her square neck.
…The tall, paunchy businessman wearing a mint green dress shirt and and loafters with tassels, his tattered leather briefcase thinning at the edges like the ring of strawberry hair that encircled his head. I could hear his long, rounded vowels as he joked with the teenager next to him, calling him, “Sport,” in between words like, “eh,” and “yous.”
I recognized these characters from my long-ago past when I lived in a Detroit suburb named Redford; what they may lack in fashion sense, they more than make up for with friendliness. In fact, I was surprised —delighted, even— when my fellow passengers looked me in the eye and greeted me with, “Good morning,” as I sat down. Years of Seattle shy snobbery have made me forget the normalness of friendly strangers in the Midwest. When they sit next to each other on busses or airplanes, they say hello; when they drive by on the street, they wave—even if they don’t know one another.
Thus, if there was one flight to be stuck on for hours, at least it was the one with people who acknowledged each other. In fact, it was remarkable how mildly my fellow passengers reacted to bad news for the duration of our trip, from the moment we learned that our flight was diverted to Denver —though we had made it all the way to Minneapolis and were second in line to land— to the announcement that, after hours on the tarmac in Denver, our flight back to Seattle would take three hours due to strong jet stream winds.
After standing in a customer service line to refund my ticket upon returning to Seattle, I happily caught LINK light rail to downtown. I still harbored a grudge against the cab ride I paid for that morning, as my regular bus didn’t run early enough to get me to Westlake Station.
I finally declared my journey a fait accompli as I re-entered my apartment 14 hours after I left it, officially unsuccessful in reaching Detroit. Had I made it, it would have been my first trip back in 20 years. It was already a race against the clock, as the purpose of my visit was to spend time with my dying uncle who is suffering from lung and liver cancer.
Exhausted, I sank into my couch to compose myself before I phoned Aunt Jill to let her know that I made it home safely. In spite of my grousing about cab fares and over-priced fruit cups, what remained most prominently as a loss in my mind was not money, but time. How much more time does my uncle have, and when I will find more of it to see him before he decides to leave us?
I sighed and let my shoulders slump, feeling happy to rest in my own home, which was much better than being snowed in at a Minneapolis motel or stranded at the airport in Detroit.
It was then that my relief became more significant: I realized that, for the first time since my return from Civita, I felt happy to call Seattle my home again. That feeling, combined with my inability to physically reach my old life, made me question what I had really learned on this trip—besides the fact that Mother Nature is indeed in control.
I wondered if it wasn’t so much about not being able to go home again, but actually a signal that being right here right now in Seattle is exactly the right place to be in, despite the struggles that go with it. Perhaps it took —and was worth— a day of missed connections to fully grasp that concept.
Hopefully, the next time the universe wishes to point something out to me, it won’t involve airline food.