The last time I traveled with my children, I received an unexpected gift. I'm not talking about a free upgrade or a decent airplane meal. No, I mean something far more slippery and ineluctable, something the airlines can't provide. For the first few fleeting moments of my 39-plus years on this planet, I actually felt like an adult.
It may sound strange for someone with two children--someone, in other words, who spends part of every day enforcing bedtime and mealtime, uttering phrases like "Because I said so," and "Turn that television off"--to think of adulthood as some elusive Holy Grail. But the truth is that, deep down, I don't see much difference between my grown-up self and the person I was at, say, 12. I have all the same doubts and fears, the same irresolution, the same sense of life as this flittering thing, always just beyond my grasp.
Several years ago, when my nephew Curtis was an infant, I asked my brother if he didn't find it somehow incomprehensible that he had been entrusted with the responsibility of caring for a new life. At the time, with no kids of my own, I posed the question idly, but these days, it seems anything but abstract. Nothing, after all, brings us more fully face-to-face with our limitations than our children; nothing makes us feel less equipped. Every time it all seems more than I can handle, every time I feel that I have failed them, I find myself lamenting, "If only I were more of an adult. . . ."
That's especially true when it comes to travel, which, with family scattered throughout the country, we do a lot. At one point, we flew so much that my son Noah, then all of 3, qualified for AAdvantage Gold status, and although we've cut back over the last few years, we still spend more time than we'd like to flying coast to coast. Of these trips, none is longer than the one back from Cape Cod, where we go each year to see my parents. It's not just the plane ride from Boston to Los Angeles, which, at 6 1/2 hours, represents its own eternity, it's also the two hours it takes to drive to Logan Airport, which means you're exhausted before you begin. What's more, my wife always comes home a couple of days early, leaving me to travel solo with the kids. Before my daughter Sophie was born, all that seemed difficult but doable: one child, one day, self-contained. This year, however, for the first time, I brought both kids back to California together, an experience that, as it drew closer, began to feel increasingly like a test.
As anyone who's ever done it will tell you, the key to traveling with children is to keep them entertained. It becomes easier as they get older; Noah, now 6, has all sorts of projects--books, games, cassette tapes--to occupy his time. With a 2-year-old like Sophie, though, things are more complicated, and when you factor in the age difference . . . well, you're heading into uncharted territory. So before I left my parents' house, I stocked up on provisions: Froot Loops and Oreos, books appropriate to each kid's attention level, dolls, toys, stuffed animals, anything that might provide diversion, even if only for a limited time. As I loaded the car for the drive to Boston, I felt an odd flash of control, of confidence, as if I had everything in hand. Then we pulled out of the driveway, and Sophie started pulling at the straps of her car seat, yelling that she wanted to get out. "Here," I said, and gave her my keys, cereal, a box of apple juice. Ten hours, I thought, as I tried to distract her, how am I going to fill the time?
Of course, the thing about time is that it's relative; as Einstein once noted, an hour with your sweetheart might feel like a minute; a minute with your in-laws can seem to take an hour. The same is true of travel, where the seconds blend together in a never-ending present tense. In the heat of the moment, there's no choice but to deal with it, cajole the crying baby, let go of everything except the here and now. If you do that, sometimes circumstances come together in your favor. On the road to Boston, as I began to wonder what would happen if Noah, like his sister, became antsy, I noticed, with a flush of gratitude, that my son had gone to sleep. He woke up as we reached the airport and immediately rose to the occasion, helping with the bags and solicitously offering Sophie a bag of cookies, looking after her as I checked us in. In that instant, I realized that I was not alone with these children, but that we were in this together, that they were not just my responsibility, but my cohorts, my collaborators, my fellow travelers, as it were.