When Chaos Ensues

Those of you who follow me or my family on social media may be familiar with the story I’m about to tell, so I apologize in advance, but I’m going to tell it anyway.

Mary, testing her Nana’s limits for human contact during hour 457 of our life at the Charlotte airport.

Last week we flew to Florida and spent a week at my parents’ home in Naples, and on Saturday we all left for Wisconsin to spend a week there before heading back to El Paso. Except, we didn’t fly to Madison, Wisconsin, on Saturday.

My parents booked us all flights from Naples to Madison, carefully choosing a schedule that would allow for children to take potty breaks and grab a quick meal on our layover, but after booking we were informed that American Airlines had changed our flights to include a one hour layover instead. Our stop was in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the airport isn’t a DFW nightmare scenario where changing terminals can take half an hour, but still, that would be cutting it close with tiny legs and tiny bladders and empty bellies. We packed as much food as we could into our carry-ons in case there was no time for a meal, and just hoped for the best.

Our flight from Naples left an hour late. There was no communication as to why we were delayed, but we sat on the tarmac for an hour just waiting, and by the time we landed our other flight had boarded and shut the door. We raced to the gate three terminals away in vain, but of course it was too late. Lots of people on our plane had realized they were about to miss their connections in Charlotte, and when panic started to bubble up before we started our descent the crew brushed everyone off in a tone I distinctly recognized as the one I use when I’m overtired and my kid falls doing something I specifically told him not to do. “Hmm, that’s a shame. Yeah, you probably will miss that flight. Sorry about that,” when he obviously meant “I am not at all sorry about that. Tough luck, Buddy.”

Travel is always a gamble, and sometimes you miss a flight or a storm causes delays, but we had purposely added some cushion to our plans to account for delays or tired kids who can’t hustle through three terminals to another gate, and AA decided that was silly and rebooked us, resulting in a missed flight. When you’re traveling by yourself or with your partner and something comes up and you need to catch a different plane, it’s easier to find one or two standby seats. We were a group of seven, with three kids under eight, and we couldn’t just drop them in to random rows with strangers.

Our original flight was supposed to leave at two-forty in the afternoon, and the only one we could get on as a backup left at ten-forty that night. Not ideal, but what can you do? My parents traveled quite a bit in the time before the pandemic, so they have special perks like shorter lines at security and priority boarding on AA flights, so they were rebooked automatically on the later flight, but we had to switch our flights through a gate agent, who had to magically make room for five more people on a plane leaving that night. We hunkered down in the AA lounge, which was as huge privilege and so helpful for getting some distance from the crowds. While we were there, rain started to fall, and before long I noticed every flight across three screens of departures was either delayed or cancelled. Our flight didn’t leave for another seven hours, so we just hoped for the best. It was just rain, after all.

Mom and I ventured out to find dinner for the kids and discovered absolute mayhem. Now that everyone suddenly have several hours to kill, no planes were leaving, and more people kept arriving to take flights that were being pushed back, the air was tense, thick, and irritable (Tense, Thick, and Irritable is hereby copywritten in case I decide to use it as the title for a future memoir).

Even though we traveled the week before and saw a lot of unmasked people in Florida, we weren’t prepared for this kind of madness. Everyone was masked, but it wasn’t possible to social distance. Restaurants were closing because they’d run out of food, soda machines were shooting ice all over the floors, and the lines for the remaining food options were a hundred people long. One kid wanted pizza and by the time I got to the front of the line there were three pieces left and the poor guy working there was going to abandon ship once he sold them because he was working alone and couldn’t keep up with demand.

You don’t want to get stuck somewhere when your destination is a vacation, obviously. My parents were furious with the airline for switching our flights and essentially causing this problem in the first place, since the only flight that left Charlotte on time the whole afternoon was the one we missed hauling ass across the airport to a door we knew was already locked. They were so worried about how the kids would get through the day stuck in the airport, but when you’re three, five, and seven, rarely travel by plane, and have been stuck in your house for a year, even getting stranded in an airport is an adventure. They got to have unlimited screen time and all the lemonade they could drink (thanks to my husband who packed a bunch of spare batteries and also apologies to their dentist for all the sugar) and sit in comfy chairs in a place that wasn’t their playroom/virtual classroom for a change.

