Moments of grace at the Orlando airport: The long, beautiful goodbye

She asked to hold the baby one last time.

It wasn’t in English, but I put together that the older woman was saying goodbye to a grandchild.

The infant, who had no idea what was going on, was passed into the older hands for likely the 100th time that morning, cooing, eyes wildly darting to and fro. The older woman clasped the baby in her arms, held her aloft and stared into her deep brown eyes. She kissed her cheeks, cradled her, bounced her. The next time she saw the baby, she’d be walking – talking – who knows. It could be years.

The older woman’s hands were weathered, heavily veined, working hands. One of those hands gave the baby back to the younger woman, her daughter. The other hand snaked up her daughter’s back, finding her long, black braided ponytail. She worked the ponytail holder up and down, moving her fingers along the plaiting. It was as if touching her daughter — feeling her hair, running her hands up and down her back, grasping at her arms — would slow the Security line down, make the time crawl backward. They had to be the only people in line who wanted that. But my time observing the family made me hope it would last, too.

I was trying to figure out, in this crowded Orlando security line, who was leaving whom. The entire family was Indian, and after some studying of their body language, I put it together that the older couple was heading back somewhere far away. Tattered bags rested on the older man’s shoulders as he and – I’m assuming his son-in-law – made small talk while the women clutched each other and the baby.

The older woman’s eyes were filling with tears. How far was she flying away from her daughter and the baby? Likely to countries far away, where Americans don’t often go. I pictured the younger woman’s decision to leave her family in India. I picture her husband, who was standing ahead of her in line, getting a great job that would get them out of India. I pictured the younger woman’s deliberations, her pain at the decision she knew she had to make. She had to get a better life for herself, her husband and the baby that would surely come. She saw no way to that but to leave. She tortured herself at the notion. Meanwhile, her parents practically pushed her out, hoping for the American dream to take hold of her daughter and son-in-law.

The younger woman and her husband left home. And she knew these moments in the airport would be inevitable. It would never be easy.

This wasn’t the first time they’d said goodbye, but maybe it was the first time they’d said goodbye to a baby, too.  Maybe her parents had come to America for the fifth or sixth time. Maybe they went to Disney World. Maybe they ate terrible fried food, laughed and held each other’s hands, drinking in every moment. Maybe the older woman had held her grandchild for an entire week, and also done her daughter’s laundry, folded every piece, cooked her child’s favorite meal.

I dared not look at the younger woman’s eyes yet for fear of being completely emotionally overcome. How did they do this? How were they not wailing? Their silent goodbyes were a marvel to me – as American as they come, a loud, brash, obnoxious girl who cries about everything and is not shy about sharing emotions. This quiet, touching moment was something I’d give anything to have with my own mother.

The older woman wore the mark on her forehead and another in her hairline. Her Sari was wrapped perfectly, indicative of culture and practice. Her eyes were so deeply sad, yet so happy to have these moments. She tried to hide her emotions with a big smile. It didn’t work.

The daughter was almost identical to her mother in looks, hairstyle and clothing, but maybe with a touch more modernity. But not much. She clutched her mother’s fingers, tracing the bones of each digit.  When I finally braved looking at her, her eyes were looking down, trying not to look at her mother, it seemed. I imagined her train of thought. Her mom was fiddling with her braid again, and it felt so good, so normal… how she missed those hands playing with her hair, styling it, her words of praise for her appearance. How she wished those hands were constant, helping to raise the baby in her mother’s arms. How she wished this security line would go on forever. How she wished she could return home with her mother. But her husband, who turned to look at her at that moment, knew her pain. Seeing him, she was reminded of her new life, what they had to look forward to now.

The younger woman said something to her husband at that moment. Something to the effect of: “We need to go. We have to go before I completely lose it.” The younger man and older man shook hands. The women embraced for long, long minutes, clinging to each other, the baby between them. The line was moving more quickly now. They were ushering us into another line, one that would take us to another part of security. It was time to say goodbye.

I never saw long rivulets of tears. I’m not sure if they were wiped away before anyone saw them or if they actually fell. Maybe these women were capable of hiding their tears better than me.

When it was over, the young couple turned around and left. The older woman’s eyes followed for seconds. Seconds only, then averted back to the front of the line.

“Never watch out of sight,” my mom used to say. For watching someone leave until you can’t see them is bad luck. To this day, I do exactly what this older Indian woman did. I say goodbye, then avert my eyes as quickly as possible as not to invite bad luck into an already awful goodbye.

I watched as the older man presented his passport to the TSA agent. The agent was frustrated with the man’s lack of speaking much English – it was obvious – but the man patiently handed the agent his passport and ticket once barked at. His eyes trained on his wife, who had her back to me at this time. The wife moved up in line and presented her own passport. Then the two headed in a different direction from me. I passed them again later in the line, and the woman’s mind was a thousand miles away. A bemused smile sat on her face. I could almost read her mind. She was replaying the week she’d just had, the moments with her daughter and granddaughter, the fun they had, the moments she took with her… the sadness sat on standby, just under the surface, waiting to emerge.

I bet, when she was alone on the plane, the tears started falling. I bet she rested her head on her husband’s shoulder on the flight home. And though no words may have been spoken, he re-assured her everything would be OK and they would be back before they knew it.

I hope they see each other again soon. I later heard a young woman at my gate talking about the pair and the goodbye – it had to be the same scenario. It seemed that, while it was quiet and not obvious, those not bereft of emotion picked up on it. “It was just so meaningful,” I heard the young girl say to her flying partners. “It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.” Yes it was, my friend. Yes it was.

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Filed under Family, Love, Mom, Travel, Women

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