I woke at 4.30am, with a funny feeling in my tummy and my mind racing a mile a minute. After a hectic couple of months and some serious packing, today was the start of our trip home, and I was consumed by the practicalities of it all. First flight at 11am from Saskatoon, seven-hour layover in Toronto, next flight at 11pm, land at 10.40am in Ireland. The biggest obstacle would be the seven-hour layover; a perusal of the airport in Toronto didn’t reveal any amazing kid-friendly entertainment, and the flight to Dublin wasn’t leaving till 11pm, leaving plenty of scope for cranky, tired kids and even crankier mother and grandmother. My mother had arrived in Saskatoon at the beginning of May, and we were flying back together. She had arrived with two suitcases, and was leaving with four, so we had seven lined up, weighed and ready to go. Elaine arrived at 9am to help ferry us all to the airport; she took one look at me and passed over a packet of Rescue Remedy pastilles. “It’ll all be FINE!”, she said reassuringly, “you’ll have a fabulous month!”. “I know!”, I squeaked, mentally running checklists through my head. We bundled ourselves and the luggage into the cars, and set off for the airport.
Saskatoon airport is small and cosy. Lots of helpful staff and no long queues. I was practically catatonic at this stage. We wheeled our trolleys to the desk and watched them trundle off into the bowels of the airport. “Hand luggage?” asked the man. I produced my backpack and handbag. He looked at me doubtfully. “Is that all? For all six of you?”. “Oh, yes”, I said firmly, with memories of our last transatlantic trip burning brightly in my mind. Kids and hand-luggage. Disaster. Boarding passes in hand, we headed to Tim Horton’s for the obligatory waiting-to-leave snack, and then joined the line at the security gates. The children and my mother all said their goodbyes to Michael, who was starting to eye the exits as he saw me becoming more wild-eyed by the minute. “Okaaaaayyyy!”, he said cheerfully. “See you in a month, call me when you get there!” He took a step back. I took a step forward, clutching onto him. “It’ll be FINE!”, he said quietly. Dear God, the next person to say that….. He left, trying to restrain his glee at having the house to himself for a month. I gave him ten days before the novelty wore off.
We boarded and settled into our seats. My mother heroically sacrificed her seat beside us to a woman whose child would have been on her own for the flight, and I settled the five children in. Seatbelts. Snacks. Television screens on and earphones ready. We took off, with them all glued to the Lego Movie, and a frenetic “Everything is awesome!” soundtrack humming through my brain. I hate flying. All of it. Take-off. Landing. The bit in the middle. Michael tried to explain how it worked to me once. “I know how the f&*&ing thing works!”, I spat at him. “It still doesn’t make any sense!” I plugged in my earphones and decided to watch Gravity; I thought it would help with the “it could be much, much worse” mantra. I only got halfway through the film. Snacks, toilet breaks, arguments etc. – they all consume quite a lot of time when you’re stuck in a metal box thousands of feet up in thin air. The first half was beyond crummy. George Clooney floated off into space and Sandra Bullock did an astonishing amount of crying, gasping and grunting. There she was, all alone in space, with a banjaxed shuttle and only herself to talk to. I was losing the will to live. Twenty minutes before we landed, I was reduced to picture only, as I got all the kids resettled before hitting the runway. I had one eye on the screen and one on a semi-hysterical Nicholas, who was wailing about his ears popping, when George Clooney reappeared in the shuttle. WHAT??!!?? He found her in the vast blackness of space???? No f*^%ing way. The screen went blank as the plane landed, and I resolved to contact June, who’d seen the movie and said it was rubbish, and find out what had happened. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
