It’s a war out there. Venturing forth from lockdown today felt like creeping out of my foxhole or trench to sally forth to do battle with the enemy army, a covert (get it?) force of invisible soldiers.
Not that I have the faintest idea what it feels like to be an infantryperson on the front line of a battle, and the only thing I know about foxholes is ‘foxy’ ladies’ in jodhpurs chasing wee creatures to death. The closest I have ever been to death itself was when someone tried to strangle me once (No doubt others have wished they could do me in, but someone actually tried once. I’m still here, however, so guess who won that fight?!… but that can remain a story for another day.) Then there was the chemotherapy…but that was more like imagining death as an option because chemo was so agonizingly unpleasant… again a tale for another fireside though.
But the elements of a movie about twenty-first century urban conflict are all there in this death-dance with a coronavirus:
For the first time in centuries the world war is one in which all countries share an enemy. And the virus has no alliances. It is an axis of evil all on its own, unless you consider Diabetes, Hypertension and Asthma its allies. There’s no shortage of finger-pointing at possible partners in crime, mind you, with Trump vacillating between blaming China, The WHO, the Democrats and the media for being in league with the virus.
2. War Correspondents/ Propagandists (and it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference)
As with any modern war, events unfold live on TV. So, you have your obligatory war correspondents: those talking heads on TV who spout commentary all day and night are worse than googling your symptoms for frightening the bejesus out of you. It’s only when they interview the likes of Professor Salim Abdool Karim that I realise we shall be all right with him at the helm of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19. (Prof K has been voted the sexiest COVID-19 scientist by some ladies in the deep South – well they put it a little cruder, but still, not only is he a measured and eminently lucid academic, he is rather cute in a grandfatherly way.) From someone who watched the first Gulf War unfold on TV (That was when I was going through my chemo) as well as living through 9-11 and its aftermath in the US, I find these reporters often spread panic far more than information. They have to fill a 24-hour news cycle and so much of what they do is speculate…and confuse.
Choose wisely who you watch. Avoid almost all politicians. They are conflicted between the health and economic crisis, and their own next election. And yes, I know I sound a little Trumpian in my criticism of the media, but choose carefully which ones you take your truth from. Remember ‘Pravda’ means ‘truth.’ Remember Squealer in Animal Farm and choose the views that do not defend or glorify politicians.
In fact, the press plays a massively important watchdog role in a war. They are the ones who warn of excesses by authoritarian forces and remind us that emergency measures should not become the norm in surveillance and curtailing of freedoms and abuse of power. Study who owns media houses to see whose interests are being served.
These are different from political allies. They are ordinary folk and in the COVID War they are ordinary citizens who just Won’t. Stay. At. Home during lockdown. You know the ones who don’t wear a mask because they ‘can’t breathe nicely’ with it on or aver they are ’not scared to get this virus, because they are young/healthy’…. (insert other obnoxious, entitled utterings). These are the ones who defy the regulations and who in two weeks will either be ill or have passed on the virus to some poor cashier at the supermarket or their elderly parents.
We won’t mention Nkosazani Dlamini-Zuma’s dodgy dealings with illicit tobacco kingpin Adriano Mazotti because the ANCasked us not to pick on the ministers. But, ja… There will always be those who profiteer in a war.
Any conflict involves a complex network of spies on both sides, scurrying around gathering information and exposing the underbelly on both the human and alien invader side. And they are spending lockdown with binocs surveilling their neighbourhoods for humans out after curfew and joggers nipping over the dunes for a quick paddle in the sea, posting their pics on Facebook Neighbourhood sites like ‘Wanted’ posters, shaming the offenders and turning in the collaborators.
The important spies in this fight are the scientists and doctors who are devoting their waking hours to finding a vaccine and uncovering how this little bugger works. Move over James Bond and Jason Bourne -these are the spies we really need.
The enemy spies and reconnaissance guerillas are unseen, jumping easily from one coughing cyclist to the next one in his unprotected slipstream. They live among us, invisible until we touch our eyes or scratch our mouths. Like Mata Hari, they lurk on our lovers’ lips and in their hair, but they are scarier and more prolific than the Army of the Dead in GOT, because they are unseen and unstoppable.
As so many times throughout history the easiest cannon fodder have been the drafted serfs who are forced into a war not of their making to serve on the frontline and take the brunt of the distant generals’ and nobles’ wars. Spare a thought for the poor who didn’t bring the virus here (they can’t afford to fly) but will ultimately pay the price of the virus just as they have with HIV. Think of them in your safe, air-conditioned car on your way to your salaried job, while they commute in crowded public transporters (Oh, come on taxis are definitely going to try to defy the regs!) and return to their tiny homes to take the advance guard of corona to their elderly parents and tuberculoid roommates.
