A 13 hour flight with two endlessly energetic boys is not my favorite pastime. And yet there I was, ecstatic, because Young Sir was finally talking again. After all, he had been dabbling in selective mutism for what became over two weeks. Well he did speak, on occasion. For example, he was especially verbal about how pissed off he was at me that time I got us lost walking home from the F train. Yet for the better part of our time in America, Young Sir spoke only when prompted, which was not like him at all.
But three hours into our flight, my little boy came back: talking himself in circles and figure-eights, answering questions never asked, questions few would likely ever ask, usually involving intricate details of the Greater Tokyo JR and subway networks. Information that may or may not be accurate. But who cared, he was talking! And laughing, too (he finds himself very amusing). I never got the joke but I just went with it anyway, because I loved to see him smile.
I can do this. I took a deep breath.
By this, I was not referring to the flight itself, though in another era I would have thought it a challenge to take both kids on a long flight without my husband (who stayed in Japan for work). Now, however, the flight was barely a hiccup in time. Post arrival would be the challenge.
I can do this, I told myself again, remembering to count my blessings. After all, I hadn’t spent Christmas stateside in 8 years, and felt incredibly fortunate that this trip worked out somehow. I felt lucky to have had a decent experience in the US throughout what has been a very rough holiday season for so many others. My boys finally got to see their grandparents, who have had to cancel trip-after-trip to Japan due to the travel restrictions. (We even appealed for special circumstances, citing that my children have special needs and I require my mother in the country to help me take care of them. But you can guess how that turned out.)
I can do this.
I want to do this, I recalled my willingness to isolate for the sake of the community. The last thing I wanted was for anyone else to get sick because I decided to travel. Even though it is fairly impossible for most people to share a small space with both my children for upwards of an hour (I have never been able to hire a babysitter for both of them at once, for that reason), I kept telling myself that I could do it. I was their mother, after all. We could bond, become better people, that sort of thing. And if I understood the reasoning behind the hotel quarantine, the overall importance of our isolation on arrival, then it would all end up bearable, right?
After the plane landed, one of the flight attendants came around to commend me on my courage, flying with two small boys and all.
“So after we get off the airplane,” I began nervously after a few pleasantries, “do you think there will be anyone around to maybe assist us? My kids are kind of, well,” I fumble over words because I don’t like disclosing their diagnoses to everyone I meet.
“Yes, I do hope that someone is there to help you,” The flight attendant nodded with an apologetic look in her eyes, “but we are not allowed to follow you beyond the gate.”
Luckily, or so I thought, an employee met us as we were waiting for our checked stroller and guided us across the airport. She even let us make a bathroom stop and I was able to use the toilet without the risk of losing one or both my children, a truly invaluable favor. I then made the mistake of assuming she might be able to shadow us throughout the rigorous process, which made it all the more disappointing when she disappeared after showing us to our first set of assigned chairs, never to be heard from again.
It’s fine, I assured myself. You can’t force other people to be kind. If they offer to help, they offer to help. If they don’t, they don’t. I must employ this mantra often, especially in Japan, so as not to lose my shit.
But by the time we were able to approach the first counter, my family was already a wreck. Young Sir was half asleep and refusing to wear his mask properly, and Little Prince was whining, in that unbearable voice that desperately overtired 4-year-olds use to make us lose our minds.
As I faced the counter to present our paperwork, Little Prince stood up suddenly, causing the stroller he had been riding to topple over backwards from the weight of everything hanging on the handles. In my efforts to catch it, the paperwork I was presenting also scattered on the floor. At that very moment, any and all of the airport staff present suddenly became preoccupied with other matters.
I picked up everything by myself. None of the staff even asked if I was ok.
But you can’t force people to be kind.
I began to suspect that the Japanese people working at the airport were afraid to come near us. Fair enough. We were potentially diseased, after all. I was lucky to have been allowed to travel at all, or so I tried to remember that as I picked up all the papers scattered across the floor.
