What happened when my son’s plane got stuck in a blizzard
The metal net snapped as the basketball hit it squarely with plenty of backspin. Shirt off, I had launched the ball during a friendly early morning game of HORSE with my 11-year-old son. His hair was surfer-blond like mine, only with a smattering of red hues. The court had to be one of very few in the country that had such a commanding view of the Pacific; right on the beach. The hills of Laguna Beach rose directly out of the ocean at an almost impossibly steep pitch, with homes held up by stilts hanging out over the cliff. “That’s game, brother,” I said, putting my sweaty arm around my boy. “We gotta get you packed up.”
“Just a little longer, Dad?”
“Nah, Seamus. We really have to get going.”
We walked down to the wet sand. Big waves boomed and rushed at us. A couple of surfers paddled in the distance. The beach was still empty, except for early morning walkers and a group of older women doing martial arts in slow motion silence. I looked at the ladies, wondering why I had never seen this daily ritual back east.
My son, ex-wife, current wife, 13-year-old daughter by the first marriage, and 5-year-old son by the second—we all lived within a mile of each other back in Boston. Together with Elena, my second wife, I had rented a house for three weeks in order to escape the thick snow, now turned to dirty slush. Whereas I had been less than successful in my personal life, I had made enough money to travel to pretty much wherever I wanted.
Seamus was a head shorter than I was, but we shared more than an abundance of surfer-dude blond hair. We were both long and lean and today we walked with a similar casual gait, toes pointed outward, staring into space. Neither of us was talking.
As we approached the rented SUV, the quiet was broken by a loud “Pssssssst!” Water sprayed up in the air not more than 50 yards offshore.
“Look at that, Seamus!” I said, as I squinted to see through the glare emanating from the surface of the Pacific Ocean.
Just as Seamus looked up he saw the whale breach. “Cool, dad! That thing’s HUGE!”
“You’re telling me! What a beautiful creature!”
“I’ve never seen one that close to shore,” Seamus continued.
“Neither have I. March must be some sort of migration season for them.”
We watched for a few minutes longer. After filling its lungs, the whale disappeared into the depths of the clear green ocean.
In the car, I couldn’t help thinking about the hours I’d spent as a boy with my own dad, a professor of English, reading Moby Dick out loud and being dragged to whaling museums in Nantucket and New Bedford. I had learned about scurvy, the monotony of being at sea for months, and the bravery of men in tiny boats attempting to kill giant beasts. I could see the spool of rope, just as my dad had described it, spinning as the whale ran. The rope tore down the center of the whaling boat, men on either side rowing to try to keep up with the beast, and one sailor whose only job was to pour water on the spool to keep it from catching fire. In the car, if I inhaled deeply, I could almost smell the stench of blubber being boiled when the battle was over.
Beyond the mythic men of whaling, however, seeing the whale so close reminded me of my father’s fascination with the animals. As a child, my dad had been nicknamed “Whale” for his ability to stay under water for minutes at a time. Sometimes, in the car, he would listen to eerie recordings of screeching whales communicating with one another. As a Quaker, my dad had been fascinated by the violence of whaling, just like he had become a Civil War buff; as if his pacifism led him to see the noble flaw in men who killed man or beast out of fear or hatred or for survival. However, it was the whales he loved most deeply; it was of them that he seemed most in awe.
“Dad, I forgot my ball down on the beach,” Seamus mumbled, as we pulled into the driveway. “I’m really sorry.”
I fought off the impulse to snap. “It’s OK. We’ll go looking for it on the way out of town,” I said. “Hopefully, the neighborhood kids didn’t take it. That was a really nice leather ball.”
With Seamus’s bags finally packed, it was time to head to LAX. He wasn’t looking forward to going home, back to school and the cold, but at least he could focus on and look forward to the NCAA tournament. Just before leaving, Seamus and I sat down at the computer one last time and logged into my Yahoo account. I had agreed to let him enter one set of brackets into a pool run by an investment banking buddy. The entry fee was $100, with the winner taking home a few thousand bucks. I had agreed to front him the money on the condition that half of any winnings would go to charity. Seamus pulled up the pool. The sweet 16 would start today and his entry was currently in fifth place.
