Saturday, January 28, 2012

Miles and Miles of Smiles

How’s the baby? What’s new with Milo? Tell me Milo stories! That’s all I hear from my friends these days, and the questions make me smile.

Who wouldn’t want to talk about a three-week old grandson?

I tell everyone Milo is fine, settling in, helping his parents figure out what they are doing and what he needs, when he needs it. Mostly, of course, he eats and sleeps and makes those soft, endearing baby noises. Sometimes, of course, Milo cries. All babies do, and all you can do is pick them up and love them and hope the crying stops.

I also tell everyone that my role in Milo’s life right now is mostly to grin at him, either when I hold him and rock him in my grandmother’s golden oak rocker or when someone else holds him. Sometimes, Milo grins back, but mostly he dozes or relaxes. Hey, he’s only three weeks old!

Yesterday, when I was sitting next to Milo’s mom, grinning at him as he slept in her arms, she asked if I wanted to hold him for a few minutes before I had to leave. “I want to hold him for years,” I said. But he was settled in, so I let him continue to sleep in his mother’s arms, where he looked so cozy and happy.

Milo and I will have years to snuggle. I just know it.    

Heck, I knew a baby was on the way before I got the call on July 13. Eight days earlier, on my way to a Giants’ game on the streetcar, I was sitting across from a pretty red-haired woman holding a baby girl. I smiled at the woman. She smiled back. When I turned away, I had a strong impression, just a picture in my mind, a sunlit image of a little boy walking in between my daughter-in-law and son. They were all holding hands and smiling. The image was so real that it looked like a photograph.  

That was a heads-up from the wee one, I am certain.

After I got the official call on July 13, I sat at my desk, grinning. My mind was racing and every cell in my body was thrilled. A grandchild – my opportunity to pay back my kind and loving grandmothers and also to make the most of an experience my own mother wanted badly and missed. At the age of 58, my mother retired from her government job and enrolled in college, her way of preparing to be a better grandmother. Four months later, before I became pregnant, my mother died.

I have shared the experience with Carol and Beth and other friends. But now it would be my turn to be a grandmother – and oh what a grandmother I planned to be! Someone like Auntie Mame, always up for an adventure, but also a protector and defender and confidante. I couldn’t wait!

Fast forward to 11 a.m. on Saturday, January 7. I called my daughter-in-law to see when she might be available for some pampering. Susan -- her mom and my dear friend – and I had offered take the mom-to-be out for a pedicure. The phone rang and rang. The silence was louder than it should have been, but I ignored it. At first.

I started working on some newspaper story assignments. Suddenly I raced off to vacuum the bedroom. Then I ran downstairs to throw in a load of laundry. There, I ran into my landlord, grandfather of five. I told him I was jumpy and somehow deeply intent on cleaning everything right this minute. “You’re nesting,” he said, and we laughed.

Running up the stairs from the laundry room, I shivered. “He’s coming,” I thought. “The baby is  coming today.”

I went back to writing, and tidied up the apartment in between paragraphs. A few minutes before 3 p.m., I sent a text to my son saying I was cleaning like crazy and wondering if the baby was coming. He wrote back that contractions were underway!

I knew to say no more. I also realized that with first babies, sometimes contractions stop after they start. But four and half hours later, the call came – the parents-to-be were at the hospital. Just after midnight, another call: “We have a baby,” my son said.

That was just three weeks ago today. I am completely besotted with this little baby, and ever since he was born, I’ve been smiling all the time. Smiling when I am with Milo, smiling when I think about him and smiling when I look at the photo of him on my refrigerator door.

And of course I smile when asked about him, so ask away!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Memories of Plane Crash Still Vivid

Thirty years ago today, a plane hit the side of a bridge over the Potomac River and slid down into the icy water. Seventy-four people on the plane died. Only four were pulled to safety.

I was in an airport van on the opposite side of the bridge when it happened.

I was trying to get to the airport to fly home after attending a conference in Washington, D.C. The van also carried several pilots, all of whom were predicting an airport shutdown because of poor visibility and the icy sleet that was falling.
Sitting in traffic in that van, we heard on the radio that a plane had hit the 14th Street Bridge. One woman screamed, “We are on that bridge!” We had not seen the plane or felt the impact on the opposite side. As we inched along in the van, we did see people on the other side leaping out of their cars and throwing their coats into the water. We saw emergency vehicles stuck in traffic. We saw military helicopters flying in.

Once across the bridge, I asked the driver to let me out of the van. There was no point in going to the airport -- the radio announcer had already said it was closed. No one else seemed inclined to leave the van, but I insisted that the driver get my suitcase and let me out.

I slogged up a hill through the ice and snow and walked into a hotel. I tried to get a room, but was told the hotel was fully booked. I walked into the bar and ordered a shot of Jameson's, straight up. A man sat down next to me, leered and offered to let me sleep in his hotel room.

I slid off the bar stool and went to the bank of telephones, where there was a line. “Phone service is spotty,” said a woman whose call went through and then was cut off. When I got a phone, I called a man I had met at the conference, a man who worked in Washington as a lobbyist for the educational consortium my company was part of. I asked what he thought I should do. He told me to head back to my hotel in the city, that he would call and get my room back.

Next, I asked at the front desk where to catch the Metro. The desk clerk told me there had been an accident on the Metro -- that it was closed. I asked the clerk to call a cab for me. “A cab?” he said. “There will be no cabs, not with the airport and the bridge closed. And now the roads are closing, because of the ice storm.”

I went out the front door of the hotel, ready to walk back to my hotel. Suddenly a lone cab pulled up. The driver rolled down the window and said a name to me, a name I didn’t hear clearly, so I did not respond. The hotel doorman looked at me and said to the driver, "This is your passenger." He opened the door and I got in. It was just after dusk. Every tree branch was covered in ice. I remember driving past the Iwo Jima statue, which also was coated in ice.  

Back at my hotel, I couldn’t stop crying. I called a psychologist who had edited a book I had worked on for my company. I told him I had turned on the TV, where newscasters were pondering how long a person plunged into an icy river could survive. The psychologist told me to turn off the TV, find a co-worker and get something to eat, to sit and talk quietly in the presence of another human being, to breathe. I called the front desk and found a co-worker still at the hotel, someone I did not know well. We ate in the dining room. We talked about John Waters' movies.

Overnight, the power went out in the hotel, so there was no food the next morning and no hot water for a shower. I found another co-worker at a nearby hotel, and went there to clean up. Then we went to the airport together, to head back to St. Louis. As we flew directly over the crash site, I remember that every person on board paid careful attention to the flight attendant’s patter about emergency exits.

When my plane landed in St. Louis, I took a taxi straight to the Post-Dispatch. The editors knew me, as I had done some freelance work for them over the years. I told my story, and the editor let me write a first-person account, originally scheduled to run alongside the main piece by the paper's Washington bureau chief. My story never appeared -- but it helped to write it.

Writing this helps, too. I was 33 years old on January 13, 1982. I will never forget riding in an airport van when a plane hit the 14th Street Bridge and slid down into the icy waters of the Potomac River.

You can read about the crash here: