January 9, 2014
2:30 p.m. Eastern Time
Ethiopian Airlines flight 501
Over the North Atlantic
When I was a boy, I spent a surprising amount of time in the old international terminal at LAX.
My beloved Aunt Florence, who was the only grandmother figure I knew, was a missionary to Singapore, and she flew back and forth frequently. Back then, when security was laxer even though terrorist incidents were frequenter, our whole family would drive to LAX to greet her when she returned home from an international trip.
We would glide through security and stand at the gate, craning our necks to look up the jetway so that we could glimpse her as she appeared. Sometimes one of us held a posterboard that read “Welcome Home Aunt Florence.”
She used gift-giving to cement her relationships. An indefatigable gift-buyer and -giver, Aunt Florence would totter up the jetway overloaded with presents small and large. If she’d had a layover in Hawaii, there were leis for everyone. If she’d stopped in Tokyo, she would distribute little games or plastic toys. Sometimes she brought ivory keychains or pens made of coconuts. You never knew.
Seeing Aunt Florence depart from the airport was quite another matter. Usually her friend Elaine Kelly would drive her to LAX, and they’d be late. Aunt Florence was always had multiple jumbo-sized suitcases stuffed with books and papers and all kinds of materials that she used to teach counseling classes at her church in Singapore. She didn’t bring much in the way of clothes — she rotated through the same five polyester dresses for about 15 years — but her bags were so full! She tied them elaborately with plastic twine, creating a netlike pattern so that no one could possibly open her precious bags, and they would never burst open in the bowels of a 747.
When Aunt Florence arrived at the airport, looking haggard, she would tell us that she had been up for 48 hours straight getting ready. I couldn’t understand this — it just seemed like something she did, let getting her hair dyed bright orange at a beauty parlor.
But once Aunt Florence was back up the jetway and on her way to Singapore, she was the happiest clam in the sea. She’d sleep on that plane so that she would arrive refreshed. In Singapore, her other family would greet her at Changi Airport — usually several couples, sometimes with children in tow, who would drape her neck with flowers and welcome her with signs. These were the couples who had been in her premarital counseling classes, and they were fiercely loyal. They called her Mama.
Aunt Florence died 15 years ago, but I’ve been thinking a lot about her over the last few hours. As I was getting ready for my own overseas trip, I pulled a true all-nighter — I never crawled into bed last night.
I worked all day in Delaware and dozed on the train back from Wilmington to Philadelphia. I rode my bike in the subfreezing cold from University City station to Saint Mark’s, where I led the Bible study discussion about Jacob stealing his brother’s birthright. Returning home, I reserved a carshare car, dropped off a spare key at Brett and Geraldine’s place, returned some unused items to Target, and bought saline solution for Kitty, the friend in Africa whom I’m going to visit. I ate a “last meal” at Chick-fil-A — a shameful vice, but those waffle fries!
And then I went home. I had several things on my agenda: Finish packing. Go through the mail that had piled up when I was away over Christmas, making sure there’s nothing that needs a response right now. Prepare the cat litter and cat food for my time away. And write up the minutes for the last church Vestry meeting and send them to the whole Vestry.
This latter was very important — I’m not bringing my laptop on this African trip, so I won’t have access to the notes and templates that I use to write the Vestry minutes. And the minutes will have to be approved at the January 21 meeting, which I will miss because of my trip. I don’t really like the job of doing the minutes, so I always procrastinate. And now I’d done it again.
So I took care of the litter and the cat food, talked to my sister-in-law and Mom, put out the trash and went through the mail. And then I worked on the Vestry minutes, finishing at about 2 a.m. I mailed them to the Vestry, and then I worked on my packing.
Packing was a problem. Kitty has lived in South Sudan for the last 14 months, and it’s impossible to mail anything to where she is. There’s no postal service, no UPS, no Fed Ex. You just can’t get packages there unless someone brings them in.
So when I decided to visit, I offered to bring a suitcase full of things she might need. She sent out an alert to her relatives and friends, and they responded with generosity and abundance. I packed everything that had been sent, except for a few heavy things, carefully arranging everything in my big suitcase. And then I weighed it: 65 pounds. Not good!
So I stuffed everything that would fit into my duffel bag. Forty-nine pounds. And then I put the rest of it into the suitcase, along with my own clothes for the trip. Forty-nine pounds for this one too! My own clothes and shoes were probably 20 pounds at most.
Suddenly, it was 4:15 a.m. and I wasn’t even showered and dressed. So I hopped into the shower, and while I was still dripping, I phoned for a taxi. I threw on my clothes, dragged my mammoth bags downstairs, and sank into the taxi’s back seat at 4:50.
My flight was scheduled for 5:55.
I had become Aunt Florence! I arrived at the airport at the last minute, with giant overloaded bags, having stayed up all night. The only difference: No one was there to see me off, which is just fine with me. I didn’t want flowers, really.
Fortunately, my flight was delayed by 45 minutes, or I think I might have missed it.