The last time I flew I was eight months pregnant and had my 17-month-old son with me. The plane dropped 500 feet in a hurry as we came in for a landing in New Orleans.
“That’s it,” I said to my then-husband. “I’m not flying anymore.”
Fast forward: the son who was in my belly is now in college. The toddler towers over me. The husband is long gone.
But one thing that never changed was that oath.
I’ve driven five days to California and five days back (with two small children puking from the flu in the back seat: yes, Virginia, 24-hour stomach flu can last five days, if you’re driving), two days driving two small children alone to the beach because I swore they wouldn’t be deprived of regular family vacations just because their dad had left, another two days there and back to NASA when one boy developed space fever, countless 10-hour drives from Nashville to my hometown in Virginia until I moved the boys home after the divorce, then countless more when we returned to see friends in Tennessee every year thereafter. I’ve driven to conferences, residencies, job interviews. I’ve thought about driving to the west coast again to visit friends, but the puking trip still haunts me.
Don’t get me wrong: I like driving. I like the pod of it—the sense of self-containment, the freedom. I’ve listened (and sung) to a lot of loud rock and roll, truly countless Walter Mosley mysteries, and cried a lot. I’ve carried on a million hours of phone conversations with friends. I’ve even snapped photos of the Atchafalaya Swamp as I zoomed across its bayous.
But the day came when, both kids in college, no discernible love life, and a job probably well past its expiration date had totaled up to a big life stall-out.
Enter Jeeves. He came with a hot cup of tea, an appropriate outfit, and a clever solution.
In reality a very dear friend from college days who knew both that I had been through four years in a bruising custody dispute and that I had loved, had studied, read, and taught all things English but never been there—called this past summer to see if my passport was up to date. I dimly remembered, during the custody battle, his mentioning a trip to London after the boys were out of high school. But, pleasant as that idea sounded—and it sounded very sweet—no one takes someone else to London, right?
Wrong—my friend was busy making reservations.
In desperation—there was no way not to go—I looked for a way to make this work. Solutions appeared, with the miraculous timeliness of Jeeves’ best: some in-depth work with my therapist that coincided nicely with finding SOAR, on online, get-over-fear-of-flying program.
In both, tidily enough, I addressed a very deep-seated sense of panic, of dying alone, trapped and afraid, a terrible sense of shame. This is well beyond a fear of a lack of control—it is a fear of lonely annihilation, a failure to connect in any enduring way with another human being, to feel cared for or the have basic needs met.
There, deep inside me, still cried the infant who was left to “cry it out” as my easily influenced mother was instructed to by 1950s experts in child care.
Jeeves seemed miraculously smoothly to introduce me to Captain Tom, the founder of the SOAR program, who was a pilot for a long time, then became a counselor. Capt. Tom helped me reconnect to a sense of accompaniment and showed me all about airplane mechanics (who knew that the speed of the plane makes the air turn into a nice, firm Jello that actually holds the plane up?). With a last minute call to my therapist, I got on the plane.
Well, first my friend spring-loaded the process by taking me on a hectic day of touring all the Englishy tourist spots in northern Virginia hunt country before propelling me onto the plane.
And there was one other challenge—telling the gate attendant I was afraid. This is a crucial part of the SOAR program and one I’d warned my friend about. I told him he could pretend he didn’t know me at that point, as I told my boy children I didn’t know them when they peed out the open door of the minivan in roadside emergency pee stops.
My friend soldiered on, accompanying me to the desk, then watched me get boarded with first class so I could meet the captain.
The captain looked like the jolliest, friendliest and yet most reliable person you’ve ever met—a sober and relatable white-haired Irishman who you’d’ just as soon sit in the lap of.
I sat, buckled up, turned on the movies, and, flicking between them and the flight monitor, sailed up the east coast, out over Nova Scotia, the long ocean my ancestors took weeks to cross going the other way, was disappointed Ireland was clouded over, and so thrilled to land in London, jet lag didn’t hit until two weeks later.
I fell in love-deeply and permanently—with London. I cried over the hand-written manuscript of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, photographed the four lions of Trafalgar Square from every angle, moved into the Victoria & Albert Museum as my neighborhood museum much like others adopt a pub, marched Hyde Park from the Marble Arch to Kensington Palace, felt haunted at Hampton Court, saw the sites of both of Virginia Woolf’s London homes, scoured Chelsea, and stood on the spot Anne Boleyn and her head were separated at the Tower.
And then I flew home, Exhausted, exhilarated, triumphant—and ready to marry an Englishman and move there. As long as Jeeves is nearby.