My suitcase gapes at me from the bedroom floor and I wonder if the zipper will close. Nine days of clothing for three different cities with three different climates and three different kinds of celebration -- this is what I have to pack within the confines of a single carry-on.
My first stop on this trip is Almost Dr. Sis's graduation from medical school, which promises to be cold and rainy. Very rainy. Here in Seattle, we're used to mist and drizzle, but in the Midwestern town where she's lived for half a decade now, there are thunderheads gathering and a long sweep of heavy gray downpour following behind.
On this Friday afternoon, I've just tucked a pair of wool slacks into place -- it promises to reach the mid-40s in the evening, though we're in the latter half of spring -- when the phone rings. It's my mother. "Our connecting flight was canceled and we're driving from Chicago," she says, with irritation. "Can you look up directions for us?"
I can hear my father at the wheel in the background naming interstates. "Do I want 290? 294? Ask her which one, which way -- " His agitation rises with what I'm guessing is each passing road sign. They are on the arteries that skirt O'Hare, circling blindly.
My mother tries to address my father's question before I've even had a chance to grab my laptop from the bed. He doesn't trust her answer; they bicker. I fumble at the keyboard, calling up maps, the hair on the back of my neck beginning to stand on end. The memory of previous car trips from childhood: my mother misreading directions, their ensuing fights, my sister and me shrinking small and silent in the back seat with our younger sister, still a baby, between us. My hands work faster now as their voices escalate.
"Here," I say. They're too busy arguing to notice. "Mom. Mom." No answer. In my own home, two thousand miles away, their presence is suddenly too loud, too close. "WILL YOU BOTH SHUT UP ALREADY?"
I wince, expecting even now, as an adult, a sharp reprimand from my father for my tone of voice, but maybe only my mother has heard me clearly -- she is the one holding the phone. I plunge ahead before either of them can say anything, offering exit numbers and mileage estimates in lieu of an apology. "It's about seven hours," I note.
"We'll make it in less time," my mother assures me. "You know how Dad drives. By the way, he wants to know which flight you're on tomorrow."
I suppress a sigh, knowing my father is worried that I'll end up in the same predicament -- except with the graduation ceremonies scheduled for Sunday morning, I'll have much less of a window to get from Chicago to my final destination. It matters. My father, a doctor himself, will be the one to place the doctoral hood on my sister, a moment that, to me, feels somehow essential to witness in person, though there will be professional photographers and videographers to capture it all. And I wonder, suddenly face to face with that truth, why it should be so. Of course I am proud of her. But it is more than just being present to let my sister know, more than sitting in the same room with her for this long-anticipated, hard-won induction into the professional circle my father has been a part of for many decades. What is it? I ask myself. And -- with even more curiosity, as I suspect it is for different reasons -- what is it that makes my presence so important to him?
There isn't time in this afternoon to muse, only to finish packing. "Can she take the red-eye tonight?" I hear my father ask.
"No, but I'll look into bus options for tomorrow afternoon, just in case," I promise.
On the jet bridge the next morning, I check my seat assignment: 10A, on a window. When I can, I pick seats with a view; it helps with the tendency toward motion sickness both my sister and I have inherited from my father.
As I step into my row, however, I'm greeted by a solid wall. No porthole, not even half of one like some seats get when they happen to fall between windows. Just a beige expanse of siding. I peer at 10F on the opposite side of the aisle; the oval pane there throws light back at me, ordinary as can be.
I feel, not surprisingly, closed in against this blank barricade. I check the status of my next flight on my phone; still on time. But this flight, the captain suddenly tells us over the intercom, will be delayed. Chicago's still having weather.
D has my flight information and instructions to be near his phone around the time I'm supposed to land at O'Hare, in case he has to make a quick bus ticket purchase for me online. Will I be able to make my connection? Will there be a connection to make? I turn my frown to the wall to my left. I can't see what's on the other side, can't see what's to come.
It is the first flight I'm taking from Seattle after finishing my thesis, and for a moment, when we finally leave the runway, I'm a little giddy. When the flight attendant announces that we may now use approved electronic devices, I will not need to wrestle my laptop from my backpack and attempt to write. The goal I've been working toward for four years is all but done; only Little U.'s approval of the document -- formatting compliance, verification of my committee's signatures endorsing the final submission -- is pending. Perhaps by Monday, I tell myself, the day my sisters and I will fly to Texas to spend the middle of the week at our parents' home.
But as I speed toward the thunderheads in Chicago, without a view and without the deadlines I've been so used to, I'm forced to sit with my new lack of purpose. It's only transient, I know. Still, I envy, just a little, my sister's waiting future. A residency at a prestigious hospital in Boston is the next step for her. What the experience will hold is certainly unknown, but it's better defined than the summer I have before me. The plans for whatever I choose to do next with my life still wait to be constructed.
The plane banks as the captain adjusts our trajectory. I turn automatically to the window I don't have and feel my stomach protest. A quick glance to the right, to the view I can steal from 10F. It's limited, but it's better than nothing.