“That’s it, Dad. That’s the winning bracket right there! Boston College is going to go all the way this year!”
“I sure hope so,” I said, looking at my watch. “We gotta get going now. We miss this flight, we’re both in big trouble. And we gotta find that lost ball down on the beach.”
We had both become accustomed to goodbyes. As father and son, we had long ago reached a male understanding that a certain amount of emotion was a good thing. Too much was bad—very bad, in fact. The ease of being together could easily turn ugly if the pain of our situation was spoken out loud. We didn’t live together and never would. This was as good as it was going to get. We both knew this, but never wanted to say it out loud—as if the silence would somehow diminish the hurt.
“There it is!” Seamus shouted when we pulled into the lot on the beach. “Those guys are playing with my ball.” A full-court game was in progress, shirts and skins, with high-school-aged kids running hard; one bent over catching his breath while a foul call was hotly disputed. Rubber basketballs had been strewn at half court in favor of the leather ball.
“Stay here,” I told Seamus, wanting to make sure that the extraction was quick and easy.
“Guys,” I said, as I approached the court, my 6-foot-3 frame puffed out just slightly to make sure my words were not ignored. “The ball is mine. Sorry.”
The reaction was immediate—leather flying into my hands. “Thanks,” I muttered, before getting back into the car and handing Seamus the lost ball.
As we drove to the airport, I spoke brightly about the tournament and about Seamus’s sixth-grade team, attempting in vain to fill the void just ahead. I was, in fact, unable to fight off the impending storm cloud. I was sinking; missing my son before he had even left.
I checked Seamus in at First Class. By now, I knew the questions on the unaccompanied minor form by heart. I carefully placed Seamus’s ticket into a clear plastic pouch held in place by a string around his neck.
“How come I always feel like a jackass with this thing on, Dad? How am I supposed to pick up chicks on the plane?” Seamus asked with a wry smile.
“If the loser badge keeps the girls away for a few more years, that’d be just fine by me,” I said with a smile.
At the gate, I looked into my son’s eyes. We had waited until everyone else got on the plane before Seamus boarded. But the time had come.
“I love you, Seamus,” I said, giving him a bear hug. I felt how my little baby boy had become almost a man; substantial now where before he had been so tiny and fragile. I noticed Seamus’s stuffed dog, Pal, sticking out of his backpack. Maybe he’s not all grown up just yet, I thought. For a moment, I flashed back to all the times I’d scoured my apartment to make sure that Pal had not been lost. I held onto those memories, and to Pal, as tightly as I held my son at this point.
“I love you too, Dad,” Seamus said, holding on a few moments longer than usual. “I’ll text you as soon as I hit the ground at Logan.” Then he turned and walked down the jetway with one of the flight attendants. He wore leather Reef flip flops, baggy black cord shorts that reached down to his shins, and a mustard Volcom sweatshirt. Except for the basketball under his arm, he was pure surfer dude. I hadn’t had the heart to force him to change into clothes for the snowy weather predicted back east. He turned one last time to pound his chest and flash a peace sign at me, his dad, sticking two fingers in the air with a weak smile. I did the same. Then my son was gone.
Driving home from LAX, I had to again remind myself why going back to court to get equal time with my kids would be a bad idea for Seamus and his sister, Kerry; why at this point I would lose; and why just loving my kids, despite the heartache of long periods of separation, was the best thing I could do. I had been kicked out of the house when Seamus was less than a year old and Kerry was just two. Despite taking a large company public, then selling it for billions, I had been a drunk and in no position to demand joint physical custody.