6. Foot Soldiers
Then there are the foot soldiers, you and me who ‘also serve who only stand and wait’ in lockdown and the advance guard in the hospitals, petrol stations, shops, police stations and clerks in government offices; teachers in their nests; farmers in their fields; truckers on the road. Don’t forget security guards and sanitizing company works who can be seen spraying down offices like the nuclear scientists of science fiction movies, in their Hazmat suits. I really hope all the essential workers will finally be rewarded financially for being the cannon fodder of this disease.
When this is over and people no longer clap at eight o’clock, please vote for salary increases for them. Like soldiers in combat, many will not receive medals and state funerals. And they are dying for us, folk. Doctors and nurses are bearing the brunt of enemy fire: by mid-April, 17 000 Italian doctors and nurses were infected with 159 medical personnel being among the dead. And that’s just Italy. Sadly, they seem to be operating like the field hospital in M*A*S*H, using their wits and making do sans proper PPE.
When we go out in our masks we circle other people warily like combatants in a fencing match or Star Wars Jedi knights, facing down our nemesis on a narrow ledge, our hoodies our cowls, and hand sanitizer our lightsabers. Please don’t believe Mr Trump that Lysol injections are the way to go if you’re scratching around for an adequate weapon (that one is firing blanks, my friend), or the Madagascans peddling untested plant-remedies like Thabo Mbeki on steroids. Please don’t fall prey to the anti-vaxxers refusing to contemplate a vaccine cure in the future. How do they think we got rid of smallpox, for goodness sake! You don’t need a ray gun. Just wash your hands!
8. Body Armour
A word on masks: there is an entire universe of sub-cultures evident in how we are wearing masks: from the disposable medical ones; to the pretty, lacy, hand-made ones or the crudely sewn efforts of the needlework-challenged. Then there are the wannabe bandits with their bandanas tied cowboy-style across their faces like train robbers.. Trendy people don a variety of snoods and infinity scarves in multiple colourful shades and fabrics from surfer cool to cyclist flashy. The ‘boets’ of course stride through the shop in their artisan masks for chemical spraying with all sorts of filters and respirators. My favourites so far have been the old lady I spotted at the pharmacy in her ingenious McGyver-inspired mmmshield fashioned from staples and one of those plastic envelopes you put in office files, and the man who went shopping with his tiny boys armoured up as a miniature stormtrooper and some masked Marvel creature that was scarier than Joan Rivers sans make-up (Okay that is a bit mean, but if she can dish it, she should take it too).
We cannot fight on the beaches (well, not in Lockdown Level 4), but we shall fight on the school grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
With apologies to Winston Churchill
According to Dr Bryan E Roberson writing for Psychology Today and Forbes, the brain prefers to know an outcome one way or another, even if the outcome is unpleasant. According to him, scientists have discovered that job uncertainty, for example, is worse for your health than actually losing your job. British researchers discovered that study participants who were told they would definitely receive a painful electric shock felt ‘calmer and less agitated’ than those who were told they only had a 50% chance of getting the electric shock. So uncertainty is problematic.
This puts us at a slight disadvantage during the coronavirus lockdown, when even if we’d prefer a negative outcome that is certain, we cannot get absolute answers, because so much is intangible and uncertain.
For example, knowing schools will only re-open in September, horrible though that thought may be for parents struggling to teach their offspring the intricacies of long division and educators being jettisoned into the morass of remote teaching who hope parents don’t teach them old-fashioned long division methods), is preferable to this are-we-aren’t-we opening-in-May twilight zone we’re occupying at the moment.
My friend, Frank said the other day he almost wishes he could just get the virus and be done with worrying about getting it whenever he goes out. His view, though a rather desperate response to uncertainty, is not an isolated one.
Many people are recording increased insomnia, brought upon by fears of what might happen. I am battling to fall asleep of late, and upon my enquiring about her ‘wellness’ in this time, one of my colleagues told me she is waking up at 4 am worrying about a multitude of things, running a myriad of awful scenarios in her mind. Many others are similarly lying awake imagining the worst-case situations which may or may not in fact ever come to pass (what my aunt calls ‘borrowing tomorrow’s troubles’). My insomniac friend can attest to not being alone in this midnight mental morbidity, because when she goes online in the witching hour, she sees how many others in her network are also online at the same time.