Eventually, a woman behind the plastic shield at the counter checked all of our paperwork. The form stapled atop the stack had three large numbers on it, a three, a six and a ten. She circled the six.
“Wanna go home. Wanna see daddy.” Little Prince started to cry as he tugged on my sleeve, his timing tragic. “Wanna go home see daddy.”
I knew the hotel quarantine would be six days, coming from New York State, but there was something about being faced with the concreteness of it all, with the knowledge that nobody would be making any merciful concessions for us on the grounds of our being utterly pathetic, that gave me a deep chill.
Oh my God, I can’t do this. How in the Hell could I have thought I could do this?!!
“Go! Home! See! Daddy!” Little Prince shreiked. I had tried to explain the hotel quarantine to him earlier, but it obviously hadn’t sunk in yet.
“Do you smoke?” The woman at the desk asked flatly.
“No,” I shook my head and she checked a box. “Oh and I’m allergic to feathers so I can’t sleep on down pillows.” I added. She nodded and made a note.
“And also,” I felt my voice start to crack, but pushed on regardless, “My children have developmental disabilities, for example they panic really easily, so if theres anything at all you can do to make it easier for the..”
“About the feather issue,” she interrupted. “Are you allergic to down blankets as well?”
“Not as much as the pillows,” I answered her question, somewhat incredulous. Was my exhaustion playing tricks on me or did she really just pretend not to hear what I said about my children?
And so I had to say it again. As if it were easy. As if I wanted to. I don’t know when I started crying, but I was definitely crying at this point. If I hadn’t been up for 24 hours straight, I would have totally been able to hold it together. So blame it on stress and lack of sleep, if you will.
“My children have special needs.” I repeated.
The woman, likely annoyed that I would not let her ignore me, jotted some notes down and went to get another employee: a middle-aged man in a suit. He looked at all the notes she had taken, and shook his head.
“Just don’t worry about it” he told the woman, authoritatively.
“If she has too many specifications,” he explained, “we will never find a suitable place, so.”
You can’t force people to be..
Oh, fuck that! Don’t worry about it?!! And he said this RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME!! Sure there was a protective screen dividing us, but I was right there,
As if i couldn’t hear him. As if I weren’t standing there. As if i weren’t, well, a person.
And then I understood. We were being treated as a potential contagions rather than as human beings. I’m not saying there wasn’t a reason for it. I’m not even judging whether their tactics were right or wrong, given the situation. I’m just saying that it hurt. It hurt quite a lot.
I do love living in Japan; I love it for more reasons than I could ever list, but there is a certain coldness here sometimes. If you’ve felt it, you know what I mean. It is a chill, quiet cruelty, an utter absence of concern that happens to appear just as you are most in need of compassion. It is an abject silence when you long more than anything for a kind word.
After that we passed through a few more checkpoints, where people were not nearly as awful and I tried very hard not to look like I had been crying.
But when we got to the room where we were to await our test results, things started to turn sour again. I don’t remember who started it, but my overtired, utterly unregulated children began to bicker and brawl. This resulted in Young Sir dragging Little Prince around by the hair while I desperately tried to come between them.
I am somewhat used to my kids making a spectacle of themselves, but never to this degree. Never to this vast an audience. And never when I had so little control over the situation at large.
When I finally got him to loosen his grip on his brother, Young Sir, knowing that he was in trouble, dashed out of the room. I stayed on to comforted Little Prince. I then tried to get him to come with me to go look for his older brother, but he refused violently. (Can’t imagine why.)
There’s no doubt I waited a longer than I should have to go out searching for Young Sir. He wasn’t exactly my favorite person at the moment, and I figured there was no way they would let him get very far anyway. I was wrong about that, though. And when I did really start to worry about him, I actually had to leave Little Prince in the waiting room alone as I ran back and forth to search for his older brother.
Eventually, Young Sir was brought back a feat that required three or four adults holding on to either side of him. He had gotten as far as immigration. At least they stopped him there. Though I’m sure he made a valiant effort so slip through undetected, knowing my kid.