In the years since, I had devoted myself to becoming a decent father but had repeatedly sought legal advice regarding the way my time with my kids was doled out by my ex-wife, Colleen; only to be told that changing a custody arrangement after years of precedents would require proving that it was in the best interests of the children. I had never had the courage to call Colleen on her bluff that I was a bad father and not worthy of equal custody. The arrangement ate away at me, but I hadn’t been willing to reopen the wound. Whether that was to protect the kids or to protect myself, I wasn’t sure.
In the car on the way back to Laguna Beach, I felt, along with a growing sense of loss, at least a tiny sense of relief. The visit had gone well. I always worried that Seamus would be bored or would decide he was too old to be hanging around with his dad on vacation. We had hit some amusement parks, shot hoops, eaten great food, sat in the sun, and talked. It had been fun and relaxed. I was happy to have the mission accomplished.
Elena, Cole, and I went to the playground. I climbed a huge rocket ship with my son and sat him on my lap to blast down a long slide, landing in the sand at the bottom, both of us laughing. Elena and I held hands on the way home; we were both tall and slender with blond hair. Cole urged us on from the stroller as we pushed him up the hill. “Faster, Daddy, faster!” Like Seamus, he had his dad’s hair. But he had his mom’s bright blue eyes.
I thought about another day at the playground. It was Father’s Day, when Seamus had been just 3 months old—one of the last times we had been together before the end. That day, I had a plane to catch—a private jet actually—as I was taking my company public and needed to be in London that night for a presentation. A black limousine awaited us outside the front of the house that Colleen and I had just built on a cul-de-sac in Barrington, Rhode Island. As I left, a bag containing my blue suit, white shirt, and a red tie slung over my shoulder, Colleen had ripped into me for being a shitty father. I had not responded. I’d just kept my head down as her words, daggers with truth serum intended to inflict pain, made their way into my heart.
Back at the house, I finally sat down at the computer and pulled up the American Airlines website. Flight number 159 had just taken off for Boston. Seamus was in the air. I noticed that, at the top of the website, the airline was reporting delays in New York and Philadelphia, but didn’t think much of it. I went back to the TV room to watch The Backyardigans with Cole, who snuggled into my neck and quickly fell asleep. I thought about the first time I’d had Seamus overnight at my apartment; how, in a certain sense, I had been lost myself until I’d held my son in my arms, fed him a bottle, and inhaled the smell of him. That’s when I knew that being a dad was the thing I most wanted in the world; the thing that I had missed for all the deal making. By the time Elena came to check on us, we were both snoring.
I awoke with a start. The sunlight outside was already beginning to fade. My Blackberry buzzed with a new voice message. It was Colleen.
“It’s snowing really hard here,” she started. “I know the flight took off so they must have thought it was going to be OK. But I just got off the phone with Logan and they are already down to one runway and his flight doesn’t get in for another hour and a half. I’m really worried about Seamus. Call me or email me.” Click. She had hung up abruptly, as always. But the message was troubling, even with a hefty Colleen-hysteria discount factored in.
At the computer, I pulled up the map of the United States on the American Airlines site. Flight 159 was a little dot hovering around Buffalo in western New York. When I moved the cursor to the dot and right-clicked the mouse, the flight information popped up: “Estimated time of arrival Logan Airport: 9:53 p.m.” I looked at my watch. It was just past six, West Coast time, so he should be landing in 45 minutes. I decided against returning Colleen’s call. Email was always better when dealing with an angry or scared ex-wife, even in a crisis. I typed a message on my Blackberry, saying that American Airlines had Seamus landing shortly, even though his flight was now over an hour delayed.
Thirty seconds later, Colleen replied, “HE HAS BEEN CIRCLING LOGAN FOR THE LAST HOUR. THE PLANE IS NEAR BUFFALO TO AVOID THE STORM UNTIL THEY CAN CLEAR THE RUNWAY. THIS AIRPORT IS SHUT DOWN COMPLETELY. EVEN THE SECURITY GUYS HAVE GONE HOME.”
