Her small hand found mine and gripped it tightly for a moment and then she turned to look out the window.
As the plane was pushed away from the terminal and rumbled toward the runway she turned to me and smiled and in the dark of her eyes I saw swimming there a wave of emotions: Excitement, anticipation, fear...and hope.
It was my daughter's first trip on an airplane and if she saw the same emotions swirling in my eyes she gave no sign. As the plane prepared for takeoff I looked around me and realized that on this one plane was the most precious of cargo for me: My son, my daughter, my parents, a brother and sisters and their families, all together and off on a vacation that had taken on new meaning since September 11.
It was a trip that had been in the planning for months. A family reunion that had been planned and paid for and looked forward to with anticipation...until September 11. Since that day, we talked of our trip with the same excitement, but it was now shrouded with just a hint of fear. When the adults spoke of our trip now we wondered sometimes out loud if we should reconsider. But we were committed and we waved away our worries in anticipation of seeing family on the East Coast that many of us had not seen in decades.
When the day for our trip arrived we were too busy to worry, too frantic to wonder "what if." But the thought was there I think, in each of our minds, and it brought us closer. Before leaving my ex-wife and I had talked of this trip and she trusted in me to watch after our children as I trusted in her to do the same when they were with her. "Take care of them," she had said. I nodded and the two of us found a moment when we could still agree on something. We both loved our children and trusted each other to take care of them.
As the plane lifted off and climbed into the sky my daughter turned to me again and this time I could see all of the emotions that had been there before, except for the fear and I smiled and we looked out the window and enjoyed our view of the country beneath us.
After a week on vacation my brother and I stood on the beach, looking out at the Atlantic as his children and mine stomped through the surf and it was there that I realized why we had made our trip despite the fear, or in spite of it. During the summer a young boy had lost his life to a shark attack along this same beach. The thought of this hung over my brother and I as we watched the children play. What if? We both thought and while we watched the children a little more closely than we may have and asked them to please not go out too far, we let them play anyway.
We knew we couldn't let fear of sharks keep the children from enjoying their first visit to the ocean any more than we could let fear of terrorists keep us from a long-awaited family reunion. Because you can't have a life worth living if you live it in fear of 'what if?'
When the day came to return home the fear that had greeted the beginning of our trip had faded. On the way to the airport we listened to music on the radio and rushed to make it to the airport on time. When the music was interrupted with news of another plane crash in New York we turned off the radio, told the children it would be OK, and continued on. We listened carefully to news reports when we could get them and when the time came for us to go, we boarded our plane.
Now that we are back home I look back on our trip and wonder at the fear that had made some of us rethink our vacation. It wasn't bravery that made us get on that plane. It was just our life and plans we had made and intended to keep. That and something more perhaps, something I saw swimming in my daughter's eyes on that first airplane ride, something that I think is at the heart of what we like to call the American Dream.
It was hope. Hope for today, hope for tomorrow...hope for a future that will make us smile.