And that raises another contributor to our uncertainty angst: watching too much news. I remember being in the USA after 9-11 and psychologists telling viewers to stop watching 24-hour news channels because not only do they stream permanent panic, the dramatic music and tone of newscasters and talking heads amplify stress levels. And they seldom agree with one another so the channels tend to exacerbate uncertainty.
I want to put in a word here about children and stress: be careful of projecting your anxiety onto your little ones. The generation of young children living through this year (and what follows) will almost certainly be somewhat scarred or unlikely to escape unaffected. Infants (and their older siblings) cleave to our emotions instinctively and know we are stressed even if we don’t know we are. They know when our toddler-tolerance has reached its capacity and they sense we are uncertain, even when we pretend we are not.
And children are still learning to process emotions so are less adept at prosaic acceptance of things. Someone on my neighbourhood Facebook group posted the other day about her 10-year-old who burst into tears, sobbing uncontrollably about how afraid she was. So, talk to your children about fears. It’s okay to own up to being a bit worried, but be sure to say how you are going to overcome your disquieting thoughts, so they know it is possible to cope.
Owning your uncertainty with them also empowers them by allowing them to see you overcome being less than perfect and dealing with the nebulous nature of uncertainty. I’ll never forget when my eldest son failed his driver’s licence in matric, and shared his emotions in an inspirational speech at school. He was one of the ‘cool crowd’ and by owning up to being less than perfect, he gave so many others permission to not be perfect also. But he gave them a way out of the pit he was in (his mother bought him lessons!) and that is how we can assist our beloveds – own it and make a plan to overcome it. Just don’t brush off their fears. They are real.
‘You can be both a masterpiece and a work in progress simultaneously.’
– Sophie Bush
The effects of COVID-19 lockdown will not vanish when the nurseries re-open. Who knows how our children’s early development will be impaired by being surrounded by adults in masks, not seeing their smiles to respond to, or their lips to mimic sounds. Baby class educators will be torn between doubling down on face protection or only perspex covering to allow their charges to imitate them, as they need to. There are no easy answers to these predicaments, but the schools that know about these potential problems though, are the ones which will make provisions to counter such obstacles. We cannot become bogged down in these fears of what could go wrong.
There is a definite link between emotions and negative thoughts, but likewise there is a link between imagining positive outcomes and being less anxious. That makes sense of course – and my mother always said psychology was just common sense. In other words, in order to reduce our anxiety in uncertain times, we need to think of positive potential outcomes more deliberatively to improve our mental health and assist in coping with uncertainty.
The much-maligned little Pollyanna of literature, she of the count-you-blessings sunshine philosophy actually had it right when she said:
“And most generally there is something about everything that you can be glad about, if you keep hunting long enough to find it.” ― Eleanor H. Porter, Pollyanna
If you don’t believe her, Oprah said it too:
“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” — Oprah Winfrey
(Of course, if your couple of ‘blessings’ happen to have two feet and two arms, runny noses and badger you with endless questions while you are trying to tele-conference, this might be a difficult strategy to reduce your stress about uncertainty – especially if Oprah’s suggestion is you’ll end up with more ‘blessings’ and you had given away the black motorbike!)
[Aside: If you don’t want surprise babies/blessings: never give away the black motorbike. I should know].
But I digress.
How can we combat uncertainty? It’s not just about being positive and hopeful, although I laughed out loud at Jennifer Saunders who declared that the good thing about the delay of the Olympics is that we now all have a chance to train in time to qualify! (Not even Pollyanna would agree with her on that!)
According to Lorena Pasquini, Anna Steynor, and Katinka Waagsaether of the University of Cape Town, there are 3 strategies humans employ when dealing with uncertainty:
1. ‘Strategies of suppression refer to the denial of uncertainty, such as ignoring uncertainty, relying on intuition, or taking a gamble.’
People like my friend Frank who are wanting desperately to put an end to the tension of will-I won’t-I get it, are in danger of engaging in risky behaviour like purposefully not washing hands (just urgh) or refusing to wear a mask, in order to escape the stress of not knowing. This thinking also explains why some people are calmer about death when they know they are about to die than the anxiety they experience before a diagnosis; why parents of children who have gone missing in many cases suffer more than those whose deaths have been confirmed.
Gambling intuitively or risk-taking in business may be exceptional qualities in the normal business world, as exemplified by the likes of Richard Branson and his ilk, but at a time of crisis, these same mavericks are crying out for government bailouts.
Leaders who respond with intuition and gamble on outcomes of herd immunity, like the leaders of the USA and Sweden at the moment may live to regret not being more measured.
