I can’t tell you how many times I have flown internationally. I was 11-years-old the first time I flew the kangaroo route between Australia and London when my parents took me to England to meet our extended family. Since then I’ve stepped onboard many Europe-bound planes: as a child, as a backpacker, as a businessperson, as the wife of an Irishman.
Hundreds and hundreds of hours watching that little plane on the screen inch slowly across countries I know too little about.
But despite my frequent flying, anyone who knows me knows I am a nervous flyer. The dread I feel in the lead-up to a flight is like walking through a river of wet cement. And now that I have children, that feeling of dread weighs even heavier on my heart; the responsibility I feel when I strap my children into their seats can sometimes make me nauseous.
But I have never let this fear stop me. Never.
Because I know it’s irrational. Because I know the statistics are in my favour. Because I know living a life stuck on the ground in fear is worse.
So every time I walk down the air-bridge to board a plane I take a deep breath and whisper a silent prayer.
“Please get us there safely.”
And it’s the people I see around me that calm my nerves as we inch down the aisle looking for our seats.
The aircrew, busy preparing the plane for just another day in their working lives. The children jumping excitedly into their seats, pressing all the buttons and squishing their noses against the window as they try to comprehend the wonder of flight. The parents furiously searching for a distraction in their carry-on bag, in hope it will settle their children. The businessperson flicking open their paper like they’ve stepped onboard just another bus.
For a moment these people make me feel reassured. Then, when the air-bridge folds away and the plane gently rolls back, the fear gushes back into my head. And of course this is also the point when my children turn their little faces to me and deliver a barrage of questions. Those ‘what if’ questions with eyes bewildered and wide.
“Don’t be silly,” I say as I lean into them. “That’s not going to happen to us.”
When we take off the plane shakes and groans as it climbs and I again look at the people around me. Some read their books. Some lean back and close their eyes. Others point out landmarks on the ground before they disappear behind the clouds. Sometimes, if I can see them from where I am sitting, I look at the flight attendants. Some of them look nonchalantly out the window; probably thinking through their to-do list. Others flick through magazines. Others smile at passengers – passengers like me looking for reassurance that everything is ok.
That the clunk of the wheels coming up is normal.
That those bumps we feel as we fly through the clouds are normal.
That the whirring of the wing’s flaps retracting as we level out is normal.
“It’s all perfectly normal,” I tell myself as I look at my children’s little hands in mine.
On Friday morning I woke up in my warm and comfortable bed. I sat up, put on my glasses and picked up my phone to see the latest news, like I do every morning.
My heart stopped.
I’ve flown MH17 three times. Once I was pregnant and the other two times my son sat on my lap, only a little baby. My husband has flown MH17 so many times we’ve lost count. It’s the preferred airline of the Dutch company he works for.
On those flights I know I would have looked to the people around me for reassurance.
The children wriggling in their seats with excitement.
The harried parents fielding the endless questions.
The middle-aged couple sipping champagne together.
The tired businessperson eager to get home.
The young adventurer flicking through his travel guide.
The flight attendant closing the last of the overhead lockers.
I feel like I knew those people on MH17. People who are no different to us.
And now my heart is broken for them, their families and their friends.