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Laughter Rx: Sometimes It’s a Bitter Pill

As I stow my tote bag under the seat in front of me, I silently congratulate myself for purchasing the plane tickets far enough in advance to secure a coveted aisle seat. I will not be trapped between two strangers, nor will I be squished next to a window. Husband occupies the aisle seat across from me, in close proximity and equally comfortable. So much so that he begins dozing even before the cabin door closes. Alert: Mother and Child, about 3 years old, approaching. They stop. Husband’s row is already full. Mine is empty except for me. Damn. Mom looks down at me. Says nothing. Gives me the Stink Eye. Is this your row? I ask sweetly. For reasons that escape me, I always want strangers to like me, but clearly this lady is a tough sell. I stand reflexively, allowing the pair to squeeze in. The little girl chatters nonstop at high volume. That I can take. The toddler’s exuberance makes me smile. I used to be that three-year-old: Happy. Curious. Excited. Not yet jaded to the drudgery of airline travel, Little One swivels her head to take in all of it, captivated by the parade of travelers hoisting their bags into the overhead bins and contorting their bodies to slide into their assigned rows. She refuses to be belted in, laughing at Mommy’s attempt to “insert the clasp into the buckle and pull the strap securely.” Mom is over it, long since jaded to the wonders of airline travel — and sadly oblivious to the display of unadulterated joy jumping up and down on the seat next to her. Exasperated, her responses escalate to a crescendo of negativity:. No... Ally, NO! Then, through gritted teeth: I. Said. NOOO!!!. Mom gives up and turns her attention to her carry-on. After a few moments of impatient rifling through the tote, her hand emerges clutching a package of snacks. The foil bag crinkles as she shoves it between the seats in front of us and orders her son to take it. When he doesn’t respond immediately, she shakes it violently. HERE! Ally begins to whine. Mommy! I have to go to the bath wooooom! Okay. Then you have to put on your shoes. She tries to force Ally’s feet into shiny silver sneakers. No mommy. I wanna put them on mySELF! By some unseen force of alchemy known only to toddlers, Ally’s spine turns liquid. She oozes to the floor. Mommy reaches down, clutches Child’s armpits, and yanks the little body with such power that Daughter’s head slams the armrest on the way up. The contact between skull and solid metal is so hard I hear the thunk. Daughter cries. Mother responds coolly, offering what sounds more like an excuse for her own behavior than soothing words of comfort for Daughter’s pain. That was an accident. You’re okay. Stop crying. Put on your shoes. Hurry up before they say we can’t get out of our seats. Subtext: You are an inconvenience and you slow me down. I’m seething inside. I don’t even know her, but I hate her. The crying slows to a sniffle. Daughter, still shoeless, wriggles out of Mother’s lap, scrambling over the top of the seat in front of her, falling onto the lap of her Daddy. I peek between the seats and see Brother, a fresh-faced boy of about 5 years, launching himself onto his baby sister. He places his palms on either side of her face and kisses one cheek with an audible “MWAH!” They laugh, and Daddy joins in the moment with a laugh of his own. Mommy, separated from their joy by more than the seat backs, hisses at her son: Stop that, Alexander! Get OFF of her. They don’t seem to hear her over the sound of their own giggles. Apparently joy is an effective buffer. At least three in this family of four are enjoying each other. Daddy chuckles again and wraps his arms around the children in an octopus hug. I make myself very small, scrunching my body into the corner of my seat closest to the aisle, as far as I can get from Demon Mommy next to me. My children are young adults now. Remembering the days when my own kids were that little, I feel guilty for judging. How many strangers witnessed my Mommy Meltdowns over the years and hated me from afar (or from uncomfortably close by)? The kids seem happy and loving. A mom who is this preoccupied, this prickly, this downright mean all the time, would not — could not — have kids with such positive demeanors. Maybe she’s nervous and unsettled about this trip. Or maybe she is a terrible mother incapable of nurturing. I remind myself I am witnessing only one slice of the MRI that is the body of her life. Earlier in the flight, I had attempted to re-direct Mommy Dearest from one of her tirades, by interrupting to ask whether her family was traveling home or leaving it. She had mumbled something about going to a wedding, hardly missing a beat before returning to her battle of wills with Ally regarding the status of the tray table or the window shade. Up. Down. Did it really matter? Apparently no more than my stealth attempt at rescuing her little girl from at least one unjust attack. The reason for my flight to Toronto with Husband was to enjoy a long weekend together. Even after de-planing I struggle to shake off my experience sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with an overwhelmed mother unable to cope with her emotions. I rant to The Love of My Life all the way through customs, out of the terminal and on to ground transportation. Husband gently chastises me. Let it go. I continue my rant, squandering the opportunity to connect with him as we embark on what is meant to be a romantic weekend getaway. Damn. I am no better than my seat mate. And no worse. I forgive her. I forgive me. In the back seat of the Uber I scoot close to Husband. I grasp his arm with both my hands and rest my head on his shoulder —the same shoulder that is always there for me to lean on. We had chosen to travel to Toronto because the city hosts a comedy festival each September. The mother-daughter drama I had witnessed en route to our destination was painful to witness. But it is said that “Comedy is tragedy, plus time.” Lucky for me I didn’t have to wait until we saw the first comic on our itinerary to get it. The joke is on me. And I’m a better person for it. 

There’s a thin line between laughter and pain. 

Erma Bombeck

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