(#20 in the Annie series)
I want to be one of those people on an airplane who plugs in earphones, clamps a U-shaped pillow around the back of their necks and dozes off instantly. Without even reclining the seat because to recline these days in coach means that the back of your seat is in someone else’s lap. Not cool.
To put it mildly, I am not one of those people. I don’t recline, but I don’t sleep either. Sometimes I doze on a plane, if I’m lucky. But lack of sleep is par for the course on this trip. Honestly, I can’t begin to add up the number of hours I didn’t sleep. I don’t want to know. And Nikki, I’m sure, has had far less sleep than I have, what with turning Annie over every few hours in bed or getting up to change Annie’s diaper.
This has been one of the biggest challenges for all three of us: not enough sleep. And I was prepared for an even bigger one: the plane trip home with Annie.
Here’s the lead, as they say in the newspaper world: It was easier than we thought it would be. And harder in ways we didn’t expect. But there was assistance given, by both seen and unseen helpers, all along the way.
First, our best seen helpers. John and Anne came with us to help us haul all our stuff, which was a great kindness on their part because we are, after all, leaving with more stuff and one more person than we arrived with.
Second, we got whisked through security because Nikki had brought for Annie a big pouch of applesauce/juice that was larger than allowed on a plane—over 3 ounces. She told the ticket agent this, who frowned. “Unless you have juice boxes with straws on the plane, I’m going to need this for my daughter,” Nikki said firmly.
Some fussing ensued, which involved getting a supervisor and repeating the story again. The upshot was that the supervisor would walk us through the security area explaining this special need for someone with special needs. Front of the line, take off the shoes, put them in the plastic bins, throw our stuff on the conveyor, walk through the beepie thing. Nikki and Annie walked around, then Nikki got wanded, as they say, to make sure she wasn’t carrying anything more deadly than a pouch of applesauce. Annie got through scot-free. Nobody searched her.
Clearly, the wheelchair can be an advantage at times.
Next, because we were traveling with someone in a wheelchair, we got to board early in the “passengers requiring extra assistance or time” category. Nikki wheeled Annie down the jetway to line up behind an older woman in a wheelchair. She had to lift Annie from the chair so an attendant could take it and stash it in the luggage compartment after attaching a red tag that read “fragile.”
I had all our carry-on luggage, Nikki carried Annie, an attendant followed us with Annie’s carseat, and we made our way back to row 47, all three of us, to install the carseat next to the window.
I should add here that Annie can’t sit up unsupported. The night before at the Macphersons’, Nikki had pulled the carseat from its box (which we had left in Hong Kong with Anne and John) and put Annie in it for the first time. Nikki had bought a nifty device made by a woman with a child with a disability that hangs over the back of the seat. It has fabric that wraps around the occupant’s face, Velcros under the chin, and keeps the head up straight.
“Where has that been hiding?” I said as Annie’s supported head faced forward in the seat—no flopping, not requiring holding by anyone else. I was thinking how helpful that nifty device would have been at meal times.
“It was here in the box with the car seat,” Nikki said, and we exchanged a rueful glance. “I didn’t think to bring it.”
Ah, well. Live and learn. The best part was that Annie looked perfectly comfortable in her car seat. I had envisioned having to stuff towels and clothing around her to prop her up in it, but no, she was strapped in just fine, though her long legs hung down quite a bit.
That was the challenge for getting Annie to fit in her carseat in row 47 on the 747 that took us from Hong Kong to San Francisco on a 12-hour flight. Annie’s long legs sticking straight out and the lack of leg room. We were not in an exit row or one of those with extra leg room, so she was really jammed in there, her head held up by the fabric device.
But to our surprise she loved it. She seemed comfortable with the plane and the takeoff (which Nikki hates but talked to Annie as it happened… brave Nikki!). Annie seemed happy to eat in place. And she got a kick out of her bright yellow headband with the smiley face on it that has imbedded earphones so she can listen to music.
All that worked well for about five hours—through the first meal, Nikki feeding part of hers to Annie, who had already sucked down one of the verboten applesauce packets.
“This is great!” I enthused, and Nikki grinned at me. Could it be possible that we could get through a 12-hour flight unscathed?
Well, not exactly, no. Almost precisely at the five-hour mark, Annie began wailing. She’d been out of her car seat and laid on our two seats for a diaper change, but Nikki had put her back in the car seat. Annie was done. Major unhappiness, her pissed-off holler ricocheting around the cabin. Attendants came by asking urgently, “Can we do anything?”