2. ‘Strategies of reduction involve trying to increase information or predictability.
Some examples of reduction tactics include collecting more information, asking for advice, or delaying action until more information is available.’
This is what the South African education departments are doing at the moment: consulting, researching, delaying decisions of when and how to return to school. Companies, shops and schools will be delaying re-opening strategies until they have a better idea of what lies ahead. This is obviously a practical way forward and a more scientific approach, but can cause a hugely emotional response from clients and employees desperate for certainty. However, as New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo (one of the only American politicians making sense at the moment) said today at a press briefing:
3. ‘Strategies of acknowledgement take uncertainty into accountin selecting a course of action or preparing to avoid possible risks.’
When society does unfurl itself from the lockdown-hibernation, allowing for uncertainty is so important. The plain sense of South Africa’s planned return from lockdown takes this into account, with its multiple stages, allowing for upwards and downwards movement between levels depending on changing circumstances. It involves managing change.
I am so glad we have someone with emotional intelligence and psychological insight leading us through this crisis. Thank you, President Ramaphosa!
In the end, we are alive. And that is the whole point of this exercise.
So, be calm; think of opportunities which can be had out of this difficult time and act on them, and be grateful to be alive. Stop worrying and try multiplication at 4 am – like how many sheep are needed to make a Zara jersey – that’ll be better than counting sheep:
“But I have my life, I’m living it. It’s twisted, exhausting, uncertain, and full of guilt, but nonetheless, there’s something there.” ― Banana Yoshimoto,The Lake
 Ntate Cyril – Father Cyril – a reference to President Cyril Ramaphosa
I don’t remember much of my family’s flight across the Atlantic, or even much of the final leg to Cape Town, despite the ambitious title of this trilogy of blog posts. Mercifully the children slept for a good portion of the eleven-hour flight to Istanbul. It was the layover that turned out to be akin to the Tenth Circle of Hell: an endless shopping mall to wander around without sleep (or money to spend) for all parents who were ever irritated by sleep deprivation caused in the past by their tiny mites… and the sinner here wanders around with five children she cannot chance losing… oh and there is no Zara in this portion of Hell!
Funny term that, ’layover.’ It suggests that waiting passengers get to lie down. Not a chance in Atatürk International Airport in November 2001, where my children and I were marooned for more than ten hours on our way home from the USA to Cape Town (or any modern airport I expect:
Not so my squirming spawn. (As hard as that phrase is to say fast; so hard were they to entertain over this time.)
A stopover is only of value if you can stop. For the record, children under nine do not stop. They are physically incapable of just being. They must do. They want to run climb jump eat (all the time, especially if they cannot do) argue with you squabble with each other (the latter two even more so when they are tired and just don’t know it); they want to explore touch roll (boys must roll) and speak (and if you do not respond, they’ll swiftly denounce you with an exasperated. Mom! Stop just saying “Hmmmn”’ when you attempt to deflect their babbling conversation.) The only one who slept was almost-two-year-old Shannon – on the grubby carpet of a vacant playroom – we didn’t care about the dirt by then!
This ‘playroom’ was a place of play in name only: it had a few arcade games, all of which needed tokens or Turkish lira, and was not really to suited to littluns or their weary mom. In those days, the transit lounge had not made its way into airport culture. They were bored, my poor babes, so while Shannon snored, I let the boys playfight in the empty expanse. (And when that stopped being playing I used a couple of precious coins to make one of those ride-on animals move– I think it was a bear.)
The worst thing about that room (and we spent a good deal of time there on our ‘stops’ in between tours of the facility) was that it did not have a door. I dared not fall asleep for fear of one child wandering off, or being snatched if I dozed off.
So I resorted to moving as much as my pregnant belly would allow me, doing a few unenthusiastic jumps to amuse the cheeky squirts, who thought this bowling ball with legs was hilarious, but I was so tired just from being pregnant that it was incredibly hard to stay awake, and I dared not do too much because when we walked around I was already carrying so much heavy luggage in the 2 carry-on bags (like massive weights in each hand, plus the baby bag, sometimes one cut painfully into my arm as I shouldered it so I could carry Shannon as well on our slow (as slow as I could make it) trails around the airport concourse. I was conscious of the need to keep the child growing inside me safe too. I would have given my eye teeth for a trolley; yet despite countless circuits of the terminal, they were not to be had for love or money – or teeth.