That didn’t sound good. I looked out at the beautiful sunset over the Pacific Ocean. Our rental, with its expansive view, sat up high on the hill, just behind the Pacific Coast Highway. From our bed, Elena and I watched the lights of tankers passing miles offshore from one horizon to the other. Why anyone would ever leave this for snow, ice, and bitter cold wind was beyond me. I tried to remain calm as I picked up the landline to call the after-hours service at American Express Travel. I knew that trying to get through to American Airlines directly would be useless. The website was the best I was going to do as far as communicating with the airline.
“This is Jeremy at American Express emergency services. How can I help you tonight?”
“Look, I have a problem,” I said, trying to sound calm. “My son, Seamus Matlack, is on American flight 159 to Boston. He’s a minor. I am really worried about him. I’m wondering if they’re going to land.”
“That’s no fun. What a way to end spring break, huh? Let’s see what I can find out for you.”
“I’m sure he’ll be okay. He’s my oldest son.”
“I understand. Says here that his plane is headed for Hartford. The storm has passed through there already. Logan won’t be open until the morning.”
“Shit!” I said, forgetting momentarily—or perhaps no longer caring—that I was speaking to the customer service rep and not an old school friend in a bar. “Do ya think his mom can pick him up there?”
“If she can get through. Otherwise the airline will supervise him overnight, get him back to Boston first thing in the morning.”
“His mother isn’t going to let him stay by himself with strangers,” I said.
“Happens all the time, Mr. Matlack. Your son’s going to be fine.”
“He’s probably scared shitless, but let’s hope you’re right. Thanks,” I said, before hanging up.
I emailed Colleen, “FLIGHT HAS BEEN DIVERTED TO HARTFORD. YOU CAN TRY TO PICK HIM UP THERE OR THEY WILL FLY HIM HOME FIRST THING IN THE MORNING.” I hit send and waited for the shitstorm to hit.
The response was terse and, thankfully, brief. “IN CAR. ON WAY TO HARTFORD.”
I went back to the computer to refresh the American Airlines screen. The dot came up over Albany. When I clicked, it showed arrival in Hartford in half an hour. I went out on the deck to look at the ocean, trying to figure out what I could possibly do 3,000 miles away from my son. I took out my Blackberry and decided to leave him a message so that he would call as soon as he landed.
I got his voicemail.
“Seamus,” I said, “it’s Dad. I know your flight has been diverted to Hartford. Your mom’s on her way. She will get there as soon as she can. Call me when you can. Sorry for the hassle, but this will be fine. Love ya. Peace out, dude.” I clicked the phone off, then texted him as well, “SEAMUS. YOUR MOM IS ON HER WAY. CALL ME. DAD.”
I went back inside to watch the basketball tournament and to try to take my mind off my son. Twenty minutes later, my Blackberry was beeping again. I was hoping it was Seamus, but it was Colleen. “Shit!” I muttered to myself. Her message read, “STATE POLICE STOPPED ME ON MASS PIKE. ROAD CLOSED. HAVE TO TURN AROUND. HAVE YOU TALKED TO SEAMUS? HIS PLANE SHOULD HAVE LANDED BY NOW.”
I hit redial on my Blackberry and again got his voicemail. “This is Seamus …”
“FUCK!” I shouted, slamming the phone down. For the first time, panic set in. How could I let this happen? Why the fuck hadn’t I checked the weather before putting my son on that plane? He had to be scared by now. Why wasn’t he answering his damn phone?
I went back to the computer and clicked refresh. The dot settled on Hartford. I clicked again. The computer blinked at me: “LANDED.”
I furiously typed yet another message on my Blackberry, “CALL ME!” I went back outside to look at the Pacific Ocean and to try to talk myself down. Seamus is not dead. He’s not even sick. The airline is responsible for his safety and even though they can’t get most flights to arrive on time, this is different. They take this shit seriously. The crew members on that plane must be parents too. They must know what it’s like to have your kid stranded somewhere you can’t reach him.
I went back inside and hit redial again. “This is Seamus …”
My Blackberry rang. It was Colleen. I had to pick it up now. “What do you know?” she blurted out.