No, we said, not unless you can get us to a place where she can lie down.
They couldn’t. The flight was full, every seat occupied. Nikki was talking to Annie, trying to calm her down. Annie wasn’t having it, probably thinking, Get me out of this chair! The people in front of us were half turned around, trying to see what was going on.
Nikki told me later that she said to Annie in Chinese, “Look, we are on an AIRplane with a LOT of people. You are disturbing them. I will try to make you more comfortable, but you need to TELL me what you want, not just scream. We have to be quiet around all these people.”
Much to her amazement (and mine, after she told me), Annie quieted down. She told her mother that she wanted to get out of her seat, please. I moved so Nikki could kneel on her seat and take Annie out of hers. Nikki put Annie on her lap and gestured for me to sit, Annie’s legs across my lap, where she see could both of us and watch the attendants walk by.
She was fine.
But clearly, she needed to lie down and rest, maybe even sleep, and the only way to do that was to put her across our two seats (we were not moving the car seat—it had no place to go). That meant I had to stand. Which I did. For about three-and-a-half hours altogether.
With a little time, Annie fell asleep on our seats, my Hawaii neck pillow meant for the plane under her head. (It’s hers now anyway, along with my purple plastic spork I travel with. Joyful Purple Dragon needs a purple spork, right?!) Nikki could sort of perch in the empty space created by Annie’s curved body, but it was in no way comfortable for Nikki. I took my iPad to the back of the plane. There was no place to sit. I tried sitting in one of the attendants’ jump seats, but one came along and told me that I was not allowed to do that. I asked if there was a place I could sit since a little girl was sleeping on my seat, and the attendant shook her head firmly. “We’re full,” she said, which I already knew.
So I stood at the back of the plane, trying not to be in the way of people waiting for the bathroom, trying to read one of my iPad books standing up. That worked for a time, but I was literally falling asleep on my feet when something caught my eye. I was standing behind the last row in the plane where two people were watching the same movie on each of their iPads. I didn’t know what it was, and I couldn’t hear the dialogue, but it had Meryl Streep in it with a horrible long hairdo, braided on one side as an aging rock’n’roller and some ’80s rock guitarist who looked vaguely familiar and Kevin Kline as this straight-looking lawyer-type. Oh, and Meryl Streep’s daughter, Mamie Gummer, whom I love just for her name.
When the people in front of me finished watching the movie, it popped back to a screen of United Airlines in-flight entertainment options. Oh! I thought. I have that app! (I don’t have many apps on the new iPad, but I have that one because Nikki had told me before the trip to download it.)
So I “closed” my book (in the tablet sense) and poked the United app and got to the “in-flight entertainment options” and looked for a Meryl Streep movie, and there it was: “Ricki and the Flash.”
I didn’t care if it was the worst movie in the world. It had Meryl Streep and her daughter in it, and there was rock music that might keep me awake. I hit the little icon that takes things from the two vertical lines (the “pause” button, as I think of it) to the sideways triangle (the “play” button to me), and I watched all one hour and 41 minutes of that movie.
Here’s my synopsis:
Meryl Streep is, as I intuited, is this aging rocker. Rick Springfield, an actual ’80s rocker, plays Streep’s guitar-playing boyfriend in the band, and Kevin Kline is her ex-husband who has raised their children after she, aspiring musician, ran off to pursue the rock’n’roll lifestyle. Which basically has gotten her to a regular gig with her band, Ricki and the Flash, at a dive bar in L.A. When her daughter (played by Streep’s real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer) falls apart after her husband leaves her, Ricki goes back to Indiana to the house of her ex-husband and his second wife (Audra Macdonald, who doesn’t sing, darn it) to try to help their daughter.
I have to say that I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. Good music, a sort of happy ending. Meryl Strep is amazing—she apparently learned to play guitar for this movie, and she does it convincingly. But then, Meryl Streep (who has transformed herself for just about every role she’s every played—Karen Von Blixen in “Out of Africa” and Julia Child in “Julie and Julia”—could read the phone book, and I’d find that riveting.
Mostly the movie helped me forget how tired I was, except that I eventually retreated to the rear galley, which had been abandoned by the attendants for a while, where I put the iPad on the stainless steel counter and leaned much of my upper body on it to watch the movie. If I could’ve laid down on the floor of the plane, I would have.
As we traveled backward in time through the night, I read and watched things on the iPad. I sat on the cold floor behind the last row of seats for a while. And as we bumped through the sky from time to time, I thought about turbulence and how it didn’t seem to faze Annie.
