The Austin, Texas airport has been the setting for most of my adult emotion. So I thought it fitting if I sat here to write what’s been circling my brain for the last few years.
It was at a brunch with our families that my best childhood and lifelong friend let me know that her sister was diagnosed with cancer. It wasn’t even the first topic we covered. In fact, I think we were close to the check at that point. Not that this is surprising. She was pregnant, we both had two-year olds, and she also had a four-year old. Managing to get everyone pancakes, seated, and calm were our clear priorities. And cancer isn’t a topic you drop in at the first sight of coffee, knowing the wait staff is bound to interrupt at any moment. I remember how steeped in denial I was then. “She’s going to be okay, right?” How could she not be? She’s a healthy 31-year old. Maybe just 30 at that very moment. We should be talking about her new adorable daughter, not a mass in her lungs.
Reality started to seep in over the next few months. Frightening words like ‘Stage Four,’ and ‘drug trials.’ As you do, we started fundraising, buying t-shirts, going to events, posting pictures of ourselves wearing her favorite color on Facebook. Some of us wrote to the CEO of Pfizer to push for Ali’s acceptance into the drug trial that might shrink the tumors. It’s kind of a blur looking back, but as positive as we all were on the surface, I had a growing uneasiness that this could go in a very dark direction.
At the same time, the rest of my life had never been better; but also had never been more complicated. I had accepted a role as a Creative Director on an innovative mobile educational program, that had me leading a team and pushing myself to do market-leading design work. Balancing that with the demands of a two-year old, my husband’s critically important work as an environmental scientist, and the overall role I take as Manager of Family and Friend Relationships, I was feeling in over my head.
I was in Austin working with a team of genius developers and designers when I noticed that my phone had been buzzing…often enough that I knew I needed to step out. Today was the day. Ali had pneumonia and would not make it.
This is the moment in my life when I knew I had crossed over from being an adolescent to being a full-fledged adult. Not because of my age. Because of how I handled the following 12 hours.
I excused myself, I found a private office. I let the tears fall. I called my parents. I called my husband. I took ten deep yoga breaths. I did an inversion to change my energy. Then I did the strangest thing. I went back to the meeting. I contributed. I compartmentalized. I drew on the whiteboard. I made sense. At the end of the day, I got in a cab, I went through security. Then, knowing what was going on in a hospital room many states away, I called my friend to leave her a message of support.
She picked up the phone.
Just like in the movies, my legs went out from under me and I had to stumble to the nearest seat. I didn’t know that really happened until that moment. I don’t know what else Brittany and I said to each other during the next five or so minutes. It really didn’t matter. We cried together. Not a tear or two, a gut-wrenching collective sob while she eeked out words like, “peaceful transition.”
Naturally, my flight was delayed.
There I sat, at Gate 11. Sitting in the reality that a kid that I grew up with didn’t get to see her daughter grow to the age of two. Worried for Brittany and her three little girls. How does one move on from this? The tears kept coming. It was the place of my heartbreak.
As luck would have it, Gate 11 is directly across from Security, which means that any time you fly into or out of Austin, you cannot avoid it.
And since that team of geniuses was the vendor for my program, there were many more trips to Austin. I shuddered whenever I passed it.
About a year later, things were okay. I could still cry on command any time I allowed myself to think about Ali. (Let’s be honest, that is still the case.) But those closest to Ali had survived the darkest days of their grief. No small feat, and I realize I will never know entirely what courage and strength that took.
I was headed back to Austin for another business trip, and had scheduled my six-week pregnancy visit for that morning before I left. My husband didn’t accompany me because this was our second, I would grab the ultra sound picture and show him when I returned from my trip. But there was no heartbeat. And now it would be several days before I got to be comforted from that loss by my husband and son. Seeing Gate 11 that day made me angry. Why is it always here? Why do I have to go through the hardest parts alone, and so often in Texas?
I made it through that day, with more deep breathing and inversions.
I am having another tough week in Austin. I needed to leave my little one with her daycare overnight in order to make this trip and enforce some tough decisions that will affect people’s lives and well-being. And now I sit at Gate 11, waiting on my boss and our shared rental car. At first, I couldn’t bear to imagine staying longer in this godforsaken airport than absolutely necessary. But then I realized, this is what grit is. This is what perseverance looks like. This is being an adult. This is being a professional.
But under all of that, isn’t every human an ocean of emotion, sentimentality and connections? The reason I’m writing this is because it’s critical to be both, and what we must teach our children is when each is appropriate, and to find the outlet that allows both to live in us.
I know now that I can do what’s required this week, to present these decision calmly and emotion-free. Before I left, I was feeling the emotions rise up. Frustration, anger, sadness that I had to leave my little girl. And a song came on the radio. Anyone who knows me knows that I believe you hear the songs you need to hear when you need to hear them. Anyone who knows Ali knows her love of Bob Marley. Anyone who knows Brittany knows she doesn’t even LIKE Bob Marley. (Still the case, Britt?) So you’ll know why my Gate 11 tears came as Bob sang, “every little thing is going to be alright.”
I am trying my best to make Gate 11 hallowed ground. The place where I remember that to be human, to truly value this amazing gift that is life is to be your authentic self, which can be both sappy and strong, not always at the same time.