Earning our wings

T.S. Eliot wrote, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” I drink my share of coffee, but if I were to measure my life as a military wife, it could easily be in trips to the airport.

I just got back from one this morning, the good kind. My husband returned from a short TDY in the States. He flew all night, getting only the quality and quantity of sleep allowed by the proximity of strangers and the parsimonious degree of recline provided by airplane seating.

He’s taking a mid-day nap now, acclimating to our time zone, while I’m contemplating the chapters of military life bookmarked by airport visits. Sometimes I’m the one holding the ticket — mentally reviewing my packing list and connecting flights. Sometimes I’m the shuttle driver, picking up and rejoicing or dropping off and feeling forlorn.

The best trips to the airport are those that reunite, of course, like my husband’s homecoming today. The hardest ones separate: taking leave of good friends at a well-loved assignment or traveling home for my father’s funeral.

My favorite kind of trip to the airport, now that I’m the parent of a college student, is when we meet our son arriving home on school holidays. I also enjoy picking up my mom when she comes to visit, and the look on her face when she sees me. Even after 10 hours on a plane, she never looks tired, only happy.

She has the same look when I am the traveler, coming home for a visit. I’ve seen that look from both sides now, as a mother and child, and I understand her joy. Likewise, I dread the flip side airport trip, when it’s time to say good-bye again.

There are other airport trips we don’t celebrate — but barely have time to grieve, either — deployment departures. Our minds are on bags, passports, tickets and last minute reminders, keeping us from dwelling on the lonely and uncertain months ahead. I always think these leave-takings should be more ceremonious. Instead they’re simply busy. Before we know it, we’re back in the car, our number reduced by one, wondering what just happened and whether we said “I love you” and “Be safe” enough times.

Our family has spent a lifetime of travel, moving, visiting, vacationing. In the early days we were that family with the tired children, lugging bags of diapers, toys and snacks to fill long hours of travel. Those journeys became much easier as the kids grew big enough to carry their own bags and welcome a nap rather than resist it.

We’ve spent so much time in airports that we know many by initials or by name: DFW, LAX, Narita, Schiphol. We know where to find the bathrooms and Starbucks in many of them. They are part of the neighborhood of our lives.

Our kids know the airport drill. They know what is allowed in a carry-on and how to get through security efficiently: Laptops out, belts off, small bottles in a Baggie. They can heft a suitcase and know if it’s pushing the weight limit.

Now I’m preparing for another kind of airport trip. On spring break, my daughter and I will fly to the States to visit prospective colleges.

Soon it will be time for the next step, when she’ll be the only one with a ticket to ride. We’ll be the shuttle crew, with last-minute questions, reminders and tears. She’ll wave good-bye and embark on a life of independent air travel. We’ll get back in the car, our number again reduced by one, wondering whether we said “I love you and “Be safe” enough times, wondering how our baby girl could be old enough to get on a plane by herself.

Another chapter measured by yet another trip to the airport.

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