Atatürk Airport was quite a hip place to be in those days and full of attractive couples, sartorially elegant in their jeans and leather jackets and their sophisticated sunglasses perched stylishly atop gleaming long, dark ponytails. What I remember most about them though was that they all smoked. The place reeked of cigarettes. We had come from the crisp mountain air of Morman Utah and before that a South Africa cleaned up by Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma when she was Minister of Health, in the second clever move she made after divorcing her husband: banning smoking in public places. (Little did she know that Vape Nation would emerge to further plunge us back into the dungeon of civilization.) I had long since given up on the delights of tobacco and the odour of those strong Turkish cigarettes was overpowering. The smell clung to our clothes and hair like a bad reputation.
And my asthmatic eldest child began to cough and cough. It didn’t help that the place the nippers enjoyed the most was in the food court where most of the beautiful people lounged: a little fast food outlet with a ball pond. That ball pond is the single most happy common memory of those long hours of waiting, despite the pungent smell of smoke. After making each meal we ate at the diner last as long as we could, the children all piled into the ball pond, and I could wedge myself and the suitcases at the entrance so they couldn’t leave. To be honest I nodded off a couple of times there, only to jerk away guiltily and glance around in a panic, trying to make sure they were all accounted for. But there is only so much ball throwing and ball surfing that any child can take, and so we’d pack up and trudge around the centre for a while again. There should be a memorial somewhere there, called The Trench of Col after the track we walked.
After several lifetimes, we spent as long as possible, washing and changing in the bathroom, to the horror of Sean, who, at eight, was mortified to be in a ladies’ loo. But no way was he going into the gents alone, so he had to park his manly embarrassment and just suck it up. Eventually everyone was dressed in what would hopefully be deemed not-too-waif-like for our arrival at home. I zipped up the baby bag, amazed at Murphy’s Law of the Travelling Togbag, which states that the same number of items repacked into a bag, never fit in, and we began the trek to the final departure gate. Then the impish Shannon, chuckled, ‘Ooh, ooh!’ … It was unfortunately a great deal more ‘eeuw’ than ‘ooh,’ so back we schlepped and unpacked the bag again to change her again.
The last flight in our odyssey began around two am local time.
This time the flight was nightmarish. Sean’s asthma grew worse and worse and I worried he’d need hospitalization when we landed. He gasped for breath for much of the 10 hours to Cape Town and I cursed every one of those beautiful people and their Peter Stuyvesant lifestyle.
But when we stepped off the plane in Cape Town, he was able to take great gulps of South-Easter and then the kindly customs official’s wrinkled brown face crinkled up even more, as he stamped Sean’s passport, and said: ‘Happy birthday, son. Welcome home.’
And we were. Home.
Postscript: ‘Whatever happened to that little mite I was carrying inside me?’ you may ask. Well that child conceived just before the crisis of 9-11, is nearly eighteen now. And once again the world is in turmoil; this time because of a faceless microbe, COVID-19. Once again, Liam is poised on the edge of becoming, in his final year at school, and once again his world is uncertain. But this time I am different.
This time I have the memoryof that moment when we stepped onto the tarmac at Cape Town International Airport and thought: ‘We. Can. Do Anything.’
We shall overcome.
Flying with small children involves coping with their restlessness; their painful ears in the pressurized cabin, especially on landing; whining; crying; bathroom visits; nappy changes; smiling sweetly at the vexed stares of strangers who are anxious that they will have the misfortune to have your brood sitting near them; fretful complaining that they don’t want the chicken OR the beef (Michael); and sometimes a meal of your own, if it doesn’t get spilt on you by the toddler sitting on your 5-month pregnant belly.
But my epic journey with my littluns helped to take the edge off the fear of the unknown as we hurtled towards an unknown future in mid-November 2001.
Numbed by the efforts to assuage the squirming termites that were my beloved offspring, I travelled with my four and a half children on a Delta Airline flight to JFK Airport, days after Flight 587 crashed in Queens, leaving behind my 13-year marriage in tatters in Salt Lake City.
Once we’d settled into the six and a half hour flight and one child had already finished his snacks (Michael again), they quietened down and focused on the book, colouring-in and drawing that had been tucked into their backpacks for the journey and Shannon dozed off, allowing me to run through the plan: Land at JFK, meet the ground stewardess assigned to escort us, and our luggage, via customs to our next flight. Easy.
And that’s when it all went wrong. On arrival at Terminal 2, still basking in the glow of fellow passengers’ unexpectedly complimentary comments on how well-behaved my progeny had actually been (Damn straight they were – not teacher’s children for nothing!) and after the obligatory bathroom break… there was no anticipated angelic crew member in sight.
