I should have said yes to the Xanax my coworker offered me yesterday. I’m not usually one for under the counter drug exchanges, but if I’d taken her up on it, I might not be sitting here bracing for my own death. Turbulence jostles the plane and we dip lower in the sky; I tighten my grip on the arm rest and suck in a jagged breath. I don’t even have a will in place. What kind of mother leaves her eight-month old baby at home to fly across the country and hasn’t prepared a will?
Helplessly strapped in my seat, I can only look down to ascertain that I am not yet leaking through my shirt. I’m instantly reminded of summers spent at the county fair, hanging out in lawn chairs near the dairy barn, vaguely noticing a background chorus of cows waiting to be milked. I’d give anything to be milked right now. My mind toggles back and forth between my aching chest and visions of our plane crashing in a scorching blaze. I glance out of the side of my eye at my seatmate, wondering if he also knows this is the end of the road for us. As he nonchalantly reads his newspaper, I could only assume he does not.
I’ve never been an anxious flier before. Flying has always meant a ginger ale and a cheese platter – a chance to read a book or chat up a stranger. Crippling panic at every bump and announcement feels new to me. Is it anxiety? Guilt? A premonition? Or was I just a profoundly different person, a person I didn’t altogether recognize since becoming a mother?
The last time I’d flown without a need for drugs or a fear of death was a quick Spring Break trip to Vegas the year prior. Without my knowing, it had been my last hurrah before an unplanned pregnancy divided my life into before and after. Had I known it was my final child-free destination, I would have done a hell of a lot better than Sin City. I was just as unoriginal as every other bachelor party that landed themselves on the Strip.
But right now, if we could just land the plane, if I could get to solid ground and get to a hotel and deflate myself, maybe I could catch my breath. It felt as though I had sucked all the air into my lungs awhile ago without remembering to let it out. Several months ago, the NFL offered my partner, Barrett, his dream job of following teams around the country to work in sports television production. It meant so much to him. It also meant I taught high school English all week long and spent my weekends taking care of our new baby by myself. But I’d be lying if I said things had been much easier even before he left.
I look back now, with the wisdom of time and consecutive hours of sleep, and I wonder how I didn’t know. The signs were there, persistent and unrelenting, but that is the gift of retrospect. I wouldn’t realize for some time that I suffered from postpartum depression and anxiety. I hadn’t known it could be any different. I just knew that a heaviness had taken up an occupancy inside of me, and my only refuge was crying alone in bathrooms. And because life can sometimes be twisted and cruel, while navigating my own motherhood, my mother-in-law’s cancer returned. I couldn’t have known while I was sitting on that plane that she only had a few weeks left. She also wasn’t technically my mother-in-law. After eight years and a baby together, Barrett and I were still in no rush to make anything legal. But without a title, it sometimes felt like she wasn’t mine to lose, and my grief meandered about aimlessly without a place to land.
As Barrett traveled all around the country, I felt mostly indifferent to the places he spent his weekends: Houston, Phoenix, Tampa Bay, Minneapolis. But the week he found out he was leaving for New Orleans? Intrigue and curiosity flared up inside me in a familiar way, and a part of me that had felt dormant unearthed itself.
Since swapping out suitcases for diaper bags, an ache had materialized as most of my former identity slipped into oblivion. I had been interesting, once, hadn’t I? I could swear I used to talk about besides developmental milestones and sleep training. It wasn’t too far in the distant past that I moved to China on a whim, spent summers in Bangladesh, and studied art history outside of Florence. And like only a smug, twenty-something who travels can, I had wrapped up my worth in the places I’d been. But now, I was thirty, a new mother, and full of fear that I would never have that freedom, that luxury to explore, and that I might not be interesting ever again.
Arranging a four-day trip while leaving our child at home was difficult. Beyond difficult. It meant writing sub plans and spending extra money we shouldn’t have spent. It meant missing a wedding that would lead to hurt feelings. It meant avoiding the side eyes when people discovered I was leaving my daughter. So young? Wow. I could never do that. I secretly wondered if Barrett had gotten those same side eyes as he jumped on a plane every weekend. And while I could have strapped her to my chest and wandered around New Orleans with her, I desperately needed to leave her home. It was a logistical Houdini act that filled me with crushing guilt. And yet?
I had to go.
