I used to take him to the Oakland Airport after childcare on Fridays, our “Special Treat Day,” the end of work, so glad to put the week aside, no more commuting to San Francisco when I longed to be home.
Fridays were our special day to celebrate the end of the week. We’d go to the airport and watch the planes land and take off, engines taxiing to a halt along the runway, and then slowly pulling up to the gate, lights flashing on jet wings as the clouds turned from smoky to dark purple in the evening sunset. Today I am at the airport again today en route to St. Helens to attend the parole hearing of my son who has been in jail for the past month on a variety of charges.
I’ve always hoped a mother’s hope that my son would learn from his mistakes. He preferred to live on the fringes. I’d always recognized something about him that I couldn’t understand, some deep splinter that I was unable to pluck out. Sometimes I had the eerie feeling that he was looking through and past me.
The Southwest plane is comfortably full, with lots of aisle seats. Funny how when we were kids, we always wanted to have the window seat, a carryover from riding in cars, waving to people and feeling the rush of the wind, unmindful of exhaust. Now as adults, the aisle is more desirable, offering closer proximity to the bathroom. No permission needed to climb over everyone’s legs.
The Southwest magazine is in front of me with its cover story about how millennials are finally becoming parents. I eat my packet of honeyed peanuts and read the article, keep overhearing the discussion of two people across the aisle. They seem to be in their late forties; she is a brownish-blonde with Little Orphan Annie curls; he with swirling hair thinning on top into a visible whirlpool. I hear them in the process of discovering each other; she is wowing him with her adventures of sailing around the world in a catamaran and how she makes her home in Lyon, France, until he says that he grew up on the Marshall Islands. Now it’s her turn to listen. I return to my reading and lose the thread of their conversation. When I return, they have established more intimacy and share pictures on their cell phones.
I wonder if they will end the flight by exchanging emails, but before that can even happen, I overhear them relate the saga of their past relationships—this and that ex. “She was a school teacher,” she says. “It was a big puzzle and I was on board,” he says. Little Orphan Annie keeps saying, “Yes,” “I understand,” “That’s hard,” and other exclamations in response to his emotion. After we deboard, they roll their bags together along the moving conveyor, past the small shops and restaurants of Portland Airport.
The last time I’d come to Portland was in December for a holiday visit and waited near the baggage claim area for my son to pick me up. I had booked an early flight and arrived at seven in the morning. By nine am I knew he wasn’t coming, watched families reunite and throw their arms around each other. He showed up about fifteen minutes before I had to catch my return flight.
I don’t know what’s going to happen at the courthouse.
At the Best Western, I have a continental breakfast, a container of raspberries ‘n cream yogurt and help myself to a few scrambled eggs, ignore the chafing dishes of sausage, home fries, and gravy, drink coffee and watch the CBS morning news interview with David Grohl of the Foo Fighters and his mother—“Mothers and Their Rock Star Sons.” I drive to the courthouse—a seven-minute ride from where I’m staying. Rhododendrons everywhere are explosions of pink. The hearing is on the second floor of the old Columbia County Courthouse built in 1906 and featured in the filming of Twilight, a saga about a vampire romance.
The Columbia River stretches before me, a streak of silver with ten major tributaries. Their names reflect the culture of many of the people who used to live in the area: the Kootenay, Okanagan, Wenatchee, Spokane, Yakima, Snake, Deschutes, Willamette, Cowlitz, and Lewis Rivers. I sit on a wooden bench and watch my son walk down the corridor, escorted in chains and handcuffs. He is in stripes, clean-shaven and without the hat he usually wears to cover his premature baldness.
Oregon’s Fair Housing Council has brochures outside the Old Courthouse Museum that tells me that Oregon’s constitution, passed in 1857, declared it a free state, but at the same time, denied African-Americans the right to live here. Only until after Oregon passed civil rights legislation in 1953, hotels, motels, and restaurants could still discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or national origin.
On my flight back on Southwest Airlines, we are each rationed a bag of peanuts and pretzels, which we happily tear open. This is what life is like in America: we are pleased to get such things. Everything else is being taken away from us.
This time, conversation on the plane is about references to my husband did this or my wife said that. I feel even more alone. Raindrops race across the window and look like a flock of birds.
He will not be getting out today. There will be another hearing next week. I spoke in favor of transitional housing and mental health services. I’m feeling numb. There’s nothing more I can do. When I get home, I look in the mirror. I do not recognize my face.