Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Infant in Arms

A parent’s first airplane flight with a baby is always a bit nerve wracking. No one wants to be the mom (or dad) holding a screaming infant anywhere – but particularly not in the confined space of an airplane. But that's just the obvious concern. There is also the challenge of getting through security with a baby, not to mention all of the crap you have to bring along with you when travelling with an infant - car seats, strollers, diaper bags, toys, etc. People do it all the time though, so when the time came for us to book our babies' first flight, we knew that we too would manage somehow.

Of course, most parents don't take their baby to South Africa for its first flight. And most parents don't bring two babies along for the ride. But this too is possible.

We arrived at the airport four hours before our departure completely terrified. Well, I was terrified; Roger was in a grief induced haze. But I'm here to tell you that there are angels among us and my friend Ashley is one of them! She works for Delta and had managed to go ahead and reserve the bulkhead seats for us with the bassinet option (for both legs of the trip). This was a huge relief! She met us at the airport for moral support and was even able to walk us through security. And thank God she did! I don't know how we would have managed to get the girls out of the stroller, fold up the stroller, hoist it onto the conveyor belt along with our 4 carry on bags, remove our shoes, walk through the scanner, collect our 4 carry on bags and the stroller, open the stroller, get he girls back in the stroller and get our shoes back on without an extra pair of arms. (We would actually figure out how to do this on the way back, but it would have been way too much for the first step in our journey!). So thank God for Ashley.

Once we were through security things went pretty smoothly. We rode the train to the international gate. We fed the girls their dinner, changed their diapers, and loaded them into the Baby Bjorn carriers (Ashley had advised this was the easiest way to board the plane). They invited people with small children to board shortly after the first class passengers. This was about 7 pm. We bravely walked down the Jetway trying not to think about the fact that we would not be able to exit the plane until 11:30 am the following day (the time at our destination would be 5:30 pm).

Now, the bulkhead is by far the best place to sit in coach. There is a ton of extra leg room. However, because there are no seats in front of you, you have to store your carry on bags in the overhead. This does not allow for very easy access if you are 5' 4 and holding a 15 lb baby. In fact, even if you are 6'3 and holding a baby, you still don't have easy access. We quickly realized this and grabbed the essentials - diapers, wipes, the changing pad, pacifier, and a teether or two - and stuffed them in the magazine pockets on the wall in front of us. Everything else went in the overhead - including the snacks my friend Robin had thought to pack for us, knowing it would be hard for us to eat meals with babies in our arms. She's so considerate. If only we'd been able to get to them during the 16 hour flight. But who needs to eat anyway?

Little known fact about airplanes. You know the oxygen masks that drop down from the ceiling in case of emergency? Well, they wisely put an extra one above each section in case someone is travelling with an "infant in arms." So on our flight, each section of three seats had four masks above it. This is okay if one person in that section is holding a baby, but it's not okay if two people in that section are holding babies. You see where I'm going with this? That's right - Roger and I couldn't sit next to each other. Well, we were next to each other, but there was an aisle between us. Great.

Sitting an aisle apart from my husband wouldn't have been that big of a deal except that I'm still breastfeeding. I felt sure this would make travelling easier (no bottles and formula to pack - yay!) but even with my stylish nursing cover, there was simply no way for me to feed a baby without getting way too up close and personal with the woman next to me. It wasn't a matter of modesty - it was a matter of space. There simply wasn't room to position a baby the way I needed to without borrowing some serious space from the seat next to me. So what did I do? I ended up feeding my babies in the bathroom. I'm assuming most of you have used the lavatory on an airplane before so I don't need to describe the horror of everything that entailed. Needless to say it's not a place you want to spend an extended period of time. But in addition to serving as a place to nurse babies, I also used the bathroom as a sort of cone of silence. Any time my baby (I say "my baby" to mean whichever baby I was holding at that time) got really fussy and inconsolable, I darted to the bathroom where I could pretend no one could hear us. Yes, I said "us," for I too shed some tears in that bathroom.

But the worst part of the flight wasn't the stress of holding a crying baby while an entire plane full of people are trying to sleep - in fact, a few hours into it, that was the least of my concerns. The hardest part was the physical exhaustion of holding a baby for 16 hours straight. We were constantly holding babies! It's not like I could ask Roger to hold her while I ate something, or got something out of the overhead, or even went to the bathroom - because he too was holding a baby!

"But what about the bassinet?" you may be wondering. In case you're not familiar, each section of the bulkhead has a place to hook a bassinet where a baby can safely sleep, but my babies were having none of it. It would have been perfect for a baby that still slept in a swaddle, but at my girls' current size and levels of mobility, the bassinet simply wasn't going to cut it. Now, they may have settled into it had I given them a little time, but how do you explain to an entire plane full of people - "Hey, I know my baby is screaming but I really think if we give her 5-10 minutes she may just settle!" You don't. So the bassinets just became a depository for diapers, wipes, and toys.

