I envy parents who feel comfortable giving their children Benadryl to help them sleep on airplanes. It seems like such a good idea: the children sleep peacefully and experience less jet lag; the parents nap or read or indulge in uninterrupted conversation. But as much as I condone it in theory, I just can’t bring myself to drug my children.
Which is too bad because sleepy pills would certainly have helped with our long trek from southern Oregon to Niger, West Africa, where my family and I are living for a year. There was so much fussing and whining during the drive from Ashland to San Francisco that we had to pull over five times. On the fifth stop — this time to find Blue Blue and Quilty, special blankets that managed to get packed at the bottom of fifteen pieces of luggage — I completely lost it. I walked away from the car, trunk and doors open, shrieking with frustration, while all three children cried in the car.
“I can’t take any more of this,” I screamed into the dark California night. “I’m going out of my fucking mind.”
Headlights came toward me and a police officer’s voice echoed over a loudspeaker. “What you are going to do right now,” the voice boomed, “is walk back to the vehicle and close the car doors.”
“Mommy, are we going to get arrested?” asked 7-year-old Vespérine, who had jumped down from the rental van.
“I don’t think so.”
“So what’s the problem?” The officer sidled over to us, a hand on one of his bulging guns.
“Fussy kids, long drive,” James spoke in a deep voice, sounding nonchalant. I wanted to explain in a rush of words how we were leaving the country for a year, going to Africa, how we had just packed up all our belongings and left our house to college students, how stressed out and discombobulated we were, but I bit my lip and kept quiet. The kids turned their tear-stained faces to the officer and somehow my husband’s laconic man-to-man explanation was satisfactory.
“I don’t want a careless or intoxicated driver to hit you,” the officer said in a less harsh way. “You need to hurry up and move along. There’s a place you can pull off the road up ahead.”
“This car has no light in the trunk,” James said. “Stupid design. Do you think we could borrow your flashlight?” The two men laughed. He must have children, I thought. With the officer’s help James found the coveted blankies, and a few minutes later we drove away.
That drive was just the beginning. Next were three jumbo jets: San Francisco to Washington, Washington to Paris, and Paris to Niamey. Despite the children’s programming on the overseas flights, the little packets of processed food that 5-year-old Athena had looked forward to for weeks (“I love airplane food, Mommy!”), and the novelty of being in the sky, my kids managed to be miserable for most of the trip, whining and fussing and resisting sleep. And even though we were successfully on our way, I was having trouble letting go of the tension. James took an anti-anxiety/sleeping pill and I wondered again about my inhibition about Benadryl.
Beside themselves with exhaustion, the kids fell asleep for the last hour of the last flight. With my two-year-old son Etani nursing in my arms, I moved to the row in front of me and chatted with a young man from Burkina Faso who was coming home from Sweden where he had donated a kidney to his ailing older brother. Behind us a woman scolded a flight attendant in a voice loud enough for the whole plane to hear. Anger always simmered, quiet and deadly, in my childhood home and I cringed at the fury in her voice. But a few minutes later I peeked back and saw the same woman covering Vespérine with a blanket and talking to James in English.
“I’m Ghanaian but we live in Niger,” I heard her say to James. “We were visiting my father-in-law in France.” She had three children, too, attending the same school as ours. Humaiya scribbled down her name and phone number on a piece of paper and told us to call if we needed anything, and to come swim in her pool. We had made our first friend.
A gust of hot air, like a steam bath, greeted us at the exit of the airplane. We walked across the tarmac with a throng of other passengers. “It’s so hot Mommy,” Vespérine rubbed her eyes. “I can feel the sweat dripping in my shirt.”
“It smells funny. I want to go home,” Athena said, squeezing my hand so tightly my fingers turned white. We were part of a bottleneck of dozens of passengers, all waiting to clear customs, standing exposed in the burning Saharan sun. Then an older African man wearing a colorful boubou and holding a sign with my name on it stepped in front of us.
“Follow me.” He took our passports and moved us to the head of the throng.
“I like his clothes, Mommy,” Vespérine whispered.
James looked relieved. We had arrived. We were recognized. We had made a friend on the plane and here was someone helping us with our impossible task of relocating. Suddenly, it all seemed manageable.