“Nothing. I haven’t been able to talk to him yet. His plane’s on the ground but he is probably just getting his luggage. This is all going to be fine, Colleen. He’ll be home in no time,” I said, trying desperately to maintain an even tone.
“I can barely see the road. Call me when you hear anything,” Colleen said before hanging up.
I went back outside on the deck and paced, then went back inside and tried to watch a tournament game that had gone into overtime. I tried to get involved in the game. I actually went back to the computer to check who Seamus had in his bracket. The phone rang.
I ran to the kitchen to pick it up. “Hey, Pops, you see that finish?” Seamus asked.
“Man, am I glad to hear your voice, Seamus!” I said, letting go of the pocket of air that had been buried deep in my chest all afternoon.
“No big deal, Dad. They set us up at a Holiday Inn. This stewardess Annie is in the next room. She just bought me a cheeseburger, fries, and a chocolate milkshake. Getting ready for the Boston College tip-off. They’re going to dominate,” Seamus said.
“You’re too much, kid. Is this Annie treating you OK?”
“Definitely. You wanna talk to her?” Seamus replied.
“Here she is,” Seamus said. There was shuffling on the phone. A woman’s voice eventually came on.
“This is Annie. You have one special boy here, Mr. Matlack. He kept the whole crew entertained at baggage claim with his Harlem Globetrotters routine.”
“Annie, I don’t know how to thank you enough for taking such good care of my son,” I said.
“Don’t mention it. I’m a divorced parent too. I would want the same for my little girl if she got stuck somewhere. Besides, your son never panicked. He kept telling us all what a great adventure this was, when we were getting ready to poke our own eyes out with the delays.”
“Well, thanks. Can I talk to him again?”
Seamus came back on the phone and spoke in a whisper. “Dad, Annie is kind of hot.”
“Son, she sounds about 20 years older than you. Be thankful she’s takin’ such good care of you and don’t get fresh with her!” I said, joking.
“I was just kidding, Dad. I’ll give you a call after the Boston College game. We can watch it together on text. Let me know what you think along the way. OK?”
“OK. Peace out. Love ya, son.”
“Love ya too, dad.”
I then went into the TV room, turned the television off, and sat in the dark. After a few moments, I emailed Colleen. “TALKED TO SEAMUS. A-OK.”
The next morning, Cole woke us up early but Elena let me sleep. Boston College had won in a blowout. Seamus had called midway through the second half to announce the game officially over. At 10:30 in the morning, my Blackberry was buzzing again. It was an email from Colleen: “SEAMUS HOME.”
“There’s one!” Seamus shouted, pointing into the pool of salt water under the rock he had just flipped over. Cole’s little fingers grasped for the tiny hermit crab as it scurried across the sand. He caught it and placed it gently in a yellow plastic bucket, joining a dozen others.
Elena and I lounged on the beach nearby, watching the boys and holding hands. Sailboats dotted the Atlantic Ocean. Down the beach, we could see the house that we had built sitting high up on a bluff just over the Massachusetts and Rhode Island border. As a girl, Elena had come to Westport Harbor for the first time with her family. Twenty-five years later, she had convinced me to come back to rent. All her childhood friends were still there. It had become a cocoon in our lives; a home and a respite from the stormy weather.
Seamus and I swam out to a massive rock shaped like an elephant, a few hundred yards out in the ocean. For generations, kids had jumped off the head, shoulder, and rump of the elephant, then pulled themselves up and across barnacles to lay on the rock and warm up.
“Dad, I can’t believe we won 400 bucks for our bracket. That was cool.” Seamus had finished second, only a loss in the final separating him from the grand prize. At Elena’s suggestion we had all gone to Boston Medical Center and used half the money to buy car seats for homeless moms.
“Yeah, next year we’re going all the way,” I said, getting up. I ran off the rock and plunged 30 feet into the cold, green water, coming back to the surface just in time to see my son follow my lead.