We finally, finally left the comfort of the lounge and headed to our gate for seat assignments, but while the gate agent was shuffling people around to find room for us, his partner came out five minutes before boarding and said to him, “Dude, we have no crew! We have one flight attendant and that’s it.” The agent handed me our boarding passes and I went to sit down, and within five minutes the screens switched to display “FLIGHT CANCELLED” in big letters. We had seen the huge crowds around the flight info desks of people trying to reschedule their flights having missed connections or had their flights cancelled, so we knew it was possible, but AA just kept saying our flight would be on time, knowing our *pilot and first officer weren’t even in the state.*

All the weather we had witnessed had shoved departures back by several hours including inbound flights carrying crew for the few outbound flights that could leave. Everyone started grumbling loudly and stomping off to join the throngs of people waiting impatiently to yell at an exhausted clerk, and my oldest kid let out a tiny whimper. They had all done so well, but Jackson has anxiety, and seeing all the adults freak out had rattled him. Plus, he is seven and has no idea what happens when your flight to Grandma’s is cancelled. Does this mean we can never go? Do we live in this airport now?

There’s a lot of cheerleading involved in being a parent. When we moved to El Paso, we stayed in a rental until we closed on our house, and Jackson was absolutely miserable. It was unfamiliar, and his extended family had lived nearby his whole life and now we were suddenly hundreds of miles from everyone where everything was strange and different. My husband started work a day or two after we arrived, so every day we would get in the car and explore the city, trying to find things a three year old boy and his one year old brother would enjoy. When I would get tired and stressed, Jackson would get more miserable, so I did my best to exude optimism all the time, which was mentally exhausting.

The same is true of any sort of emergency — he has to know it’s going to be okay. As an adult, it’s so easy to get pissed or freak out when things don’t go to plan, but Jackson can feel that acutely as it radiates from his parents, and he doesn’t need to feel anxiety over travel plans that are not his responsibility. Becoming an adult means you are the one who has to solve the problems and deal with the customer service people, and he just doesn’t need to absorb any of that before its absolutely necessary. It’s best to be an adult traveling with your parents, though, so they can write the stern letters to the airline and sort out the hotel situation while you take care of the kids.

So, we laughed about it. I told him the situation would be the same whether we were angry or scared or silly, so it was okay to relax and just see what happened next, because the grownups were on it. I explained we would stay in a hotel, which would be pretty exciting, and we’d all be having a sleepover, and we would eventually get to our destination. Several people suggested we drive, but even if we wanted to spend two days in the car with the kids, we’d have to rent a car and three car seats. So even though our rebooked tickets following the cancellation weren’t until ten-forty the following night, we couldn’t explore Charlotte during the day because we had no way to safely get the kids around town. This was also a factor when booking a hotel for the night, because it had to be someplace that had an airport shuttle.

When we missed our first connection out of Charlotte and were rebooked to the night flight, my dad called the car rental place at our destination who confirmed that they would be closed by the time we arrived at midnight and couldn’t give us the car seats. Mom called a hotel in Madison with a shuttle to the airport and booked us rooms for the night and we would pick up the rental car and seats the next morning and drive to their house. But then, of course, that flight was cancelled, and we had to stay in a hotel in Charlotte instead, and the next flight would also get in after the rental place closed, so we’d need to book another night in a hotel in Madison before collecting the car and finally getting home to the cabin. Instead, my dad woke up at five in the morning after our wild night and got on an earlier flight to Madison that had one seat so he could pick up the rental and have it ready for us when we finally arrived in Wisconsin.

And, obviously, we couldn’t stay at the hotel past checkout time, so we ended up back at the Charlotte airport for nine hours waiting for our flight. Did the kids complain? Of course! But kids complain when things are going great, too. And they knew at the end of the day, it might be inconvenient but it was all going to be okay. Things happen and plans sometimes change, but whether you yell at the gate agent or sit back and laugh, your flight will still be cancelled. They got to pick out snacks in a overpriced store, they got to order dinner from different restaurants than their siblings, they got to irritate countless other adults while shouting jokes at us because they forgot they were wearing headphones.

Chaos is kind of our status quo when we leave the house with kids, because someone always needs to pee at a bad time, or falls down on the way to a birthday party and requires a band aid. I am not prepared for everything, because sometimes our chaos is a new brand today than the day before, but I had a weird feeling we might get stranded somewhere during this trip, so I packed a change of clothes for each kid and carried on our toothbrushes. I have to carry lots of gear because of the kids’ allergies and rare but serious asthma attacks, and I was sick of lugging around my bags, but I was so glad I did when chaos inevitably ensued.

I imagine when they get older it’ll be harder to make everything an adventure, and that getting stranded with teenagers would involve a lot of sulking and “this sucks, bro.” At some point they will have to share the worry burden with the rest of us, but until then I hope they know it’ll all be okay. The grownups have it (mostly) under control, and what we can’t control will still exist whether we freak out or just shrug and go drink some lemonade.

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