I’ve spent a lot of my life 30,000ft in the air.
Although nearly impossible to count the number of miles I’ve flown since childhood, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that I’ve spent more time tucked into various 2x3 spaces, munching on high-sodium snack packs than most people ever have or ever will. It’s something that a lot of people don’t know about me, and even I forget how many days, back-and-forth and back-and-forth, I spent forging bonds with the Atlanta airport staff, trying to memorize the stories and faces of new friends I’d met from across the world. Faces I’d surely never see again, but enjoyed while they lasted.
A few weeks ago, I boarded yet another plane from Dallas to Los Angeles and spent almost the entirety of the flight lost in the expanse of sky and light.
I thought back to my experiences traveling as a child overwhelmed by memories of my younger self weaving her way through chaotic and busy terminals, tossing quarters with seat-mates, and falling asleep beneath fluorescent lights whilst waiting for yet another delayed flight.
I recalled the people I’d met – a therapist, an Alaskan native who later became a pen pal... then a memory. I sifted through the nights I spent in airport basements with other Unaccompanied Minors wishing we were home instead of on cots waiting out storms.
I remembered countless trips from my elementary school to the check-in counter hoping my flights would get canceled so that I could finally go to a birthday party or some event I had to miss, yet again.
My parents, like so many others at the time, were divorced and had been since I was 18-months-old.
Their separation and eventual decisions to pursue new lives states apart led to years of cross-country traveling from a young age, thus everything I’ve mentioned until now. Despite the maturity I felt while traveling alone or the idea that family waited on the other side, most of my experiences going back-and-forth between my parents were fraught with the looming reality that at some point I would have to leave.
With every flight came the awareness that eventually I would be forced to say goodbye, and that difficulty with separation, although familiar, followed me into adulthood.
Because of those incessant goodbyes, for “children of divorce” as guidance counselors used to call us, it seems there is no such thing as enough time with the people we love.
At age 12, my parents fought the custody battle to end all custody battles. It was long and laborious and unabashedly vicious. It went on through the school year, then into summer, and ended with an abrupt car ride to the airport. Just before school was about to start, without warning, a car pulled up to my grandmother’s house, my aunt got out, and broke the news that my mom had lost.
I was immediately sent to Texas, and 24 hours later I started seventh grade – no goodbyes.
I remember arriving at the airport, a place that for years felt so familiar, somehow fully aware that this time I wouldn’t be back. My aunt explained that I could not speak to my mom for a long time, and I would have to be patient while the judge decided when to lift the order. I looked at the jet bridge, tears down my face, and knew that once I boarded that plane my life would never be the same; there was nothing I could do about it.
I spent the next two flights shattering into confusion. Helpless, mute, and devastated that my goodbyes had been ripped away without permission.
There are BC/AD moments in our lives - moments when everything changes. That was one of them.
After the first year, visitation with my mom was reinstated, but it was never as frequent as it was before I was taken away. I began to see my mother two or three times a year and after a while, we inevitably grew distant. My mom couldn’t afford to buy plane tickets back-and-forth, and well, there was no incentive for my dad to provide visitation. Progressively, our talks thinned out and somehow the 12 years my mom and I spent almost entirely together, dissipated into foggy memories that were sliced and diced by the morphine of emotional repression that so often finds us in our trauma.
Perhaps the most difficult part of that year, beyond the obvious pain that comes with missing those we love, was experiencing the effects of being taken away so abruptly and without explanation.
Because my mom and I were not given the time to process our separation or why it happened so fast, an agonizing void grew between us. Once I was finally able to see her again and the sting of the trauma wore away, rather than filling our time together with warm conversations about friends and activities, we were presented with the monumental challenge of reintroducing ourselves. She was completely broken by the loss of her only child, and I was aching to connect to the ghost of my mother.
What was there to say?
That first uncomfortable visit finally passed, and I hoped things would get better, but they didn’t. Over time, it became easier to keep my distance and remind myself of her love for me, rather than go back and forth, constantly coming face-to-face with the years I could never get back and the time a visit could never give me. I threw myself into school, friends, and activities, rarely making time to call and reconnect. What started as a need to survive became a choice of neglect and control to avoid the pain that came with trying so hard to restore a relationship that had been stolen.
Eventually, by the grace that only time can bring, the sting of that summer wore off.
Middle school came to an end, high school brought its own set of challenges, and college the same. As I grew older, I sprinted full-speed-ahead toward a future that looked nothing like my parents’ - a future where I had control over all of it. In my future there were no unexpected plane rides, no severed relationships, no choices made without my permission. In my imagined future, there was more than enough time to forge new bonds with new people, and I couldn’t get there fast enough. The idea of “someday” became a remedy for present pain. I assured myself that if I simply got to college, all would finally be well. I could make my own decisions; I could build the life that I wanted, and there would be no grieving required.
Years later, however, after college inevitably disappointed me and I woke up to the fact that one-by-one I was losing a handful of dear relationships to my need for control, I began to understand that while my pain might have been caused by others, it now spilled out as pain onto others, because it made a home within me.
Most of my friendships became about inclusion, rather than intimacy. If I was included, I was liked, and if I was liked, I was safe, even if it wasn’t authentic.
I remember waking up early one morning after I moved to Los Angeles for the summer.
Lost in the movement of faintly smeared paint along the ceiling, I combed through my life and realized that “someday” was ecstasy, and I was an addict. My need to steer life into safety and comfortability led me closer and closer to relationships that couldn’t flourish while suffocating under my possession.
That morning, through hours of silence, I finally realized that even though none of my past trauma was my fault, allowing myself to remain a control-obsessed product of it would be. That morning I committed to actively participating in my relationships and allowing others to do the same, however they could, whenever they could. It was time to allow God to be God, so He could create something new.
That was five years ago, and through a lot prayer and love and community and redemption and learning, every day has been a little brighter and more peaceful than the last.
I have learned so much about my relationship with goodbyes and intimacy, and what I always thought was their mutually exclusive relationship.
I have learned to call my parents more.
I have learned that: even when I am scared that I don’t have enough time to see or hug the people I love, it is important to do so anyway, because physical absence and emotional intimacy can be present at the same time.
I learned to show up.
I learned that an emotional goodbye is worth the warmth of a deep conversation, because loving hard is not only good, but also safe.
I’m not trying to tie a bow around my experience. I still catch myself anticipating bitter-sweet departures and checking my watch until they arrive. I still touch down to see family, and step off of the plane soaked in the awareness that their absence looms ahead. Occasionally, I feel the chill of emotional distance as a flight approaches. But, there’s also growth, and that’s what I hold onto.
Such special, deep relationships have grown out of the greatest trauma of my life, so I praise God daily for the blessing of ruin and just keep going.
There are few things on this Earth more chaotic than paving your way through a crowded terminal, and few things more joyous than being met with rest, love, and peace on the other side.
Despite the years I spent weaving my way through the chaos of my childhood, I do my best to wake up committed to facing the hard stuff and pressing on toward the rest and peace that meets me on the other side.