I spent the past week in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. This is the French-speaking, western part of Africa. On the flight back to New York, I sat next to a young family of four from Kuwait. They spoke little English, so I helped them fill out the Customs form for arrival at JFK.
The four of them occupied three seats, with the mother holding the smaller child in her arms. The toddler, about two years old, had her own seat. She had curly hair in pigtails and a voice as loud as an Arthur Avenue car alarm. I liked her immediately, because she reminded me of my granddaughter and had a thumb to the nose air about her. You know, in a cute way.
It was a long flight. The baby cried, the toddler pierced the cabin’s recycled air with alarms, and the mom got a toothache so bad that she needed to be seen by someone. The flight attendants found a doctor, who asked a few questions and gave her Tylenol. Lame, I thought. I wanted to suggest whiskey, my drink of choice when flying (I add ice for hydration), but decided against it. Instead, I put my headphones on, found a spot to rest my feet amid the blankets, toys, and food that had spilled onto the floor, and thought about World Airways.
It was 1983. My wife and I and our three kids were flying back East on World Airways to visit my family for Christmas. We had a three year old and one-year old twins, all girls. My wife’s mother had died that fall. Just like the family from Kuwait, we occupied three seats in the row directly behind the galley, facing a wall. Strange, but it was the wall more than anything else that made me think of that flight. I was in one seat with a twin, my wife in a second with another twin, and our toddler was by herself in the third seat. The cross-country flight lasted seven hours. I’ll repeat that: seven hours.
The way I have told it over the years, I wore every bit of food that was served to us that day. It’s true, because I staggered off the plane in Newark with a soaked shirt and stained pants. I don’t remember much else except that we tried to control the twins, who were as curious as little monkeys and just as loud. By then, our oldest had become resigned to being displaced by the twins and so was not much trouble except for needing a sippy cup ever now and then and hourly trips to the bathroom, which we had to do anyway to dispose of the diapers.
Here’s the thing. As tiring, uncomfortable, and nerve-wracking as our flight was, it is one of the most memorable moments of my life. I suppose what happened on the way to the airport helped. The sunroof on our Volkswagon bus flew off onto Interstate 880 while heading to the Oakland Airport. In the rain, no less. I won’t go into the particulars except to say that I know all about lift from a personal if not exactly technical perspective (if you really want the particulars, see Nine Lives).
What I remembered from that flight and what I wanted to tell the Kuwaiti father is that nothing is comparable to the feeling you get from caring and providing for children. They are dependent upon you for everything and put their lives into your hands. Making sure they are safe and loved is the greatest thing this side of death. I would do it even without recognition or thanks, which is usually how it’s done.
I believe that being responsible is the essence of fatherhood, of manhood, really. It is not without reward, since being responsible for those who are vulnerable tells me who and what I am. It gives me a place in life. I need them just as they need me.
Aquinas said that God doesn’t need us but, having willed us into existence, loves us as a father. I understand that. It is the father’s hand that reaches down and pulls us out of the pit of death. It is the Easter story.