We trooped off the plane, collecting my mother en route up the aisle, and exited into the massive terminal at Toronto, where I was supposed to be meeting my beloved friend Elfriede, with her two sons, Devin and Sebastian. Elfriede, Fergal and the two kids lived beside us in Bree six years ago, and we hadn’t seen each other since they returned to Canada. I couldn’t wait. We were to meet at the Swiss Chalet, which naturally, we couldn’t find. After some aimless circling with whining kids, I stopped into a shop to ask for directions. “Well honey, you’re still behind security”, beamed the assistant. “You need to exit security and go upstairs!”. I hate the way things like this are so simple for everyone else. As soon I walk into an airport I turn into a complete idiot. We found our way out of the maze eventually, and rang Elfriede. “Where are you?” she said excitedly. “Upstairs, outside the Swiss Chalet”, I said, turning in circles and searching the crowds. “Oh, I’m downstairs waiting for you outside Arrivals!”. “Well, shit, I have no idea where that is! Can you come upstairs?” “I don’t know, am I allowed?” I looked around again; surely these people were all just part of the general public? As opposed to actual travellers? I walked over to two security guards nearby, babbling about our predicament; they assured me that we had managed to exit security and were safely among the great unwashed. “You can definitely come up. Stairs are right beside us”, I told Elfriede, as I took up a position with a clear view of the escalator. People came and went. No sign of her. I whirled around a couple of times in case she was planning a ninja attack. Nada. On the third whirlaround, I spot her, clad in an Irish flag and wearing a huge green leprechaun hat, with her two beautiful sons trailing beside her, suitably mortified. “Barbara!” she shrieked, and started to run. “Elfriede!”, I yelled, and set off towards her. The entire airport transformed itself into a slow-motion movie. We leapt, gazelle-like, towards each other, shrieking at a pitch that only dogs could hear, and collapsed, weeping, into each other’s arms. Our kids stood by, astounded and horrified in equal measure. We did that whole sobbing, squealing, patting thing for a couple of minutes, and then disentangled ourselves to re-introduce the kids to each other. They mumbled awkward hellos, looking at the ground. “Benjamin, Devin, don’t you remember each other?” I asked, remembering when they had been thick as thieves. “Not really”, they confessed. Six years is a long time for a child, I suppose. Thankfully, the usual herd mentality of children kicked in, and within two minutes they were sprinting gleefully into the Swiss Chalet for food, perusing the menu and debating the merits of various flavours of pop. Even root beer. Which tastes exactly like cough medicine. Vile stuff. Our fabulous waiter arrived, completely undaunted by the prospect of seven kids and three adults, and we sat, ate, chatted and laughed. Six years disappeared in the blink of an eye. We’re knit from the same cloth, Elfriede and I, and those few hours with her and the boys at the airport were such a gift.
We sat around the terminal for a while, with the kids playing catch with the insides of the Kinder eggs they got for dessert, and their mothers trying to cram all the essential stories into our compressed time together. As the minutes moved by, the prospect of saying goodbye for another few years began to creep into the edges of the conversation. Toronto is so far from Saskatoon; it’s not like we can drop in for a cup of tea and a chat. I might as well be in Ireland as Saskatchewan. The children reluctantly finished their game, and we walked to the parking lot exit; the children were crying and Elfriede and I were trying to console them while struggling with our goodbyes. “You’re just going to cry for the whole month in Ireland”, she said, smiling through the tears. “I know,” I said, “this is just the start of it”. And so she went. Please God it won’t be six years till we see each other again. We need to do a road trip and meet halfway. That’s only about a thousand miles each.
