staring out the window at the scattered clouds underneath the airplane’s wings, i’m brought back to reality with a quick jolt as the voice of my flight’s captain breaks the silence. we are airborne from paris and on our way back to the US. i listen to him speak and feel a sense of life return to my body after 36 hours of numbness. after 36 hours of confusion and worry. after 36 hours of the loneliest minutes of my life.
his voice is firm and strong. not a quiver of fear or emotion emits from it, though i am sure there is plenty of emotion he is holding back. i hear the hints of somberness intensify as he talks about standing in solidarity with the citizens of paris. i hear his voice and that brings me comfort.
i hear his words that are reminding us that everyone on this flight is recovering from the same experience. he apologizes to the passengers who were expecting to make their way home yesterday. “the flight from dallas to paris was cancelled,” he explains, “there was no plane for us to go back in.” the crew is just as frazzled as everyone else here.
i hear him say these words as a gentle reminder that we should all be kinder to each other today. a reminder that the relationships aboard the flight are not between customer and service provider. there are no sides. there is only empathy for a tragedy we all experienced together. there is only longing for the feeling of a home we are all flying towards.
though the flight is filled with strangers, there is an odd sense of familiarity between us all. a sense that we are all breathing the same sigh of relief as we leave behind the scene of a painful memory, the scars of which are still too fresh to understand.
“paris”, i repeat to myself. a city that has always reminded me of perfection and beauty. a city i used to dream of seeing as often as possible, even if it meant only walking the streets for five minutes, to feast on its delicacies if only for one bite, to listen to jazz in its bars if only for one song. i repeat the word to myself in disbelief as tears swell my eyes with each utterance and the taste of metal consumes my throat in a way i have become all too familiar with since friday night.
the captain’s voice fades and i turn my attention to my phone. i revisit the content i received from my amazing family and dearest of friends over the last day. video clips of their children learning to walk and dance, of their babies laughing, even their pets sleeping. i think of how kind they were to offer me a break from my anxiety. how for 10 seconds at a time they distracted me from the state of fear i was in.
i think of those who called to offer me their voice and reminded me that though i was the loneliest i ever felt, i was not alone in this world. how the timing of each call perfectly followed the ending of the call before it, as if they had coordinate the schedule to allow me to feel connected to someone at all times.
i think of those in paris who opened their homes to me, and others who opened their hearts.
i think of all of it and i’m reminded that this was not my first brush with terror, but it was my first time experiencing it in a vacuum, alone. i was in the US 14 years ago when the planes brought down the twin towers on september 11. i was flying into jordan 10 years ago, almost to the day, as suicide bombers detonated their belts in three hotels across amman. the first time i had my mother by my side. the next time, one of my closest friends. their presence made the experiences bearable. this time, their absence made it all too real.
i had never before imagined that this intensity of fear exists, and though i am flying away from it as i type, my mind keeps flashing back to what it felt like the morning after. what it felt like to wake up in a strange room, all alone, in a city i barely know, where i don’t speak the language, and don’t know how to navigate naturally. what it felt like to realize the only food i had access to was a bag of m&ms and two quest bars. what it felt like to wonder how long i might have to sustain myself on that, not knowing if people were in the streets, or if the city was on lockdown. what it felt like to wonder which parts of the news were exaggerated and which were true when i had only a view of the courtyard from my window. what it felt like to be too paralyzed to open the door to know for sure what was happening on the other side.
and as my mind flashes back through those hours, the stewardess walks by to put a plate of rich creamy pasta in front of me. i sense my appetite return after a day and a half of being suppressed.
i take a bite and my tastebuds begin to tingle as if i’m being served a michelin meal. i’m listening to the same playlist that i hum along to whenever i paint in my apartment. the songs remind me that i’m returning to a happy place.
i feel even more life return to my body. i can function because the terror and trauma lasted only 36 hours. they were the most intense and pronounced of my life. they were the longest hours of my life. but they are finally over.
my blood can pump through my body normally now. my heart rate can slow down. everything about me can go back to how it was.
except my heart, my heart is not the same. it breaks and cries for the generation of children who are growing up experiencing this fear daily. whose bodies do not get to return to a state of normalcy within hours. who will experience these physiological and psychological terrors every day for a lifetime to come.
it breaks and cries for the generation of children from iraq. from palestine. from syria. a generation of children from afghanistan. from sudan. from libya. a generation of children from ukraine. from kosovo. from nigeria. from eritrea.
it breaks and cries for the generation of children who to no fault of their own will grow up not knowing the comfort of a soft pillow because their heads will be too fraught with fear to rest easy; their ears polluted with the sounds of sirens, or bombs or wailing mothers grieving for their losses.
it breaks and cries for this world. and i pray it can mend.
the flight home.
my heart grieves for the people of paris. for the families who lost their loved ones. and for those still in fear of what might come next.