Caution has crept into my bones along with the arthritis, but both are manageable. I’m not frail, I want to emphasize that. I still walk three miles most mornings—and at a good clip. And then I do everything it takes to run a household, although I have to admit, everything is no longer as aggressively clean as in years past.
And, I still travel. I carry my own bag, and I grab my familiar turquoise suitcase off the baggage carousel after every trip. I realize that it seems a little heavier now. I’m willing to concede that lifting twenty pounds might now feel like forty and that travel is a different experience as you get older. You worry more about crowds, about seats, about making a connection in unfamiliar, busy airports.
This last Christmas, I traveled from Florida to Detroit, wanting to visit with the so-quickly-growing grandkids. I enjoyed a direct flight going there. But only options with a connection were available for the return trip to Florida. Well, that’s okay, I thought. I kind of liked getting off the plane, looking around, people-watching, making my way leisurely to the next gate. Enjoying airport time feels new too. Before 9/11, I was one of those people who was a last-minute arriver—right before they closed the doors of the plane. I have learned to embrace the slower pace.
The first leg of the trip from Detroit to Atlanta was fine until one of those garbled announcements came over the speaker. Clearly, airlines do not invest in superior-quality sound systems.
“There will be a slight delay in landing, folks. There has been a water-main break that’s affecting some services at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Numerous restaurants and other personal services are affected. Our arrival gate has also changed so please check the gate for your next flight as well.”
What did this mean exactly? What were personal services? Would bathrooms not be available? But I had about fifty minutes between flights so I didn’t panic, that is, not until it became apparent that the deplaning apparatus fell under “personal services.”
I sat on the plane waiting, all of us wondering how long it would take to push the steps up to the side of the aircraft. My fifty minutes were now twenty-five, but my nascent panic lay drowned out by the poor baby screaming one seat behind me. Full panic blossomed when I saw that my next gate was the farthest gate from where we touched down and required me to walk what seemed like a mile just to get to the tram that would take me to the gate.
Crowds of people, tired and wanting to be home, were exiting and entering the tram when it stopped in front of me. Gingerly, I got on the tram near the back (but, who can really tell where the end of the tram is when you’re packed like anchovy filets facing only one way, but shedding hats, gloves, and too-hot scarves?). I barely fit in the space I found and looked up for a strap to grab or the cold metal of a pole to lean against.
As I said, I’m not frail, even though I’m small, but I had no room to move, and nothing to grab onto against the less-than-seamless stops and starts of the tram. Every available strap or section of the pole was taken. Suddenly, two women, both of whom were old-lady-adjacent— meaning adjacent to me—saw the situation and looked at the men holding onto the straps. One of the women gave a withering look their way and simply stated, “What’s wrong with people?” but this failed to dislodge anyone from their hard-won place near a support.
These two women weren’t traveling together but they were of the same mind. “Don’t worry,” the woman on my right said. “We got you,” said the other woman, as she nodded, sort of checking in with the other woman. She nodded back, echoing “We got you.” And they did. The tram lurched and screeched to a start but I was held up by the kindness of those two women, who couldn’t have known about the knee replacements, the pin in the ankle, the arthritis, all of which would surely have collaboratively contributed to me falling flat on my face on the floor of an overcrowded tram the day after Christmas.
Cover image by Filippo Andolfatto.