Those are two words you never want to hear in reference to an airplane that is carrying your seven-year-old child. Particularly when it happens to be the first airplane on which your child has ever ridden alone.
My son was excited about his first solo plane trip, and felt like a Big Boy.
Couldn’t wait to get his very own can of 7-Up. Will they give me extra snacks? he wanted to know.
His grandmother, my mother-in-law, had dropped him off at the airport in Salt Lake City. His grandfather, my father, would pick him up in San Francisco. My 10-year-old daughter was staying on in Salt Lake to have some special time with Granny.
Meanwhile, I was sitting outside a café in our hometown of Portland, Oregon, taking advantage of the hours of free time that stretched ahead of me to catch up on some writing. My mother-in-law had texted about 30 minutes earlier to let us know she’d watched the plane take off. Before boarding, my son had given Granny his wide, warm signature hug, then walked confidently down the jetway.
All was well.
Or so I thought.
In our nine years in Portland, my partner and I had never had a weekend at home without the kids.
We had managed a couple of rushed weekend getaways (as in two), but we’d never enjoyed the leisure and comfort of home without work or children.
Throughout the preceding week, I kept marveling at the quiet that had nestled itself into the corners and walls of our home. I could actually hear thoughts swirling through my head. When I came upstairs after my workday, I couldn’t believe that everything was exactly where I had left it. There weren’t any Legos underfoot, no apple cores obscured by clouds of fruit flies on the counter, no hardening hunks of unwrapped cheese, no footprints on the toilet lid, no streaks on the mirror.
The countertop almost looked sheepish in its nakedness, accustomed to lurking beneath anything and everything that my children needed to put down whenever they happened to be in or near the kitchen. A thousand-piece puzzle graced our coffee table, the frame assembled, bits of the picture beginning to emerge.
Of course, I missed my kids. But I was also thoroughly enjoying myself. The weekend brought me back to my gloriously unencumbered 20s when mornings were slow and afternoons rambled.
Before me, my laptop screen gleamed with promise. Beside me, an iced coffee glistened. Around me, conversation buzzed.
Then I got the text.
Alaska Airlines said: We’re sorry about the delay. Check your flight status here.
At first, I was merely perplexed. If the flight was already en route, how could it be delayed? I clicked through to check the status and spent several minutes trying to decipher the information on the page. The destination city of SFO had been crossed out in red and replaced with SLC.
So the flight was returning to Salt Lake?
Immediately, I called my partner, but he didn’t pick up. So I called my father to see if he’d gotten any more information. That’s when I heard the words mechanical failure, and the sidewalk on which I was sitting seemed to give way beneath me.
From what I could gather, there was a plane, somewhere near Salt Lake City, that was in the process of descending from 35,000 some-odd feet with a piece of malfunctioning machinery. This plane was carrying my seven-year-old son. No one was there to hold his hand.
They say the first stage of grief is denial, but the first stage of uncertainty is reckless, reeling acceptance.
In my mind, the plane had already dropped from the sky, slammed into the ground, and met a fierce and fiery demise. As I jammed my laptop into its case, hands shaking, I was already picturing our son’s empty seat at the dinner table, the stilted conversations, the clink of forks against plates.
And I’d had the audacity to enjoy my children’s absence. The iced coffee on the table before me seemed like a relic from a different era. The delicious quiet in our house would be engulfed by suffocating silence. There would be no meandering walk with my partner this evening, no lemon-spritzed calamari at the seafood restaurant we’d be wanting to try.
It all seemed absurd, even obscene.
I stuffed the iced coffee, still three-quarters full, into the garbage can. That carefree life was behind me now. It took all my restraint to keep myself from running blindly into the street.
Instead, I paused and looked both ways, just as I’d taught my son to do, angry at the cars for passing me by as though nothing had happened, as though my entire world had not just been turned upside down. At the first break in the traffic, I ran. Home was only a few blocks away, and I kept running. My breath escaped my body in shallow gasps. My messenger bag slammed against my hips.
This can’t be happening, this can’t be happening, this can’t be happening. I don’t remember if the mantra only echoed through my head or if I wheezed it aloud. As a child, I’d always been terrified of plane crashes. I kept my fingers crossed during takeoffs and landings. Even now, when turbulence strikes, I still feel the urge to pray.
I arrived at the house red-faced, heaving. My partner was on the porch talking on the phone. I detected no notes of panic in his voice.
Everything, I soon learned, was fine. The plane was on the ground and our son was in the care of a flight attendant. Seconds later, we got to hear his voice — still a little boy’s voice, smooth at the edges, but also increasingly self-assured. “I’m fine, Mom,” he said. “Guess what? I’m getting a burger!”
Only a few minutes prior, I’d thought I might never hear that voice again. The tears seeped from the corners of my eyes and streaked my cheeks. I was still having trouble catching a full breath.
We learned later, days later, that his plane had never taken off at all.
The mechanical failure was detected while they were still on the ground and they merely taxied back to the gate. Whatever plane my mother-in-law saw take-off was not in fact the plane that was carrying my son.
A week later, both of my children safely returned home. I could feel the weight of them against me as I drew them into my arms, the gentle squeeze of their hands against my back. My daughter smelled of lotion and hair oil. My son still emanated that fresh little boy smell.
Within a few hours, the house had devolved into chaos. Golden droplets of urine ringed the toilet seat, tufts of hair clogged the drain, and wet towels lay in forlorn heaps on the bathroom floor. My swirling interior thoughts were submerged under squeals and squabbles and shrieks.
In short, everything was back to normal.
During the seven minutes of my life when I thought my son was falling from the sky, nearly 800 miles away, I might have told you that I had let him stray too far, that I should have held him closer. I might have told you that if I ever had a chance to hold him again, I’d never let him go.
I did get a chance to hold him again, but of course, I still have to let him go.
Parenting is, at its core, a slow process of letting go.
Luckily for me, I don’t have to let him go all at once. I still get to draw him in my arms in the morning while he wipes sleep from his eyes. I get to cuddle with him at night while I sing lullabies slightly off-key. He still runs to me wraps his arms around my waist and says, “Bye Mama, I love you!” every time I leave the house.
My goal is to be an attentive, if sometimes grumpy, mother — neither neglectful nor hovering. I want my children to learn how to navigate the world without me holding their hand. I know they learn vital life skills by adapting to other houses, unfamiliar situations, and new routines.
I find that a focus on self-sufficiency benefits me, too. It helps me to draw my own boundary lines and redefine my sense of self.
The world is full of risk, and the risks we obsess over are often not the risks that most threaten us.
The chances of my son dying in a plane crash are one in 11 million. The chances of either of my children getting kidnapped when they walk alone to school are about one in 300,000. Meanwhile, the chances of them dying in a car crash as I shuttle them to and from supervised playdates and scheduled activities are one in 102.
Of course, it’s much easier to say all this from the other side of those panicked seven minutes. But I, for one, still plan to let my children travel alone, walk by themselves to school, and play soccer in the street.
I just hope I don’t have to hear the words mechanical failure in reference to an airborne vehicle carrying one of my children ever again. Luckily, the law of probability is on my side.
Kerala Taylor is an award-winning writer and co-owner of a worker-owned marketing agency. Her weekly stories are dedicated to interrupting notions of what it means to be a mother, woman, worker, and wife. She writes on Medium and has recently launched a Substack publication Mom, Interrupted.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.