On my enquiry about the pre-arranged assistance, airport staff shrugged nonchalantly and left me standing there, surrounded by 4 midgets and 5 massive black suitcases with our worldly possessions and all our carry-on luggage . ‘Ok, I thought,’ looking despairingly at the forlorn faces of my beloved children, I’ve got this. At least the bags didn’t get lost.’
With eight-year-old Sean’s help, I (wo)manhandled the five big suitcases onto a massive trolley, and I think at that point I realized how difficult it was going to be to ensure he had a childhood and wasn’t constantly called upon to be ’the man of the house’ (although I shall be forever grateful for the times he held cupboard doors while I fixed the hinges and other household repair projects.)
Once we had piled the luggage, Pisa-like on the trolley (and it would be one of those that doesn’t roll easily, but crab-crawls along, we set off to try to determine where to go next. The Information kiosk was no help. The red-lipped, gum-chewing woman with a strong Jersey accent, pointed vaguely in the direction of the terminal doors and shrugged, when I asked her where the international flights left from, and the overhead guides only lit up flights leaving from that terminal.
Now let me explain something about JFK International: in 2001, there were 9 terminal buildings, all the size of massive shopping malls, and spread out over about 20 square kilometres – the airport land is so big it has its own zip code! And I had no idea how to reach my connecting flight. Because I’d expected an accompanying ground steward to help me, I had not studied a map of the place. All I knew was that Our Air Turkey flight was departing from another terminal. I stood at the exit of Terminal 2 and prayed. I turned left.
The first thing I saw as the doors slid open was a patrolling, US National Guardsman in full battledress, with helmet and machine gun. He stared unsmilingly at us and strode on. The reality of post-9-11 America struck me then: these were no ordinary times to be travelling. But I had a battle of my own to fight – with a tilting trolley, anchored down by Michael and Shannon, who were thoroughly enjoying their ride at the bow of my listing luggage ship, foreshadowing the epic shots of Jack and Kate in The Titanic, me pushing awkwardly, and Sean and Caitlin jogging alongside. What a sight we must have looked as we pushed on, my trying-to be brave-but-really-frightened eyes scanning for signs of Turkish Airlines!
If you study the map of Kennedy Airport terminals, you will see that where I needed to go was Terminal 1, so my choice to turn left was almost certainly guided by my guardian angel – if I’d turned right, we’d probably still be wandering around the acres and acres of airport territory.
I entered Terminal 1 hoping against hope that I had guessed correctly and stopped dead. What played out in front of me was like nothing I had ever seen before. The massive departure hall was teeming with angry New Yorkers who did not spare the pregnant mother with small children a lashing with their vitriol, which was shocking for someone arriving from child-friendly Utah; neither did they move aside so we could pass, swearing volubly at us as we zig-zagged our way to an information board.
Security queues snaked everywhere in this vast, cavernous space– this was a time before clearly demarcated security queues and built-in checks. One security person stood in the middle of the hall and waved her metal detector over irate, impatient passengers.
At last I spotted an Air Turkey counter and breathed a prayer of thanks to my guardian angel, gratefully depositing our check-in bags with the ground hostess.
But there was a problem: our flight was about to leave and was actually waiting for us!. A tall, elegant, uniformed stewardess from the Turkish airline escorted us to the front of the endless anaconda of people, which spat out ‘Fuck yous’ at our interloping, completely unperturbed that they were cursing at children.
When we reached the hapless security woman with her prison-warder face, our charming guide left us. Hands plucked Shannon from my arms and moved the children in various directions as she waved her evil wand up and down my body, yelling at me to stand still, because I was spinning 360 degrees to keep sight of all my frightened lambs amidst the cacophony of profanity and echoing terminal chaos.
Escaping the clutches of security, we raced for our departure gate (We must have looked hilarious: various shades of red hair and one brown-haired little boy bobbing along, my portly maternity roundness trying to hold onto Shannon’s wriggling body. At some point, we must have gone through customs, but I have no memory of it.
We made it seconds before they closed the airplane doors and were hustled down the aisle to our seats as an entire planeload of horrified people looked on. Caitlin began to cry as we realized that they had not seated us together and she and Sean were forced to sit in the middle of a row behind me. I shushed them and strapped myself in, with Shannon sitting on top of Liam’s developing head, a situation he clearly didn’t like, as he kicked hard on my tightening stomach. Only 4-year-old Michael, next to me seemed oblivious to the drama, and chattered on about the ‘excitement’ of the departure hall, and when he was going to eat again and he needed to go to the loo…NOW.
‘Wait,’ I hissed.
As the airbus taxied out and took wing, I had no time to consider that I should be afraid of crashing on take-off like Flight 587 a couple of days before.
