Saturday, July 27, 2013

New Eyes

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. —Marcel Proust

    I knew there were plenty of clubs, bars and coffee shops in Manhattan, but I never realized how many playgrounds there were until I took Jack there two years ago.  I also discovered that for a few bucks, I could spend a pleasant afternoon in Central Park watching my child joyfully learn to create gigantic soap bubbles with a long loop of rope and a bucket of suds. 
Jack learns to create bubbles ...
   Yes, I'd been downtown countless time, but it took traveling there with Jack to get me to Battery Park. 
   "Do you want to take the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty close up?" I asked.
   "No," he replied. "I'm good right here." 
   We sat on a bench together eating warm, soft pretzels, staring out over the Hudson River. We discussed our game plan for returning to a few choice shops in Chinatown that had the best deals on Pokemon cards before catching the subway back uptown. 
 ... and karma.
   If you had told me twenty years prior that a parkside snack shared with an nine-year-old would be more satisfying than all the gourmet business lunches and dinners I'd enjoyed over the years at the likes of 21 and the Four Seasons, I would not have believed you. But that was one delicious pretzel.
After our successful trip to New York, I promised Jack we'd go to Los Angeles where some of his cousins and second cousins reside.  I waited until he was a little older so that the three hour flight would not be to tedious for him, for me, and for the hundred or so other passengers on our flight. And this summer, since Jack graduated from elementary school and my crazy publishing job came to an end, I decided it was time to travel west.
After months of anticipation and planning, the day for our big vacation finally arrived. With no direct flights between Birmingham and LAX, we departed Birmingham at 7:30 a.m. and flew to Houston. 
   We had two hours to kill before boarding our connecting flight to Los Angeles. Our vacation had officially begun and that meant a Dunkin' Donuts breakfast of chocolate covered doughnuts with sprinkles (for Jack) and a poppyseed bagel, toasted with butter (for me.) We settled in to dine at an empty gate area so Jack could charge up his iTouch. By the time we finished, we still had an hour and forty-five minutes left before reporting to our gate. 
   "Whaddaya want to do now?" Jack asked.
   At 9 a.m. Houston Hobby's Central Concourse was not the epicenter of entertainment. We'd have to create our own fun. Thinking of the three hour flight ahead of us (and all the sugar Jack had just consumed) an idea popped into my head.
   "Let's see who can get to the far end of the concourse first—without running," I said. "Ready? Go!"
    Jack was just a few yards ahead of me, walking as fast as he could—without running. As he turned to check his lead, he grinned a chocolate-covered doughnut smile. I feigned a grimace and quickened my pace, rolling heel to toe as I took long strides and pumped my arms like a speed walker. When Jack turned his gaze forward, I broke the rule and ran to catch up. I was just few feet behind him when he turned and saw me. I reached out my hands dramatically to grab him, and we both burst out laughing. 
    Just as I was about to touch his shoulder, Jack trotted ahead of me again. We dodged and weaved, taking care not to upset the elderly or to rouse the attention of airport security. The very thought of being caught by me made Jack laugh, which made me laugh, and so the gleeful contagion spread. 
   Back in the good ol' days (before the tragedy of 9/11 and the security crackdown) I made it a habit of sprinting down airport concourses to make my flights. I rather prided myself on getting to to gate just as the flight was boarding rather than languishing in the waiting area with the rest of the corporate shmucks. But now I was either out of practice, out of shape, or both because even speed-walking Jack easily outpaced me.
   "I won! I won!" Jack gloated when I huffed up to the concourse's end a good two minutes behind him. I was out of breath.
  "Whatcha want to do now?" Jack asked.
   "I dunno," I shrugged. "Let's walk back toward our gate and check out the shops."
   We still had plenty of time before our flight, so we stopped in every Hudson News and gift shop along the way. Jack considered purchasing a Beanie Baby bear in a cowboy hat or a coffee mug shaped like a boot. 
   "Pace yourself," I said. "This is just the Houston airport, we've got all of Los Angeles and San Diego ahead of us, and you've only got so much to spend on souvenirs."
   We made our way down the concourse, and stopped by the food court to consider the options. That's when I noticed an exhibit displaying colorful drawings and paintings created by children. 
   "Let's take a look," I said. 
   "But there's a candy store," Jack said, pointing to a bright kiosk just ahead of us.
  "We'll go there next," I promised. "C'mon, let's find our favorite paintings."
   We walked around the exhibit, pointing to the artwork we liked best. Some of the pieces were quite good. Small tags revealed the names and ages of the young artists. Many of the children were Jack's age, some much younger, a few older. 
   First Jack liked a magic marker drawing of a Panda. I could have guessed he'd pick that one since he's held a love of that gentle, endangered species since he was a baby. In fact, our trip to the west coast included a much-anticipated stop at the San Diego Zoo where Giant Pandas reside. But then he saw an image of a football player and named that as his favorite instead. 
   After some consideration, I chose a watercolor of called "The Tortoise and the Hare" painted by an eight-year-old girl. The watercolor had run a little and pooled in the rabbit's ears and in a spot that must have been his nose. There was something about the bunny that made me smile. I showed Jack my favorite painting.
   "Yeah, that's a good one," he agreed. "Now can we go?"
   We were about to leave the exhibit so Jack could see if Natalie's had the new green apple Skittles when I saw a sign that explained the exhibit, which was entitled Making A Mark. The artwork had been created by children with cancer.  There were post cards on the table and travelers passing through the airport were asked to write notes to their favorite artists, who were receiving treatment at Texas Children's Cancer and Hematology Centers. The reality washed over me. Some of these children, many of whom were my son's age, were very ill. 
    How many airport exhibits like this one had I rushed past because I was too consumed by my own concerns, or by work or my crazy love life or God knows what else? If not for trying to amuse Jack during our time in airport purgatory, I might not have seen this one either.
   I picked up two postcards and handed one to Jack.
   "Let's write notes to the kids whose art we liked best," I said.
   Jack really wanted to get to that over-priced candy but he agreed to fill out a postcard. I thought for a moment and then wrote a note to the Rabbit Girl. It went something like this: "I love your painting. It was my favorite on in the entire exhibit at the Houston Airport. Watercolor is really hard but you did a great job. I particularly liked the way you painted the rabbit. Thank you for sharing your talent. You really made me smile. I am in the airport traveling with my son and we both hope that you feel better soon. Love, Brigid."
   Jack had already placed his note in a cardboard box on the table by the time I finished writing to the Rabbit Girl. I wondered how she was doing and if she was still very sick. I said a prayer for her and her parents and dropped my note in the box with the others. Then I looked at the works of art one last time and said a prayer for all the children and their families, especially for their mothers. And I felt very, very grateful to be in this airport with my healthy son, flying to California on a big adventure. 

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