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My Kids Got on a Plane Without Me

I packed my kids' suitcases and drove them to the airport. We browsed the souvenir stands then sat in a restaurant in Terminal C, eating burgers and sushi. The entire time, I was a mess. Because I was about to put my babies on an airplane to their grandparents' house—without me.

For many American kids, spending time at grandma and grandpa's house is a summer tradition. My husband grew up doing this, spending a few weeks each August at his grandfather's ranch, where he and his brother gathered a lifetime's worth of anecdotes about drinking fresh milk and the goat that ate a football. But this tradition of shipping the kids off to the grandparents was foreign to me. In my family, the grandparents bought plane tickets across the Pacific and stayed at our house for the summer.

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As I looked around the Southwest Airlines terminal, all I could see were happy families dressed in bright colors, excited to go to Hawaii, Disneyland and who knows where else—together. To my left, I saw two parents with toddler boys, including a round-faced preschooler wearing an oversized T-shirt with a familiar star logo I couldn't quite place. My boys wore giant plastic lanyards around their necks, with a scarlet letter marking them as boarding group A. You know, the group that needs a flight attendant to help them board the plane, because they are minors traveling without their parents.

I wasn't really prepared when I heard my kids' names being called on the loudspeaker. It was their turn to report to the boarding gate. Before I could launch into any wordy, teary goodbye, the flight attendant whisked my boys down the tunnel. The family with the two small boys was boarding early, too. Then another flight attendant carrying a bouquet of star-shaped mylar balloons. I guess the extra fee for unaccompanied minors comes with some perks.

In a sight no parent wants to see, two giant fire engines came toward the plane.

Glumly, I watched the rest of the passengers board. Were they flying for business or pleasure? Which one of these people was going to sit next to my kids? Would they find my jostling boys amusing or annoying? Or would they spread their oversized arms all over the armrests, cramming my little ones into their seats? Soon enough, all the groups had boarded, but the plane remained docked. I stared out the window, looking at the brightly painted plane sitting on the tarmac.

A gate agent announced that the flight would be delayed a few minutes. My mind started to race. Was something mechanically wrong with it? Was the pilot OK? Then, in a sight no parent wants to see, two giant fire engines came toward the plane. The plane wasn't even moving yet! I wondered if it was too late to go pull my boys off the flight.

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The fire engines shot out plumes of water, forming a giant arch over the plane. Like Noah seeing a rainbow after the flood, I felt like things would be OK. Was this show for my children? So many things were unexplained.

The familiar announcer's voice came back on, explaining that Southwest Airlines was a proud sponsor of the Make-a-Wish foundation. The round-face boy in the other family that boarded early was a cancer patient on his way to Disneyland. Tearfully, I watched the plane taxi down the runway and take off.

I stayed in the airport for a few extra minutes, thankful that I could put my boys on a plane by themselves to visit their grandparents.

Image via Twenty20/Nathalie Atayde

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