We’ve never missed a flight, my wife and I. Over the years there’ve been a couple close calls, some short connections here and there that had us sprinting through an airport terminal, carrying both kids, a carseat or two, and a shitload of carry-on stuff. But we’ve always made it. And we’re the type who, if we can, like to get there waaaay early. We camp out near the gate, take some walks with Tess. Park at the big windows with Dana and watch the planes land and take off. Chill out and have a relaxing travel experience. To the extent that’s even possible with T.
So there we are, on a highway in Florida. That morning we’ve left the Florida Keys to come back to Maine with a ridiculous amount of time to spare. We plan on having hours in the Fort Lauderdale airport. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, there we are, outside Miami, mired in some of the worst traffic I’ve ever seen. And I used to live in NYC. This jam we’re in? It’s the kind during which you whip out your phone to consult Google maps, so you can navigate to the next exit and find a workaround, but you discover that the Google traffic overlay is a sea of red, even on all the back roads. Everything within a five-mile radius of us is at a total standstill.
As we sit there, inching forward, we’re doing the math and realizing that--in spite of leaving super duper early that morning--we might not make our flight. My wife and I are trying to keep our cool, saying, “We’ll be fine,” over and over, but eventually as we sit there longer and longer we begin to freak out. We are not making our flight. There just isn’t time. We’re checking three big suitcases, we’re in a rental car that we need to gas up and return, and it’s just not gonna happen.
Turns out there’s a mega accident on the highway. All lanes winnow down to one. Hence the jam. It takes an eon to get through. And by the time we reach the airport and screech to a halt at the Hertz drop-off spot, we’re down to 40 minutes. That’s 40 minutes before our flight takes off. We’ve abandoned any hope of putting gas in the car before drop off. Not sure if you’ve ever made this extremely unwise financial decision, but we’d signed an agreement saying we’d bring it back full of gas, and basically agreed that if we didn’t do that, they could charge us a college tuition as a penalty. Shit. But we’d had no choice. Then the Hertz guy--I could have kissed the man--he senses that we’re running short on time, and he offers to drive us and our bags straight to the terminal, rather than making us take the rental car shuttle bus. Yes!
There’s still a chance. We get to our terminal, unload the kids and bags, and still have about 30 minutes to make our flight. And then we go inside and see the line to check bags. We’re talking 50, 60 people. Our hearts sink. Dana gets upset. We're toast. But then my wife sees something. I notice where she’s going with it, and I hand her Tess.
In a bizarre, is-this-really-happening moment, I look up as my wife’s walking away, and there in front of me is Alonzo Mourning. He’s a basketball player. He’s 6-foot-10. He played center at Georgetown but left the year before I got there. He also played in the NBA and on the US Olympic team. He’s now retired. Seeing him, I begin to believe that this is all a bad dream. Right? I can hear myself saying, "Honey, last night I dreamed we were in this airport with the kids and were missing our flight. And Alonzo Mourning was there." "Alonzo Mourning the basketball player?" "Yep."
Anyway, pinching myself proves that this is no dream. We're really in the airport and it's really Alonzo Mourning. I want to go up to Zo and ask for his help. I want to introduce him to Tess and Dana and help us get on a flight back to Maine. I imagine his imposing figure changing somehow, him maybe taking a knee to get a good look at her, his trademark permascowl dissolving into a grin, the cuteness of Tess overcoming him. But before I can talk to Zo, he’s already walking out the door, out of the airport, not to return, doubtless to avoid waiting in any lines or dealing with yahoos who want him to meet their kids and sign stuff.
Meanwhile, my wife heads up to the place that Zo has just left — the Sky Priority line. It's a gleaming, open space of shiny floors and privilege, with no one in line and nary a person in sight, except for a smiling agent. The agent sees Kate coming up to the counter, and at this point we certainly don’t look like Sky Priority customers. The agent’s smile doesn’t waver. I find out later how it goes down. Kate gets there, holding Tess, and before the agent can say anything, Kate says, “We aren’t Sky Priority customers.” And that agent, who we will forever love from that moment forward, sees the look on my wife’s face and sees Tess and without missing a beat or asking for ID says: “Yes, you are.”
In the end, the agent makes a valiant effort. She punches her keyboard faster than lightning, getting us checked in for our flight and printing our boarding passes. But the problem is our bags. We can make the flight, and she’s even thinking she can get them to hold it for us while we run for it, but our bags aren’t gonna be on there. They’ll spend the night in Detroit, where we’re connecting, and we’ll get them the next day or later. This is a deal breaker. We need those bags. One of them has Tess’s bed in it, and it’s unsafe for her to have even one night without being in it. This is the last flight of the day that could get us home that isn’t oversold. And there are, like, a billion people on standby. So it’s official. We are not leaving Florida. The agent, who--did I mention we love her?--has booked us on a flight for the next day, leaving West Palm Beach, connecting through Laguardia, and getting us back into Portland just before midnight.
My wife hands me Tess and gets on her phone to find us a hotel. We go from thinking we’ll find a free room on points, to hoping for a hotel with a pool, from just praying we can find a hotel at all. After five calls to local spots, my wife realizes that it’s spring break, so Fort Lauderdale is totally booked.