When the seatbelt sign flicked off, I turned around again to check on Sean and Caitlin and the whole row had been evacuated away from the tearful children. We settled in together and somewhere over the Atlantic, most of the children fell into an exhausted sleep.
A post 9-11 adventure about air travel, written during the COVID-19 Lockdown.
In late 2001, I crossed the Atlantic alone with four small children and a five-month-old bump. We all survived. And that is my claim to fame.
On 11 September 2001, while planes were flying into the World Trade Centre, I was vomiting. The first I heard of what would become a global travel crisis was when my sister in Cape Town, called me in Draper, Utah, exclaiming, ‘What the hell is going on over there?!’
All I could think was: ‘How the hell does she know that I think I am pregnant?! Oh $@&* I think I am pregnant! But this marriage is all but over!’
The days and weeks were a blur of mourning with the mom at the elementary school who had a fireman-brother in New York who was missing, and watching her confidence that he would be found, crumble day by day, as hope died; of being touched by the patriotism of small town Americans, who instantly lined the streets with flags and even lemonade stalls of film and cartoon legend; of praying at mass in the school hall; of being glued to the television talking heads who speculated endlessly 24-7 about stranded aeroplanes and a coming war; of visiting the grocery store, on hyperalert to the perils of anthrax-poisoned fruit; of positive pregnancy tests and a failing marriage, while trying to keep my brood of youngsters busy (They were the only ones excited about their little sibling whose flutters began to be felt beneath my heart.); of the anxiety fuelled by rumours that the upcoming Winter Olympics in Park City would be bombed; of visiting a doctor only to hear that without medical insurance, my fifth caesarean would be performed by the on-call first year GP at the clinic in downtown Salt Lake City; of fear. And loneliness in a foreign country.
And then my sister-in-law saved us. She persuaded my father-in-law to fly the children and me home so I could receive proper medical care. I grabbed the opportunity, telling myself my husband would follow us as promised and that I could forgive him for all he’d done, if I just had some distance to deal with it. So, we booked our one-way trip, via New York and Istanbul on Air Turkey to Cape Town, a trip that would take nearly 29 hours of flying time, but took over three days including layovers.
And then On November 12, 2001, American Flight 587 crashed shortly after take-off from JFK Airport. The Airbus carved out a path of devastation into the neighbourhood of Belle Harbor, in Queens, New York City. All 260 people aboard the plane (251 passengers and 9 crew members) were killed, along with 5 people on the ground. Initial reports suggested it was a further act of terror and once more, panic spread thought the country.
And two days later we headed for the airport in Salt Lake City en route to JFK International Airport. I was terrified.
Packing for 5 passengers leaving a country permanently took some doing. We had to take enough that we could start a life again back home, but as little as possible so I could handle it over two layovers, as well as have enough carry-on luggage to keep four children occupied and clean, not mention the toddler’s nappies and food. We took 5 large suitcases, two on-board bags and each child had a backpack crammed with in-flight games, a favourite toy, toothbrushes and snacks.
The check-in bags were packed with the ingenuity of refugees escaping a war-torn land, with Lego stuffed into boots and every cranny filled with what I could cram in; and like migrants fleeing the country, we dressed in layers so we could take more clothes. The rest of our precious belongings, I left behind packaged and ready to be sent on by the children’s father. He never did.
The sadness overwhelmed me as we ascended the escalator at the airport, after check-in. The older children were filled with the energetic excitement that comes with travel, and had given their father a quick hug before bounding onto the moving stairs, but as I glanced back at the only man I had ever loved, after he’d whispered his assurance that he’d follow soon, I Knew. As he receded beneath me I knew that so had our union.
It was only when he’d faded from view and as we plodded down one of those endless airport corridors, me like a pack horse, laden with the solidly-full two carry-ons and not-quite-two-year-old Shannon in my arms, that Sean plucked at my arm and asked tremulously, ‘We will see Dad again soon, hey Mommy,’ that the enormity of what we were doing struck. I reassured him and Michael who had begun to cry, while Caitlin clung tearfully to my hand.
That was when I realised it was time for the big girl panties to be pulled up and for me to take charge.
We reached the boarding gate eventually and when our flight was called we stepped forward with everyone else. Handing the flight attendant our tickets and passports, I noticed some consternation cross her face as she asked us to step aside for a ‘random’ security check. We waited behind patiently and were escorted to a cordoned off area where the ‘non-specific’ choice of passengers lined up: a dark-skinned Middle-Eastern business man and a Muslim couple, she in full purdah…and us – with our five one-way tickets, in a name that could have sounded Arabic, paid in cash from Cape Town city with a strong Muslim presence, via a Muslim country, on Air Turkey.
