Sunday, September 12, 2010

Kindness in the Air

Nate and I are in Michigan for a few days, keeping Arwen company while Bryan is out of town for work. We flew in yesterday, because it would be easiest to fly on Saturday, and the rates were far better, and there was hope for a relatively empty flight-- a huge plus when you'll have an eleven month old on your lap.

I saw them as I was leaving the ticket counter: a middle-aged Arab man and his wife. The wife wore a floor-length dove grey tunic, with a soft pink scarf about her head and shoulders. Only her eyes were visible, though I avoided contact with them, scurrying away toward the security gate with my son in the Ergo and my stomach slightly clenched; after all, it was September 11th, and I'd be lying if I said the sight of this obviously Muslim couple in the airport on such a somber anniversary didn't give me pause. I was flying into Detroit, and I knew that, with the substantial Arab population in the surrounding area, there was a good chance they would be on my flight.

Nate and I breezed through security (although did you know you have to remove even a baby's tiny shoes?), and I found myself wondering whether the Muslim couple would raise eyebrows with the TSA folks. I didn't know whether their undergoing a more stringent check would make me feel better or worse, so I pushed the thought away and headed for Gate 16.

I unstrapped Nate from my chest and let him crawl around near the huge windows. The gate was mercifully uncrowded, signaling a very sparsely filled flight, and within a few minutes the Muslim couple had joined the few of us waiting to board. I hung back until the other passengers had disappeared down the walkway before scooping Nate up and making my way to the boarding door.

We had three seats to ourselves, directly across the aisle from the Muslim couple. In between trying various Nate-amusement methods, my pure nosiness led me to pay them far more attention than I would have paid to your average American couple.

They carried on a lively conversation, albeit in Arabic (I think). When Muslim women's veils cover their mouths, I always get the impression of a certain muteness, as if keeping their lips out of sight somehow keeps them silent, as well. I was pleasantly surprised, then, at what sounded like a husband and wife each genuinely interested in hearing what the other had to say.

The flight attendant came by with the drink cart. He ordered coffee. She, cranberry juice.

Nate was largely content during the flight, but he'd taken two poor naps and had a bad night's sleep, so I was pulling out all the stops to keep him quiet. As I fed him snacks, produced various toys and books, and eventually pulled out the iPad to amuse him with "Peekaboo Barn," I wondered whether I looked like a stereotypical materialistic American spoiling her child.

Eventually Nate's wriggling had its intended effect, and I dropped him down to let him stand between my knees. This was insufficient freedom for him, though, and he immediately crouched to the floor and scurried out into the aisle, making a beeline for the husband's seat and reaching out to pull up on his armrest.

"Ooh, sorry," I quickly murmured, reaching down to pull him back toward me.

But the husband waved me off. "Oh, he's fine," he said, turning his attention to the baby.

I'm never one to rebuff anyone's efforts to amuse my child, so I sat back in my seat as Nate stood up triumphantly across the aisle, one hand on the man's armrest and the other patting his knee. The man reached down and gently pulled Nate into his lap, much to Nate's delight. His thick black mustache was, of course, irresistible, and Nate tugged on it with glee. The man cooed and leaned in for more; clearly this wasn't the first time he'd played this game with a little one.

"You're very kind to be so patient with him," I said, truly meaning it.

"It's nothing," he insisted, "I love children."

"Do you all have children?" I asked.

"We have three daughters, one son," he replied, as Nate giggled and marveled at this strange man and his fuzzy upper lip.

His wife leaned forward in her seat to peer around him. "Is he your only child?"

"So far," I answered. "We'd like to have more, but, you know, it's not really up to us." I gestured heavenward. The woman nodded, her eyes revealing an understanding so often absent from my secular friends and acquaintances, the ones who believe in taking hormones to prevent babies when they're inconvenient, and hormones to make babies when they're slow in coming.

After a couple more minutes, the man passed Nate back across the aisle, complimenting his sweet temper.

The short flight ended uneventfully, and I sent up a quick prayer of gratitude. I do so at the end of every flight; I mean, hurtling safely through the air from City A to City B always seems like a minor miracle.

Yesterday, though, I was grateful to have my prejudices challenged, and my presuppositions proven wrong. On the anniversary of the worst of Islamic terrorism, I was grateful for the kindness of this Muslim couple, who must feel the weight of subtle wariness like mine every day. I pray that as Nate grows up, all he sees are the people behind the fuzzy mustache and the pretty pink scarf, and that his stomach never grows nervous at the sight of them.

May we all get there someday.