When the plane landed on a warm, sticky evening, I marveled at still being alive and headed to the hotel as the entirety of my soul exhaled. There were thousands of miles between me and my daughter, high school freshmen, scorned brides, and cancer. That night I slept hard in a way I hadn’t for eight months; not the fragile, precarious sleep that can be taken away at any moment.
With Barrett already in the city and working, I had a day to myself with no itinerary. I set out to get deliciously lost in a new city; a city that felt like it had been calling. Thankfully it was late October with no Mardi Gras in sight. I’ve always hated crowds and since the birth of my daughter, Zoe, I wasn’t feeling particularly bead-worthy. To be lost, I can now think of no greater place than New Orleans, with her cobblestone alleyways, brightly painted shutters and riffs of jazz spilling out of restaurants. The city felt electric – a current of energy permeated the atmosphere as people laughed, sold art on street corners, and called out their rallying cry of “Who dat?” At the same time, people made time to talk and to listen. The people of this city had been through hell numerous times and possessed a fierce loyalty and resilience. It was palpable.
I wandered into a cooking store where the store clerk and several patrons gathered around watching the Saints game on television. As the quarterback, Drew Brees, fumbled the ball, the clerk said not unkindly, “He just had a new baby. We’ll forgive him.” I smiled at this energy, which was so distinctly different from the fair-weather fans I was surrounded by at home.
I hadn’t envisioned scheduling my days exploring around a breast pump, but it was easy to overlook given all of the intricate iron work, the historic churches, and the melodies of saxophones. I made incessant stops in small restaurants, devouring po’boy sandwiches, crawfish etouffee, gumbo, collared greens and cocktails. For the few mornings I was there, I stopped at a hole-in-the wall café to eat beignets and a glass of milk. Licking powdered sugar from my finger tips, I theorized that no world problem existed that couldn’t be solved with a beignet. I had yet to encounter the election of 2016 or a global pandemic, so that theory has now been lain to rest.
On Barrett’s day off, we trekked to the swamps and snapped pictures of the moss dangling from trees and crocodiles’ eyes lurking above the muck. I exhaled a little more. We held hands; we talked about things that had nothing to do with our child. I’d forgotten how much I actually liked him. Meandering around with a camera, I reminisced about what it was like to have a hobby. Photography was one of several passions that had suffered from neglect in the past year. Even the cemeteries we visited felt idyllic with their elaborate above-ground tombs and ornate graves of Voodoo queens. Was New Orleans always this magical, or could any city have done the trick? Perhaps I was viewing New Orleans through post-partum colored glasses, but I suspect this city and its aura were the ones meant to breathe some life back into me.
Every day we called home to look at our daughter’s gummy smile and laugh with her as she clapped her hands and chewed on her fingers. I felt a sneaking craving for the smell of her head and her opinionated squeals.
Barrett and I sat on a restaurant patio on our last night, only a few nights after the plane ride I’d been sure was imminent death. We drank Hurricanes and ate red beans and rice; a trio played the blues in the background and delicate, twinkly bulbs flickered from the trees. He looked at me and asked, “Are you ready to go back?”
I didn’t have an answer. Emphatically yes. And also, no. Absolutely not. While I missed Zoe and my own bed, New Orleans revived something in me. I didn’t know then what was waiting for me. I couldn’t see a second child, the plane trips with toddlers, the solo trips without guilt, the easing back into my own bones. I had yet to realize that my worth was more than a resume of places I had been and would go. Depression. Motherhood. Grief. It can strip what you know to be true and rip you down to the studs so that you only feel undone, not sensing that you are being rebuilt. It was New Orleans that had pulled me aside, gently whispering, “You’re still in there.”
The return to myself, albeit briefly, wasn’t strong enough to prevail when I returned home to Washington. I immediately lost myself again in motherhood, in my work, in tragedy. Healing and discovery are never linear. No city, no matter how magical, has those kinds of powers. But the upheaval shook loose something I’d feared gone; it was my reminder that once again, I would find things interesting, that I still had the longings and the ability to explore and be devoured by a new place. And just possibly, I’d be interesting again too.
BIO: Emily Corak has been an educator to secondary students for the past decade, working primarily with English language learners, and she is now working towards her MFA degree through Lindenwood University. An avid traveler and photographer, Emily lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two young children, alongside their hyperactive dog and neurotic cats.