Random, my arse! We’d been racially profiled, a fact that was made even more obvious by the stewards’ embarrassment and grovelling apology that they ‘didn’t realise that they were children,’ as they undertook a thorough search of every child’s backpack – poking teddy bears and even squeezing out toothpaste, before hastily returning the things to their now-dishevelled bags, as the tears brimmed over. What appalled me more was the patient stoicism of my fellow detainees – they’d expected it.
And then we took off for JFK and a future unknown.
I used to have five children all in one house (sometimes seven when Andrew’s children were here at weekends and during the holidays).
We are down to three now with the lockdown, Michael having moved out (again) and Caitlin has already indicated that she will be moving out by mid-2021 (ever the accountant, she is so organised that she has given me over a year’s notice.) Shannon announced her intention of moving in with Caitlin while she is still at UCT (not so sure how Caitlin feels about that, but I think Shannon is planning on moving where the family cook goes.)
So poor Liam may be stuck with the old folk while he is still dependent on me. One mean older sib once said to him,’You know, Liam, one day that chore chart is just going to say ‘Liam’ for all chores… every day.’ (Said mean older brother’s main reason for moving out was to avoid chores at the time – he now boasts a beautifully clean apartment – go figure!)
But one day they will all be gone… and so will the most important part of my life’s work. It’s hard to believe how much we have survived over the last 19 years, the kids and me. From stepping off the plane (My sister said we looked like refugees – we were in a way) from the USA days after a plane had crashed in Queens in New York and the whole world seemed to have gone mad with fear of travel, post 9-11, to yet another world crisis, this time with COVID-19 lockdowns wordwide and again travel paranoia and bans.
I shall never forget that fateful day when the custom’s official at Cape Town International Airport stamped my passport after the better part of two days travelling alone across the Atlantic with four children and one onboard. ‘Welcome home,’ he said and wished my eldest happy birthday (He was just 10) and I knew I’d be okay, despite all that lay ahead, because we were home.
I set about ensuring that we always had a place where the children would feel safe and loved and would be exposed to the richness of literature and learning. Who knew the joy and love that I would find along the way! With Liam being in Grade 12 this year though, I face the beginning of the end of that long journey to educate and nurture them to be happy and generous humans. Soon Liam will be on his way to being a real estate mogul (with his dog charity on the side of course) and Andrew and I shall have to talk to one another.
Empty Nest Syndrome looms. It is true that as each of the others have left, I have suffered a sense of grief and loss quite profoundly. Once my whole life revolved around the routine of caring for them and now days can go by without speaking to my older boys, one of whom is in Gauteng, or my heart children (my stepson and step-daughter) one of whom is in Stellenbosch at university; the other donating his body to medical science as a live COVID-19 experiment in the UK, I kid you not. (There is something so noble and yet so insane about that! But so typical of our Mika). Now these young people are on their own flights, their own soaring destinies and it is time for Mama Bear to step back and wave goodbye. I suppose that metaphor is not so good now that planes have been grounded again, but soon they like my children will fly again, just as the world recovered from 9-11.
The thing about family though, is that if there is a bond, they never go for good (and I am not referring to the fact that both Sean and Michael left home and then returned, just when I’d given their rooms away to younger siblings, only to leave again on their next adventures.) In September I shall become a mother again for the eighth time (and no, I am not having a midlife-crisis baby, perish the thought – I have my car for that!). Sean will marry the gracious, smart, funny and long-suffering, Jordan, who will make me a mother to another daughter when they marry. Her mother and I refer to each other as the Northern Mother and the Southern Mother already, fortunately not in any Game of Thrones (hey remember that!) kind of way, but in kinship of impending new parenthood. We both agree that this marriage is a union of two humans who bring out the best in the other. (I’m a bit worried about their children one day though – their dogs are hopelessly indulged…)
So the empty nest will one day become a series of many nests that Andrew and I can visit (like cuckoos!). We have joked that between the seven of them they could keep us in meals for a week, but as we kid them, it’s not about what we can get from them as we grow older, it’s the realisation that a whole new adventure extends into the future, with sons-and daughters-in-law to inspire us and grandchildren to feed chocolate cake to and spoil their suppers like my mother did when Sean was little, who will make us ‘surprised by joy’ as the writer, CS Lewis describes finding God. If there is one thing I have learned over my life it is that love is there, waiting in the depths of despair, to surprise us with joy, as I was when I met Andrew.