The experience of grasping onto a photo, holding it, and tracing its outlines with ones fingertips seems to be a foreign one to many individuals nowadays. Sadly, to a large cohort, it is an experience that is far and few between. A virtual photo can be anywhere and everywhere except up against the heart and between the fingers. Yes, undoubtedly an electronic photo can provide comfort when the object of said photo is hundreds, thousands of miles away. However, an actual photo one can caress can provide warm enduring comfort in a way that our technology-infused world often forgets. And, such is the case with this recently found photo of my mom.
My mom was deadly afraid of flying. Any slight airplane movement sent her into a panicked frenzy at times leading her to scream loudly for the airplane captain to hear. Mind you, she hadn’t flown many times in her life. Yet she held a passport. Which by the way, is unlike a huge segment of the American population. I often wonder how many of those that do have a passport are like my mother? She applied for a passport on a promise and a hope but never mustered the will-power or the funds to fulfill that promise. I do not believe my mom ever made the journey to a foreign country. Not even Canada, which at this point is it really considered a foreign country? I think my mom may have flown about 15 times in her life, with 75% of those flights being between New York and Puerto Rico. A flight pattern of millions of people year in and year out that often ends in applause and cheers at not having crashed at the end of the flight. It is a rather gleeful, genuinely grateful group moment to experience as a plane filled with Puerto Ricans land.
While grateful and gleeful, that jubilee enacted by my mom and others like her at the end of the flight is actually wrapped up in absolute mass fear and doubt. Some in academia like to attribute such fear on the part of Hispanics to the so-called cultural value of fatalism or rather fatalismo, that gets applied to Hispanics whenever they supposedly do something irrational. In general, fatalism is a philosophical doctrine stressing the subjugation of all events or actions to fate. So for instance, researchers have spent the last decade or so studying whether fatalismo deters Hispanics from engaging in various health promotion and disease detection behaviors, especially with regard to cancer screening and condom-use.. It is funny (in not a funny way) to read in academic journals of how me or my family didn’t engage in certain health behaviors because we were so in tuned with the concept of fate. No, oftentimes we didn’t do stuff because there were issues of poverty, class, infrastructural barriers that made it difficult to engage in such behaviors. I never quite understood how it was that what I grew up with was supposedly fatalism. There is a mantra, that many Americans go by: “It is, what it is”. I think my mom and other of her generation and ethnic/cultural background believed in that phrase wholeheartedly. They lived that phrase. And if you ask me at times it is quite healthy. For instance, I could not make it through the work day if I didn’t utter that phrase at least once. By uttering that phrase I don’t bang my head or against the wall. But going back to the subject matter of the fear of flying. Yes, I get that car accidents are more numerous and that a fear of flying may be in that vein somewhat irrational. However, it seems quite rational to me to be afraid of a giant machine that is going 500 MPH way, way way up high. Of course, my mom’s bone-chilling screams were not that adaptive in this time of post 9-11 making her the subject of numerous flight-attendant drive-bys. Plus, her screams kind of made everyone around her want to have a cocktail or two.
Even when she was not the one flying my mom experienced major anxiety when loved ones flew. As I have tended to fly double or triple my mother’s lifetime flight numbers in any given year, she was consequently in constant despair. She projected her fears onto me and eventually those fears seeped into my very own being. In a very maladaptive turn of events, as a frequent business travel, I have developed a very real fear of flying. As such I started carrying charms and random trinkets that I imbue with spiritual and karmic meaning. Just like a baseball player in the World Series, I have my good luck rituals that I must do repeatedly before each flight. I even have my lucky undergarment; a beautiful pair of Arden B seamless lace underwear. I don’t know how I came about to believe they were lucky but they now mean the world to me. I once almost missed a flight because I couldn’t find them.
Besides my underwear and trinkets, like a good daughter that I tried to be, I used to call my mother before each flight. It didn’t really soothe my nerves but I felt that it would help her cope with a tragedy should it occur. Is that a bit twisted? I just always go back to the thought that it is always about that last phone call. That last conversation. I wanted her to have it just in case of anything. I felt it would bring her peace. In that phone call, she always blessed me the way Puerto Rican elders tend to do by stating “que dios te bendiga” (may god bless you). I took for granted that blessing. I never said the phrase “bendición” (bless me) as many kids are taught to do when they meet up with their aunt, uncle, grandmother, grandfather god parents and so on. Now that her blessings are gone, I miss and long for them. All that time, I thought I was calling her to soothe her nerves but hearing her voice also provided me with great comfort. Each time I now board a flight I wish my flying ritual to include that phone call. But with her gone who can I now call for such a blessing?
I do try to talk to my son before each flight. However, at the age of 5 and the fact that he is not necessarily immersed in Puerto Rican lore and culture, he can’t really bless me. He could ask for my blessing, I suppose. However, his conversation topics tend to veer toward the latest digimon episode and hijinks. I must admit that I also do not want him to be fearful. I want him to enjoy the travel experience and get to see the world as a result. In a lovely gesture, when I told him I would miss him enormously, he said I could take one of his toys to remember him by. As if I could forget him. Thus, I now bring with me one of my son’s toys on each trip. However, his toys don’t join me in my flying adventures in order to serve as a karmic prop but instead they are photo props. They are like the travelocity gnome. I take photos of his toys in random places: on the plane, the taxi window, a city tree. Hopefully, when he is older he will appreciate these photos as a love song to him.
Despite his toys, I felt a serious need for a good luck charm. I have been walking about bereft of good blessings. There was no one left who would experience serious fear on my behalf; who would stay awake until I called to say I had landed. Who would say a million and one prayers for my soul and body to protect? Flying now took on a whole other meaning. Since my mom’s passing two years ago, I drink more on the flights. Hey, it is always cocktail hour somewhere in the world. Without my mom’s frightened demeanor and prayers to anchor me before each flight, I have felt a little lost. That is, until about three months ago.
Three months ago, I got a text message from my sister that had a precious attachment. It was an old photo of my mom of when she was younger and full of hope. She looks absolutely like a 1960s gal. She looks beautiful. Because of a sad turn of events, I do not have many of her old belongings. I had her last pair of glasses, her last night gown, her last book and some old photo identification cards. This photo though virtual meant the world to me. It was precious. And while a godsend, I needed something more from that photo.
I printed the photo. At first I tried cleaning it up. Thought of photoshopping it a little and then I realized it was perfect in its imperfections. This is what I had left of hers and there was no need to alter it. I felt connected to the photo and to her. I felt she was smiling with me just about to say something totally wacky. I love this photo. Upon receiving it I knew this was it. This was my lucky charm.
I now carry this old, vintage photo with me on all my trips. When she was alive, her fear for my well-being provided some odd comfort and I thus sought it out before each flight. I now had this photo that has a completely different vibe to the phone calls. The photo is happy. The photo is even a bit secretive. It is akin to the Mona Lisa. My mom, the Mona Lisa. Now that is a lucky charm to behold and to anchor me as I soar on fear.