Eventually we score a spot at a hotel in West Palm. Our rental car has gone bye-bye, so we have to get a cab to take us there, which once again, costs approximately one college tuition. We probably could have bought a car and driven ourselves for less.
At this point we’re reeling. We aren’t exactly a roll-with-the-punches kind of family. If we had two typical kids, maybe we would be. But we don’t. With Tess, things are different. And there are two looming sources of dread for us, two big problems with being on this trip for longer than we anticipated.
The first one is food. See, when we travel, we have to plan out everything. The T-Bird’s diet is really really restrictive. Think gluten free and dairy free. And soy free. And no grains at all. Or onions. Or garlic. Or peppers. No beans, either. Citrus is probably not a great idea. She can eat meat, but lean meats only. No fatty meats. And we try to keep out all sugar, other than the kind you naturally find in fruits. Think of it. There's sugar in freakin everything. And even if there's not sugar in something, there's probably vegetable oil. Which is soy.
This leaves mostly just lean meat, sweet potatoes, nuts, avocados, and some fruits.
So when we're on the road, we can't exactly take her to Mickey D's. Or Chili’s. If we don't stick to her diet, we pay the price. And that means hours if not days of her spitting up or vomiting. Sometimes some diaper explosions. I remember one trip to Colorado that messed up her GI tract for like a month. Literally.
All this means that when we travel we have to bring all her food with us. Or if it's a longer journey, make sure there's a kitchen and decent grocery store on the other end, so we can cook her stuff.
A trip with Tess is like a NASA mission. Seven days means x pounds of food, plus backup food. So when things go wrong, and your mission gets extended by uncontrollable forces, we have to treat it like a NASA mission. And go fully into Apollo 13 mode.
Well, we lucked out big time. When we’d first arrived in Florida, I’d bought a ton of chicken that Tess can eat. I’d cooked it all up and fed it to her over several days of lunches and dinners. But I’d made so much that I figured it would go bad before she could eat it all, so I’d stuck it in the freezer. When it was time to leave there was still a bunch of freezer chicken, and we’d brought it with us. So it just happened that we had multiple Tess meals, with us, on ice. And I don’t care what kind of hotel you’re in, there’s always an ice machine. We also had a bunch of trail mix and stuff she can have. Thus we had backup food, and backup for the backup. What they call system redundancy. More than enough to get us through the airport for the next day of meals.
But there was one other problem. Diapers. We’d brought enough for seven days, with some extra. And we’d blown through all but two diapers and two pull-ups. All it would take was one episode of diaper explosions to kill our entire supply. So here’s how we went into Apollo 13 mode. Remember Ken Mattingly? He was this guy who was supposed to be on Apollo 13, but at the last minute he couldn't go, because he'd been exposed to German measles. He didn't have the measles right then, but NASA couldn't take the risk of sending him up there and having measles develop with him and the rest of the crew. So he got grounded. And he was super bummed, but when that mission went south, he was the guy on the ground working out ways for them to repurpose items they had up in the lunar module, so those guys could survive longer. Take this tubing, plug it into this square dealie, plug the other end into this piece, and voila -- an air filter that'll make the astronauts' air last longer. Remember that?
Well, My wife totally did a Ken Mattingly. After fruitless searches of multiple airport gift shops and newsstands, we discovered that you can't really buy diapers at an airport. And even if they sold them there, they weren't gonna have size 7. Which is what Tess wears. Pretty big. Most stores don't have em. So my wife starts going through our stuff. Takes an inventory. Lays it all out on the hotel bed and everything. At this point, we’re ready to take some duct tape and socks and make some frickin diapers. But we don’t have to. My wife realizes that we have swim diapers. T’s potty training, so she can usually go without a diaper at all. But if we need them, with the swimmies we’ll probably have enough to cover T for the day.
That whole next day, the kids do great. Part of this is my wife’s unceasing cheer, a la Gretchen Rubin’s the Happiness Project. Have you read this book? I talk about it all the time. It’s about how much of whether you're happy depends not on circumstances but your attitude. Essentially, you can will yourself into happiness, even in crappy situations. My wife’s an expert in using this philosophy in getting us through tough times with Tess--things like surgeries and hospital stays. And of course, getting through long trips. As this trip winds to a close--we hope, anyway--we head to the airport early early and proceed to have one of our best days. There’s mini-golf in the terminal, and Dana plays his first game of pool. We watch a bunch of hoops on various TVs here and there, since March Madness is in full swing. We say again and again how awesome it is to have an extra day in Florida, since due to delays on our original flight from the day before, if we had made that flight we would have gotten stuck in Detroit overnight. Florida in March is better than Detroit in March. No offense, Detroit. And we finally arrive home in Maine, safe and sound, with diapers and food left over.
So the agent with the name tag “Sue G,” at Delta’s Sky Priority counter in Fort Lauderdale? If there’s a heaven, you’re going there. And Hertz dropoff guy? I didn’t get your name, but so are you. Consider our bacon saved, by both of you.