“Are you going to die?” Claire asked me. Her voice was strained. She sat next to me on the couch and gripped me like she was three years old.
“What? Of course not!” I said. “I’m going to visit Aunt Lindsay and Uncle Sean and their new baby. Babies can’t hurt anyone!”
“I mean on the plane,” she said. “Are you going to die on the plane?”
“No,” I said, emphatically. “Planes are really safe. They are safer than cars, actually. I’ll be fine.”
She did not look convinced, and kept clutching me. She probably asked me a half-dozen more times if I was going to die. Each time I told her that I was definitely not going to die.
“I worry about you dying,” she said.
“I know, baby,” I said, “but I’m not going to die. I promise.”
Once I was safely at the airport, I thought about this conversation. Back when Shawn was sick, we never lied to the kids. When they asked if he was going to die, we told the kids that he would fight as hard as he could, but we didn’t know what would happen. Everything I’d read told me never to lie to the kids, so I didn’t.
But I don’t really follow this advice anymore. When I was leaving for the airport I didn’t say, “I’ll probably be okay,” to Claire. That would have sent her into a tailspin. Instead, I left her feeling reassured that I was going to be safe.
Yes, there was a tiny possibility that the aircraft could have gone down. There’s also a tiny possibility that I’ll have a different tragic accident or my heart will stop beating for some reason. My life could be over in an instant, just like anyone’s.
But let me tell you this: I am not going to let my daughter worry any more than she already does.
Still, I am more concerned about my own death than I ever was before. I worry for the same reason that Claire does. If I die, my kids are orphans.
So now I buckle my seat belt each time I get in a cab. I find the emergency exit when I’m on a plane and I make a plan of how I’ll escape if needed. I check and re-check that the doors are locked every night. I could go on, but I think you get the point.
I continued to ponder my conversation with Claire for a long time at the airport. We were delayed and the waiting area was too crowded for me to work, so I put on my headphones and listened to music. Was I giving her the right answer? Should I have said instead, “plane crashes are very rare and it’s unlikely I’ll die”? I mean, what if I die, and then I’ve lied to her? I certainly don’t plan on dying but I’m very aware that life can be way too short.
I was lost in thought when they started calling for us to board the plane, so I was one of the last few people to get in line. We had to go outside in the Texas heat and wait to go up the stairs to board the plane. It was pretty miserable and I tried to block the sun with a piece of paper. “It’s hot,” I stupidly said to the woman right in front of me.
She looked at me and I thought she was going to faint. “I can’t do this!” she said, and started to push past me in line, back toward the airport lounge.
Her friend yelled at her from the line, “it’s okay!” Come back here!”
The girl stopped. She looked at me. “Do you think it’s safe?” she asked me, and then continued, “I mean, I don’t know if I can get on! What if the plane crashes?”
“It’s safe, I promise,” I said. “Planes are safer than cars, you know.”
“Right,” she said.
“It’s going to be fine,” I said.
“It’s just – it’s my first time flying,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “The first time doing anything is hard. But you’ll be okay.”
We talked for another minute or so. I didn’t say anything much of consequence except to describe what take off would feel like. I probably told her a dozen more times that it was safe.
Finally, she shook her head, almost as though she was trying to physically rid herself of the nervous feeling she was carrying. Then she turned back around to her friend, who gave me a grateful look. We boarded the plane and I didn’t see her again. We took off, and a few hours later, we landed.
The plane didn’t crash. I didn’t die. But I spent a lot of the plane flight thinking about that girl and her fear. It was the same one I’d seen in Claire’s eyes.
I called Claire as soon as I landed. My aunt Nancy picked up. “She’s gone to bed,” Nancy said, “I told her your plane was delayed but you were going to be fine, even though you couldn’t call tonight.”
I called back the next day. “I made it!” I said as soon as I saw Claire’s face on my phone screen.
We talked for a while about her new cousin and what it’s like to be around a brand-new baby. When it was time to go, I told her that I missed her and would be home soon.
“I love you, mom,” Claire said.
“I love you too baby,” I replied.
I went to hang up, but right before I did, she added, “Mama! Don’t die, okay?”