In the meantime, Little Prince was making friends. Or, more accurately, he was trying to steal everybody’s cell phone. Have I mentioned that he is utterly obsessed with smartphones? But not just any smartphones. I tried to give him mine. I even offered him my new iPhone13 to do whatever he pleased with. But no, he wants to check out everyone else’s phones.
After the return of the Prodigal Sir, well, that was when things really started going to shit. Especially for him, because he was intent of running away again, but was prevented from doing so. And especially for me, as he screamed a nonverbal “Naaaah Nah Naaah” as he tried to shake off my tight grip on his wrists. I knew that if I let go, he would stop shouting. But he would also almost certainly run away again. So.
There were no airport staff nearby the waiting room, so I couldn’t request assistance. I mean, they must have heard though. Anyone must have heard him just about everywhere. It was just that bad.
Eventually though, I did talk Young Sir down to the point where he was sitting under a chair quietly with his subway map. Little Prince, however, had become hyperactive, getting in everyone’s faces at will. Literally, I repeat, trying to take everybody’s cell phone. I had to fill out the quarantine registration paperwork, which had to be done in triplicate. Half of the papers soon ended up on the floor, because of course they did, so I bent down to pick them up.
Just then, I looked up to see a tall western man making a bee-line across the room in my direction.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” he waved intently.
Fuck. I thought to myself, not for the first time that evening. Whatever my kid did to him, I’ll just apologize and maybe…
“Can I assist you in any way?” he asked.
Wait, what? I blinked rapidly, unable to stop my eyes dampening again.
“Might I help you?” he asked again.
“Yes!” I practically exclaimed.
“What can I do?” he asked.
“I don’t know!” If I had any composure left at all, I lost the last of it right then. It is fairly easy to keep from crying when one is odds with the entire world. But now somebody was actually being nice to me, so remaining stoic was off the table.
“Maybe I could….” he rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “How about I watch the little one while you finish filling out that paperwork?” He nodded toward the floor.
“Awesome,” I choked. “Thank you so much.”
Thanks to this man, I was able to finally dig out my passports from underneath a crumbled up pile of Fig Newtons at the bottom of my purse, and copy our information onto the forms.
In the absence of those in charge, those who were actually orchestrating this circus, this stranger risked his own safety (we all came from high-risk areas) in order to ease my suffering. Not only that, he had surely just gotten off of a long international flight himself.
But the warmth didn’t stop there. When he broke the ice, it caused a chain reaction of sorts.
“I have Cliff bars,” a woman tapped me on the shoulder from behind. “Do your kids want them?”
“I think your son dropped this,” a middle-aged man brought me one of Young Sir’s shoes. (I still don’t know how that happened.)
“Here, kid, come look at my phone.” A teenager on my right beckoned Little Prince. “I have a cool game to show you.”
I’d never experienced anything quite like it before. Facing conditions that bordered on inhumane, the other people in that room became the humanity that was sorely lacking.
Who knew that, in a world that feels merciless at times, we can choose to be the mercy?
“Is there anything else I can help you with?” The tall man asked again, after my boys had calmed down for a time.”
“I think we’re ok.” I replied, “Thanks so much.”
“Sure,” he shrugged.
“You see usually,” I half-joked, “I totally have it all together. So together. It’s just…”
“I know,” he sympathized, “this is a crazy situation.”
I nodded and thanked him again. Soon after, my group was called to board the bus.
“I’d hug you,” I stopped by the man’s chair to bid him farewell, “but you know, Covid.”
“Sure, of course.” He nodded. “No worries. Good Luck.”
“Thanks,” I half-smiled. “We’ll need it.”
As I proceeded to thank half of the waiting room before we made our way onward with the group, I could not help but wonder whether perhaps, I mean just maybe, humankind doesn’t suck all that much after all.
The kids got onto the vehicle without much incident, and fell asleep immediately. Even though no one told us where we were going, I started to feel hopeful. The worst was probably over, I let myself believe.
Sadly, however, this was not entirely the case.