She gets jostled all the time. She’s not moving herself through space. She’s not in control, never is in control; she has to trust that whoever is pushing her in her chair or carrying her is capable and won’t drop her or run her into anything. And she does. She is now trusting this new mama who came such a long way to collect her.
Somehow Annie already knows that her new mama is there for her, for all happy moments and the bumps along the way, kind of like Meryl Streep in the movie, who comes back for her daughter when she hits a rough spot. We all hit rough spots, and they often make us stumble and sometimes fall. So what? We let others help us to our feet, and we keep going. The great thing is that Annie is moving—she’s typically happy to be moving—even when powered by something, someone else. And she has more trust and faith in her slender 7-year-old body than many people.
With that I got up off the floor of the plane and saw on the digital screens in the cabin that we were nearing San Francisco. I went back to our seats, and Annie was awake. She grinned at me. Nikki smiled, too, blearily.
“We’re almost there,” I said.
Nikki nodded and said to Annie in English, “We’re almost home.”
We are the last ones off the plane, as you are when one of your seatmates uses a wheelchair. Much to our consternation, the “fragile” sign placed on the chair’s aluminum before it was taken to the baggage compartment apparently wasn’t heeded. When it is returned to us at the jetway, the wheelchair has been mashed a bit. It’s a couple of inches shorter on one side than the other. Annie lists heavily to the right when she’s put in it.
Nikki is understandably upset, and, after getting through customs (a relatively quick process, much to our exhausted relief), we wait around a United counter as Nikki files a damage claim. They offer to have someone unbend the chair, but we’d have to wheel across the airport to have this done.
“The frame is bent on the wheel,” Nikki points out. “I can’t get this chair across the airport.”
It feels as if this part is taking forever. Annie is hungry, we’re all tired, and all I want is to get out of there and find Dick, who I’m sure is waiting for us, and Nikki’s parents, who I hope are waiting for her and Annie. This last half hour is for me the most excruciating of the trip, harder than standing for more than three hours, harder than all the heat and lack of sleep and every challenge we’ve met along the way.
I am on my last nerve. I love these two, and I am so glad I took this journey with them, but I want Dick to pick me up and take me someplace and feed me, after which he will drive me home as I doze in the car. I want to go home to my own bed and sleep for a month.
At last Nikki is done filing her claim, and we make it over the final hurdle. I am pushing the luggage cart; Nikki is pushing Annie. And when we finally wind around to the waiting area where our loved ones wait for us, my sweet man is out there taking photos of us on the video screen. He can see us walking toward him, this journey almost completed.
And when two large doors open automatically as Nikki pushes Annie through them, there he is, my dear Dickie, camera in hand, and I happily relinquish all photographic duties back to the (retired professional) photojournalist in my life and give him a big hug and a kiss. I can’t remember when I’ve been so happy to see him waiting for me.
And there are hugs and greetings all around, especially for Annie. And after a bit, Nikki’s mom and dad and their friend Sharon appear, and this is the other moment I have been waiting to see: Annie meeting her grandparents, her new family, who stand before her in a little half circle, smiling delightedly down at her as she looks up at them. They have brought her a Minnie Mouse, which matches the one on the shoes we bought her in Guangzhou. Life bestows little blessings of coincidence more often than we realize.
This is where her American life begins, this child with her shiny new U.S. passport. Annie will be driven home by her grandparents to Sacramento with her good mother, their whole lives ahead of them sure to be the greatest, grandest adventure, full of love and joy, difficulties and miracles. Lots of miracles.
Enjoy the ride, my girls. I’ll be following you, eager to see how the road unfurls before you.
Whew, welcome home. The damage to the wheelchair, though 😦
Thanks, Urs! Good news: Nikki’s dad unbent the wheelchair… which I’ll write about in an upcoming post.
*applauds wildly like Kermit the Frog*
Thanks, Corinne! I appreciate all your support—before, during and after the trip, both digital and emotional!
Wheelchair bending….standard included on most all flights. Arrrgh. Welcome, welcome!
OMG! What a journey to get back to the homeland! I think if I had been Nikki in that last half hour, after seeing that wheel chair, I would have totally lost it. What an astounding amount of patience and fortitude that woman has. She (and you) rank up there on top for people to admire. Hugs to all three of you.
Love was in the air and now on the ground and you are all amazing! Again, thanks for sharing this inspiring journey!