So what did we do with two babies for 16 hours? It's all a bit of a blur now. I feel like I spent at least 13 of those 16 hours just walking around the plane or hiding out in the bathroom. At one point my baby - it was Anna I think? - fell into a pretty deep sleep and I was able to sit down for almost an hour and doze with her in my arms. Roger was able to get each of the girls to sleep in the Baby Bjorn for awhile so he could nod off without worrying about dropping them. I tried the Baby Bjorn with Julie early in the flight but for some reason it sent her into a fit of rage so I was hesitant to try again.

Fortunately, the older woman to my left was genuinely sympathetic. She did actually hold a baby a time or two so that I could find something in the overhead and once so I could go to the bathroom. (Roger and I would both eventually figure out how to pee while holding a baby.) And honestly, had I known how close to passing out I would be by the end of the flight I might have taken her up on her offer to hold Anna while I ate something. But stupidly, I didn't. The flight attendants were less helpful than I thought they would be. They sailed right by with their trays of food, never offering any kind of alternative - like a sandwich - to someone who might not have the ability to fold out their tray. (Sorry to harp on the subject, but you know I'm not one to miss a meal - much less three of them! And hello? Breastfeeding two babies makes you extra hungry. So there.)

At one point during the flight - while hiding in the bathroom with a crying Julie while listening to Anna cry in the main cabin - I swore to myself I would never make this flight with two babies again. Then I realized I would indeed make the flight again - in eight days. I briefly contemplated just staying in South Africa until the girls were older - but when would be old enough? Sigh. I would have to do it again. But hey, it was almost over right? How long had we been in the air anyway? Surely we were in the homestretch I thought as I made my way back to my seat. I caught a glance of the time on the flight screen. We'd been in the air six hours. I looked at Roger - his face still red from the anxiety of holding a crying baby in a plane full of sleeping passengers. "We're not even half way there," I whispered with desperation in my voice. Roger said nothing, but I'm pretty sure I saw a tear in his eye.

Needless to say we made it. And the flight back to Atlanta, while two hours longer than the flight to Joburg, was actually a thousand times better. (There were two empty seats in my section of the bulkhead so Roger was able to move into my section and we had a free seat beside us.) The thing is, I knew the flights would be hard. I wasn't prepared for just how hard, but still, I knew. What I wasn't prepared for was how hard it would be to take care of my babies in a totally new environment, not to mention timezone.

But I'll save those horrors for a different post. I've whined enough for one afternoon...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Larger than life.

The world is a much darker place than it was two weeks ago. That's because on March 29, 2011 - on his 36th wedding anniversary - Frederick Bryan Melhuish took his last breath.

My father-in-law was truly larger than life. And yet, to use a cliche to describe someone so unique seems somehow wrong. But how else do you describe the way his very presence filled up a room? How the people around him couldn't help but notice his big laugh, his loud voice, his jovial nature? Strangers were drawn to him. Friends and acquaintances sought out opportunities to be near him. And why wouldn't they? Bryan always appeared to be having more fun than anyone else - whether he was dancing with his glamorous wife, knocking back cane and Cokes with his sons, throwing the ball with his grandchildren, playing tennis with friends, or even just enjoying a bacon sandwich on his own.

Bryan loved life, but he certainly had his grumpy moments too. Of course he made no apologies for his grumpiness. Or anything else for that matter. Bryan was who he was. Take him or leave him. And most people were more than willing to take him exactly as he was. He could call your baby ugly one minute then have you laughing about it in the next.

No, Bryan didn't hold back his opinions. But he never held back his emotions either. The words "I love you" flowed freely from his lips, and perhaps that is the thing I loved most about him. I can't count the number of times I heard him say those words to his wife, to his children, his grandchildren, even his friends. And of course, I heard him say them to me often as well. I can still hear him saying, "I love you, my girl. Take good care of those babies," the last time I saw him.

What I never told Bryan was how grateful I was that he said those words so freely. Because in doing so, he taught his children to say them also. And now, I hear those words from my husband multiple times a day. My little girls hear them from their father all day long. The words "I love you" certainly aren't saved for special occasions around our house. Nor should they be.

Bryan was certainly larger than life. But he wasn't stronger than death. The battle he fought with cancer wasn't one he could win. He valiantly kept the enemy at bay for more than eight years, but the war had to end eventually. And I think he made peace with that fact long before anyone else did. He continued to let doctors poke and prod him to humor his loved ones, even though he knew the time was coming for him to wave the white flag.

We all knew the end was near, but no one was ready to say goodbye. Certainly not last October, when Bryan and Sally came to Atlanta to meet their newest grandchildren. And yet the distance made it impossible for us to say one last final goodbye in person. Instead we Skyped almost daily until it seemed cruel to force him to wave at a webcam from his bed. Then we knew it was time. We booked our flight but Bryan passed away the morning we left.

Perhaps it's better that way. I don't think the larger than life man we knew would have wanted our final memories of him to be at his deathbed. Instead we'll remember him as he was. Laughing. Drinking. Dancing. Telling Jokes. Offending people. Answering the door without any clothes on. Shouting at his favorite sports team on the television. Handing out champagne cocktails as he welcomed you to the party.

And I'm sure he'll have one waiting for all of us when we see him again someday...