No, the plane did not crash. Nor was there any natural disaster killing hundreds at our destination country.
Even with hindsight, there was no profound reason why we missed our flight that Wednesday morning.
We have planned this trip since last year. My husband will have a forum in Singapore and we thought to make it into a family trip, adding an extra day after the meetings to go around the city. Weeks before, my four year old son and seven year old daughter were bubbling with excitement about the upcoming trip — about the trains and planes, airports and hotel, the food and friends. I did not do much research regarding our itinerary other than to ask a friend recommendations on kid-friendly parks.
Our kids have always been very easy and fun to travel with and we truly enjoy their company. We seem to share the same travel temperament: easy, relaxed, flexible, and ready to enjoy whatever the moment provides. When a highly-rated restaurant happened to be closed on our one free day in Gifu, we were just as happy to go to the nearest convenience store and pick our favorite onigiri for lunch. When our fancy hotel lost power one rainy morning, we ate our breakfast in the dark with much amusement and giggling. In Hong Kong, we didn’t go to Disneyland or Ocean Park — the kids were just as thrilled taking the ferry and playing at the free Hong Kong Park (So fun, we went back twice!). These are the same kids who are happy to quietly watch the flurry of activity on the tarmac from the airport’s huge windows. So yes, we travel well together and we were looking forward to simple pleasures.
It took us three hours and multiple trains to get to the airport. We woke up at 4 in the morning to make it to the airport by 8. At the check in counter, the staff informed us that she could not check our son in. His passport expires in 5 and a half months. Singapore requires at least 6 months before expiration. It does not make sense why a perfectly valid passport is invalid six months before its expiration date. It’s almost like buying a carton of milk and someone tells you, actually, you can’t drink the milk 6 days before the date stamped. Surely, this is a mistake. Our trip was just 3 days short, with a clear return ticket. We don’t look like the sort of parents who would leave their son in Singapore. The forum organizer in Singapore can vouch for us.
All through this, our kids asked us quietly what was wrong. Check in was taking longer than usual. The staff said they could override the computer system if we had a certificate from the Singaporean Embassy stating that they are okay with my son’s passport being two weeks shy of the required 6 months. We tried calling the embassy but there was no one who could help us. If we miss this flight and take a later one, we would still have to pay a penalty for the flight change for all four of us. We were not sure the embassy would actually issue such a certification. We might waste an entire day trying to secure this document and end up with nothing. And still have to pay another cancellation fee for our flights. Is it worth the try?
My husband offered to write a statement to the airline guaranteeing that we were going to shoulder the costs of our return flights should Singaporean immigration refuse us entry. No, sorry there was nothing the airline staff can do for us unless we had that document from the embassy. The air control officer in charge was particularly curt and dismissive and didn’t even give a kind or sympathetic look to our anxious kids.
In the end, we decided that my husband will go by himself and the three of us will have our tickets refunded with a huge cancellation penalty equivalent to one person’s round-trip ticket. Our son looked nonchalantly away, biting his lip. Our daughter broke down and buried her face in her dad’s chest. I felt the immense weight of my children’s disappointment. My son finally burst into tears when my husband hugged him goodbye. We explained that it wasn’t our son’s fault but it was still difficult for them to understand why the airline would not let us fly if the expiration date on his passport “was still okay” as my daughter puts it. (Honestly, we don’t understand it either!). Both kids tried their best to put on brave faces as we headed back home.
No, we’re not a refugee family being torn apart by war, we reminded ourselves. We are not divorcing. This is a huge disappointment but nothing permanent. It is a real reminder, though, that things can be snatched away from us at any moment.
“Sekkaku ni, we rushed out to buy socks last night for our trip,” my daughter said on our three hour train ride home. We found out last minute that most of their socks were worn out and had holes in them.
“Sekkaku ni I told all my classmates I was not going to school,” her brother added.
“Sekkaku ni I was looking forward to eating cheese prata,” I said.
We wallowed in our disappointment and anger and my daughter cried some more before falling asleep.
We still have half a day ahead of us. I was determined not to waste it. There was a newly opened ramen shop in our neighborhood which we haven’t gone to because there have been long lines of people waiting to get in. Today, we had the time to wait in line. From the outside, it smelled like they were simmering day-old socks but we were committed to giving it a shot. After 40 minutes, we were finally seated. The books and magazines on the table were bookmarked on the pages featuring this particular shop — hopefully the ramen tastes better than it smells. Our order arrived. The handmade noodles were fantastic but the soup tasted exactly as it smelled. The kids and I crinkled our noses and laughed as we plodded through our bad meal. Yet again, long lines don’t prove anything.
When we got home, we napped (after all, we have been up since 4 and have had an emotional day). When we woke up, my daughter could not stop crying. She cried as she worked on her homework. She cried as she packed her stuff for basketball practice (I’m not supposed to be going to basketball today, she must be thinking). She cried on the way there. She was absolutely positively sad.
Still heavy from the ramen lunch, I said, hey, let’s do something different. Let’s have a “breakfast dinner,” a suggestion embraced enthusiastically by the kids. While my daughter was at practice, my son and I shopped for breakfast items. That night, they excitedly opened their tubs of yoghurt and gobbled up fruit.
“Let’s meet Daddy at the airport when he comes home,” my daughter suggested. I said we probably won’t be able to do that. It costs a lot of money to take the trains all the way there and back but we can definitely meet him at the station when he arrives.
The next couple of days we were supposed to have been in Singapore, we went through our everyday routine, going to school and work. Inside though, I was committed to saying yes and why not to my kids. When my son suggested putting all three lemons worth of peels destined for the compost pile into the bathtub, I said yes and they had a ball splashing in lemon scented water and playing with the slippery peels. When my daughter suggested doing a hike and a picnic up the mountain that Saturday (complete with lunch boxes and sweets after), I said yes and we explored a new trail up.
We have been up this mountain countless times but that day, because we were supposed to be somewhere else, it felt different to me. I am having as much fun as I would have with my kids in Singapore. In the end, it didn’t matter where we were. We would have found a way to enjoy the moment. The airline gave us the unexpected gift of disappointment and the chance to learn how not to let others rob us of our ability to live in the moment. Life is not always fair but we can choose how to respond — a priceless thing to leave our kids with.
At the foot of the mountain, there is a sign for a nearby cafe that we have always ignored the past 4 and a half years. That afternoon found the three of us trekking in its direction. The nondescript facade said nothing of what was inside. When we opened the door, our jaws dropped into a big round O. It felt like we stepped through Doraemon’s dokodemo door right into 1920s Europe. We were blown away by its quirkiness. The next day with my husband back from Singapore after taking an earlier flight home, we went to the cafe together and enjoyed a lovely lunch. We marveled at still having places to explore right in our very own backyard.
In a letter my husband wrote me while he was in Singapore, he said,
It is not the large events in life that shape our memories but the small passing of words and connections. A joke here. A gentle word there. A sharing of something unexpected. A realization that I am connected to these people around me and they impact my life. It is those unplanned events that truly shape my memories… (big events) are merely the backdrop. The mistake I make from time to time is to confuse the background (events) as being more important than the foreground (the people I’m with). I think the best example of this are weddings. It is all a spectacle with little consideration to the celebration of the union. And perhaps that is just the way it is meant to be. But those celebrations do not allow for spontaneity or vulnerability: two key things I believe that connects people and creates lasting memories. So, this trip has been good in many ways. And I believe we will move along and see it as a sad experience but surely not something that shaped our relationship to each other. A lost opportunity to see something together but not a loss to our relationship with each other. Remembering that puts the whole incident in perspective.