With another four hours of boredom stretching out in front of us, we managed to find a deserted play area for smaller children, and off they went, hurdling big foam cushions and playing tag, while my mother and I sat on hard chairs, deflated and willing 11pm to roll around. With about two hours to go, we set off for the boarding gates and managed to miss them completely. On and on we trudged, looking for the Air Canada desks, when finally, like a beacon in the night, the red maple leaf appeared before us, and we entered through the sliding doors. It was all blocked off. A security guard waved us over, and redirected us all the way back as far the play area. The kids were united in sullen mutiny at this stage, and my mother was fit to drop with tiredness. Back we went, gritting our teeth, and finally entered the security area, where lines of people were waiting for their turn to go through. We made to the top eventually, to be met by a ridiculously tall security guard, who beamed at us from a great height. “Well now”, he boomed, “Look at all of you! Five children…. and you must be the littlest”, bending down to Rebecca. She simpered. “And the cutest”, he chuckled. “I was much cuter in my passport photo”, she confided. “Mom! Show him!”. I looked down at her and realised that this was not a battle that I would win at this juncture of the trip. “Mom!” I fumbled with the six passports and managed to extricate hers. “See?”, said the world’s Most Precocious Child. The guard looked at it solemnly, then back at her. “You’re right. You were even cuter then!” More simpering. Eye-rolling from her siblings. We moved on through, shepherding the kids through the metal detector and finally collapsing into seats at the boarding gate. There were trips to the washroom and more snacks and drinks consumed. Eventually, the tannoy bing-bonged, and the infuriatingly chirpy woman at the desk invited us all to board. We shuffled tiredly into the endless queue. “I need to POO!” announced Rebecca, temporarily misplacing her volume control button. Smiles from the people around us. I groaned. All the way back to the washroom, backpack, handbag, blah blah blah….. “Ok”, I said wearily, and turned to go. “Oh wait!”, she said, with a look of fierce concentration on her face. “It’s ok, it was only a fart!” The other passengers muffled their snorts of laughter and pretended not to be listening. We climbed on board, found our seats and arranged ourselves. “Now, everyone is to sleep!” I said, with Nicholas and Rebecca on either side of me and Christopher, Isabel and Benjamin in the row in front. My mother was sitting behind me, wrecked. We sat on the runway for an hour, without any explanation, and finally took off at midnight. Rebecca and Nicholas fell asleep on top of me, pinning me to my seat. Nobody else slept. I shuffled out from under starfish bodies and rearranged myself into the aisle seat. The trolleys trundled endlessly up and down the aisles, with me and my mother constantly having to shuffle the children’s heads/feets/hands out of the way. Dinner arrived. I pulled down my minuscule tray and dealt with all the meals in turn, peeling off the plastic and passing the trays around. The kids picked their way through the bits they wanted, passing the rejected food groups back to me. I had a teetering stack of apple and celery salads and all the plastic knives. There was a meal, a snack, endless drinks, garbage runs, toilet trips, constant consolation of frustrated, exhausted children and a complete inability to switch off and get some sleep. I had no idea what time it was anymore and how much of the flight was left. “I’m never doing a night flight again!” howled Benjamin, as he tried to make himself comfortable for the 168th time. “Me neither”, I agreed, pushing his head back in from hanging over the aisle.
All things pass, however, even interminable flights, and we staggered off the plane in Dublin, to see a huge queue stretching in front of us. My mother stepped niftily to the side, smiling at the man holding open the barrier. “Where on earth is she going?”, I wondered foggily, clutching Rebecca’s hand while my mother beckoned us over. “You have Irish passports!”, she said, and just like that, the world became a better place. We sidled through the barrier, and walked past the five thousand other non-Irish people that we had shared the flight with. “This rocks!” said Christopher gleefully, as we arrived up to an exceptionally cheery security guard. “How’re yis?” he said, grinning. “Have ye brought a whole soccer team with ye?” Oh God, he was the most blissfully Irish Irishman I’d seen in a long time. I flung the passports at him, and grinned inanely as he called out the names like a roll-call. The kids skipped through on cue, and my phone started exploding with messages. “Where are you? have you landed yet? We’re right outside Arrivals!!” “Baggage”, I texted back. “Seven cases. 1 down. 6 to go”. “OMG!” “2 down. No, 3.” “Hurry up!” “5 down, just 2 left” “JUST LEAVE THEM!” Eh, no. The kids hauled them off one by one, all memories of the flight wiped out by the excitement of seeing the Other Side. We piled them up and set off, watching those double doors glide open for us, and seeing rows of expectant faces scanning the people emerging. There they were, Liz, Louise, Keith and baby George, who had been only 1 when we left and was now going to turn 3 the following week. More tears, more hugs, more squeals. We were home, and a whole month of reunions lay ahead of us.