I’ve traveled quite a bit this summer, more than usual. As much as I love being home, it’s exhilarating to smell someplace new. Takes me out of my head, allows me to see the world in a different light.
While in an airport security line, I noticed a family—mother, father, big brother, little sister. This is what they looked like in any case. And being the teacher and children’s writer I am, I watched the kids, especially the little girl. Her cheeks were chubby. She had a mop of pretty dark hair. Understandably, she was apprehensive about the whole process—trays and belts and X-ray machines and folks in uniform. Yet even from my distant vantage point, I could see she was listening to the instructions, abiding by the rules, eager to please.
This same family was at my gate. The four of them going to Baltimore, too, I guessed, that is until pre-boarding began. The woman I assumed was the mother wept openly now and urged the little girl down the ramp. “Go!” she cried, literally, and off the child went.
As I watched the family walk away, my heart clenched. It clenches now as I write this post. Life is painful, I thought. There are too many goodbyes, I said to myself.
Inside the plane the little girl sat in a row by herself, tears streaming and nose running. Thinking I might console her or at least provide tissues, I sat next to her. “Thank you,” she whispered when I handed the package of Kleenex over.
There was a notepad in my computer bag and a pen, so I passed these things to her, too.
“You’re brave to travel by yourself,” I told her. “You must be at least ten.”
“I’m six,” she replied.
Six? My own children were once six, and I tried to recall them at that age. First grade. Stuffed animals. Lots of pink.
There was intermittent weeping, some drawing, some chatting.
“I like you. You’re nice,” she said.
“I like you. You’re nice, too,” I told her.
“What’s your favorite movie?” she asked.
“Matilda. What’s yours?”
“Chucky,” she replied, and then proceeded to describe a few bloody details.
More time passed. The girl stared out the window. She drew another picture. I watched as she folded it in half then handed it to me.
“What if my mom isn’t there?” Layla asked.
“She’ll be there,” I replied.
“But what if she isn’t? I can’t be all alone,” she said.
“You won’t be alone,” I assured her.
For over an hour this continued. Crying and drawing and talking and staring and questioning. So much uncertainty in Layla’s world. So much uncertainty in so many children’s worlds. ICE raids and parents taken. Sick children deported. Unthinkable sadness and terror. Trauma that will last a lifetime. Trauma that will trickle down through generations and haunt us all.
Who have we become?
“I’m going to live with my mother and Thomas,” Layla said. “He has a basement with a washer and dryer. We can have clean clothes.”
“That’s good,” I said. “Don’t you just love clean clothes?”
“Yes,” she said. “I hope my mother is there. What if she isn’t there?”
“She’ll be there, I promise. You won’t be alone.”
Due to storms we waited on the tarmac. Rain slashed the windows and lightning flickered in the distance. Layla’s nervousness grew worse. Again and again, she said, “What if my mother isn’t there? What will I do?”
Layla had some distance yet to go. She wasn’t disembarking in Baltimore as I’d hoped, but instead traveling to another city. In the dark. Alone.
This flight was weeks ago now, but still I think of Layla. I hope her mother was waiting that night. I hope the reunion was good and solid and true. I hope her clothes are scrupulously clean and her backpacked stocked for the start of school.
Layla was only one child, but I had a front row seat to her terror. All those faces behind chain-link fences. Not their children. Not somebody else’s children.
My children. Our children.
Who have we become?