“We’re here - Gate C15. Next stop – Florida!” I announce our arrival at the American Airlines gate at Charlotte Airport with some theatrical ceremony.
Vaughn’s hand clasps mine tightly. The Charlotte airport is packed with travelers navigating the narrow concourse to their connecting gates. Vaughn is clearly in sensory overload by the sheer volume of stimuli around him – broken conversations all around us, colorful neon signs for restaurants and gift shops, a maze of travelers walking at different speeds, dragging their noisy carry-on luggage behind them. Out of the corner of my eye, I glance at him and I know exactly what he is doing. Though it appears that he is looking around aimlessly, he is making mental notes of all the gates – C11, C12, C13, C14. The ascending sequence of letters and numbers is both compelling and reassuring to him. I was nervous taking our first vacation that involved a connecting flight. If the flight was delayed for any reason, it would no doubt spike my son’s anxiety. Thankfully, the weather today is perfect - we will arrive a full 30 minutes early to our connecting gate. I say a silent prayer of gratitude to God.
“Here we are – Gate C15” repeating the gate number intentionally. “Why don’t we just relax until they start boarding? Vaughn – you can play with your tablet if you want.” We squat in the only area of C15 that has three connecting empty seats.
“I think I’m going to make a rest room pit stop” Jen says, swinging her luggage in front of the seat, ‘I’ll grab us some snacks too. Vaughn – do you want some snacks?
“Yeesssssssss”, he says looking off into the distance.
I pull Vaughn’s tablet out of Jen’s carry-on and hand it over to him.
“You can probably squeeze in a game of Madden before we board” I tell him.
“Okay” he says powering up his tablet.
As he surrenders himself to the fantasy of selecting his NFL teams, I take in the scene at Gate C15. It is already packed with travelers – mostly families with kids, like us. Though it is May, it appears that a lot of families are pulling their kids out of school to take advantage of better airline rates and reduced hotel fares. I love the atmosphere, all these families spending will spend their week in Orlando, creating new memories at Disney, Universal, Harry Potter.
Sitting across from us is one of these Disney-bound families. A father with 3 young boys, all looking to be under the age of eight. The Dad is handsome in a very southern way, sporting both a perfect 5 o’clock shadow and a South Carolina Game Cocks baseball cap; V-neck T-shirt and cargo shorts completes his Dad ensemble. His three boys are faultless, short blond hair and brown eyes, all dressed in coordinated outfits – the oldest is playing a game on a tablet, while the two younger boys (who could be fraternal twins) are watching a video on another tablet. The Dad and I make eye contact and engage in that swift and silent fellow Dad acknowledgement, which consists of a quick raise of your eyebrows and a short nod.
“Who are you going to play?” I say over my shoulder to Vaughn.
“Patriots vs. Giants”.
“Nice – that’ll be interesting”
“I’m gonna make Tom Brady run the ball on every down” he says with a mischievous grin.
“Well, I’m sure that’s going to work out great”
This is Vaughn’s latest tactic when playing Madden, using all of his selected players in the most ludicrous manner. Brady running the ball, Gronkowski kicking field goals, Edelman doing on-side kicks on 2nd down. Flouting the basic rules of football, this is an immense source of humor for him, and he giggles endlessly at how ridiculous these plays are.
“Ugggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” Vaughn cries out, his body stiffening, and jerking backwards.
“What? What?” I say – caught off guard by his reaction.
“Brady fumbled! Brady fumbled!” Vaughn cries out loudly.
‘Well, of course, he’s not a running QB, he’s a passing QB. You know that”.
“WHY DID HE DO THAT?” Vaughn cries out loudly, heads at Gate C15 swivel in response.
“Vaughn keep your voice down”, I say suddenly feeling self-conscious, nervous that other travelers at the gate are starting to look at us.
The Giants defender has scooped up Brady’s fumble and scores. Vaughn’s posture again stiffens. He throws himself back, his entire posture stiffening to a board.
“Uggggghhhhhhhhh!” Vaughn cries out again. He throws the backs of his hands against his cheeks and makes a low growling sound. This is one of Vaughn’s newest tics – the one he now makes when his anxiety starts to spike. It is loud and attracts looks from other people at the gate.
“Vaughn – this is what happens when you run the ball with Brady. You know he’s a passing QB.” I know this deflection to logic won’t work, but it’s all I’ve got right now - hoping to both engage and distract him before this becomes a full-fledged meltdown.
“UGGGGHHHHHHHHH!” Vaughn cries out, the backs of his hands again burying themselves against his cheeks.
Now I feel my own anxiety increasing. Looking around, I survey the scene around me. Vaughn’s cries have attracted some attention at Gate C15. Several travelers are doing a good job of both looking at us, without directly looking at us, looking past us, as though they recognize some invisible person behind us? But there is one person who isn’t even subtle in his full frontal judgement – the Dad sitting across from me. Thankfully, his kids are oblivious, still immersed in their tablets. But he is glaring right at me. His eyebrows are knit with judgment, his lips pursed into a straight line, and his eyes are looking right at mine with a “get your fucken kid under control” stare of condemnation. He’s no longer the amiable and handsome southern Dad I saw earlier. Rather, he’s become a one-man jury. I am on the witness stand, with a prosecuting attorney hovering over me.
“Are you okay?” I whisper over to Vaughn.
Rather than answering, he looks over at me, buries his hands into his cheeks and repeats that low growling sound.
I’m trapped. Normally, I would take Vaughn by the hand and we would walk off some of his adrenaline. But I’m trapped at Gate C15 - There’s a bevy of carry-on luggage and bags that makes this impossible. I strain my necks to look down the concourse, hoping Jen is on her way back, but I accidentally meet the eyes of the fellow Dad, who is still glaring at me. He has moved in a little closer to his twins, with his left arm behind the back of their seats, almost in a protective manner. They are still huddled around the tablet watching a video.
“Heyyyyyy – I’m back” Jen says pleasantly from behind me.
“He’s fine” I say to her. I say this instinctively because Jen will size up her son in a nano-second. She’ll notice her son’s face is a shade of crimson, the hair over his ears is slightly matted with sweat, intermittently burying his hands on his cheeks. I know exactly what she is thinking - her look says to me “okay what just happened while I was gone?”
“Brady fumbled and he’s just having a reaction……..”
“Vaughn, do you want me to take over?”
He doesn’t respond, just looks up at me with his hands burrowed onto his cheeks. His response is neither an affirmation or a denial, so I sense an opening. I grab the tablet, instinctively saying – “I think I’m going to have Josh Allen do a fake punt.
The sun rises on my son’s face. The corners of his mouth slightly upturn and his eyes relax.
“Yeah – let’s see if I can pull off this move on the Giants.”
It works. Another silent prayer of gratitude to God. My son’s reaction is immediate.
“Ohhhhhhhhh, you did it! You did it, Daddy!”
“Very lucky Special Teams play.”
Now Vaughn is all in, his posture relaxes, leaning all of his body weight on my left shoulder, peering at the screen. In my peripheral vision, I see the Dad across from me getting up and hear words blinking in and out, like from an old AM radio station
I feel his shadow brush past me, as his sons follow him in a parade. I continue playing Madden on Vaughn’s tablet, making foolish play call decisions again and again - the sheer idiocy of my choices eliciting fits of giggles from Vaughn. My strategy works; my son has returned.
When the Dad returns, he sits in a different section of C15. Though the seats across from us are still empty, he grabs a few seats that face out towards the windows. There aren’t enough seats, so he stands over his sons, shifting his weight back and forth. My imagination festers with what he is thinking right now, something to the effect of “I don’t want to sit next to that family on this flight. That kid’s a disaster”.
I wrap up the game of Madden on Vaughn’s tablet. The Patriots lose 41-14 to the Giants. I intentionally bungle as many plays as possible, drawing more spasmodic giggles from my son. Crisis averted. I return the tablet to my son.
“We only have a few minutes before we board. Why don’t we have our snack now?” Jen hands a bag of chips to Vaughn
Looking up, I feel a wave of shame come over. I am ashamed that I am ashamed, that I even care what other people think. Why does it even matter to me? I think to myself. How long was that mini-meltdown? Probably just a few minutes. I don’t even know – it’s over, it’s over. I’m already strategizing the activity for the plane ride. Lots of games of Hangman with Vaughn, where the categories are solely sports figures from the NFL, MLB, and NBA, broken up with occasional snacks. And I will enjoy it. I will be all-in, fully focused on my son.
“Okay, everyone. We’re ready to start pre-boarding. Any passenger requiring assistance is welcome to line up at the gate at this time. Also, if I can have anyone with an A boarding pass, an A boarding pass -please feel free to line up as well. We’ll begin boarding shortly.”
“Okay, Vaughn - that’s us. Let’s line up. What’s our boarding position? “ I ask the question knowing that he knows it and I know it.
“Woo hoo! Sweet!”
As we gather our luggage, we navigate through the maze of travelers who are doing the same, prepping themselves to board. Over the din of their voices, I can make out a Taylor Swift song playing in the airport intercom – “Shake it Off! Shake it Off!” The irony isn’t lost on me, as we squeeze ourselves behind the first two people in line, an older couple who greet us with a warm smile. The woman spins around, leans forward and says to Vaughn.
“Are you excited to go to Disney?
“Yes!” Vaughn says, “I’m going to play a lot of Hangman on the flight down with my Daddy.”
“Well, that sounds lovely” she says smiling.
Vaughn’s hand clasps mine. I feel his weight shifting back and forth. He is eager to get on the plane. Looking off to the side, I see that the southern Dad and his kids are still sitting on the far side of the gate. Perhaps their boarding passes put them in the B and C positions. They will no doubt sit away from us, as far away from us as possible. I clasp Vaughn’s hand tightly, noticing how incredibly relaxed it feels, and letting out a long exhale, await the announcement for the A passengers to board.