I’d love to skip this part, but I need to start at the beginning.
It seems to me the stories that spread – or the ones that stick in my mind – are the ones where someone has been ignorant or disrespectful or unkind to a person with special needs. I want to add to the stories of not one person but many people who showed incredible patience, compassion and understanding to a family with special needs.
Our flight to Dallas was 3.5 hours long and Rhema did well for the first hour, giggling and coloring on the barf bags. Hour #2 she held my hand and closed her eyes and hummed. I could tell she was getting anxious and I silently prayed that she could keep it together until we landed. Somewhere during Hour #3 she decided she’d had enough. She handed me my purse as if to say, “Let’s go”, took off her seatbelt and tried to leave. I grabbed her around the waist and held on for dear life. I knew that a little stroll up the aisle was not what she had in mind: she wanted out. She fought me and shrieked as I told her it was not time yet and we had to stay in our seats. All the while I held her, I prayed please God help me, God help me.
She broke free and bolted up the aisle. I followed her as she tried to open doors – any door to get off. She tried to open the emergency doors but I was there to stop her. She opened bathroom doors looking for the exit. To my horror I realized she was heading to the front of the plane, straight for the cockpit. We were practically wrestling in the aisle as I tried to hold her back. She crashed into people. She accidentally caused a man in first class to spill tomato juice on his shirt.
“Ma’am! Ma’am, do you need medical assistance?” By now two flight attendants were involved. One blocked the cockpit door and another helped me move Rhema – completely escalated – back to her seat all the way to 36B at the back of the plane.
There were two more instances of Rhema escaping and trying to exit the plane during flight (on two separate flights). I don’t even know if she understood that we were still in the air, she just wanted to go home. She had to be held down by me, flight attendants and a couple other passengers.
The fear, the feeling of being out of control and powerless was one of the worst experiences ever for me. It was not lost on me that she was feeling the same things and sadly our special kids must experience it often.
The man who was wearing his tomato juice ran up and offered his electronic tablet. “She can play with this! Will that help?”
A woman who’d undoubtedly been hit by flailing arms gently tried to talk to Rhema.
As we panted and held her, I said to a flight attendant, “I am so sorry.” She replied kindly, “Don’t be sorry. This is ok. We’ll be fine. We’ll be fine.”
The men in 14A and 14B traded seats because we’d never make it back to row 36 where Hope still sat. We’d have to sit for landing. We muscled Rhema into a seat and I sat next to her. I noticed her lip was split. She jumped into my lap (all 11 years and 100 lbs of her) and I held her for dear life. A flight attendant got a seat belt and somehow strapped it over Rhema as she sat on my lap, and then she ran to her seat just as we landed.
Another woman made eye contact and mouthed, “Are you ok?”
I nodded even though I was so very not ok.
The man who’d been seated in 35 B came to me with my backpack and Hope. He offered to continue carrying my backpack as we made our way off the plane.
In the terminal in Austin it took some time for us to find the wheelchair assistance we’d requested. Hope found him, a white-bearded heavyset man whose mannerisms reminded me of my father. He pushed Rhema in the wheelchair and although he’d never met us before he instantly seemed protective.
As we walked toward baggage claim he asked about Rhema. “What does she do well?”
We’d just lived through a nightmare on a plane and he was asking me what she did well.
I shrugged. “Well… she… um. She. She hums. She sings. Well, not words. She doesn’t speak. But she has a beautiful voice.”
He nodded knowingly.
“A gift. There’s always a gift.”
At the car rental place there was a long line, much to my dismay. I went to a kiosk and was able to do a video call with a car rental agent. During the call Rhema escaped the wheelchair and tried to pry the phone out of my hands. I explained to the woman on the screen that my daughter was autistic. The agent excitedly began telling me about a class she was taking on developmental disabilities. She happily lectured me on the fact that Rhema may not show it but she understood so much. As we hung up she said, “God bless you in Texas.”
Our wheelchair man who I could have hugged showed us to the parking lot and to the rental car. He bid goodbye to Hope and Rhema and said, “Y’all be careful now.”
I’m sure there were some frustrated people on our flights. But throughout our travels not one person was unkind or showed disdain. Instead it was quite the opposite. There is still much work to be done, but if you ever wonder if autism awareness/acceptance is spreading, let this story be proof that it is.
We faced more struggles that day – even things like walking into the hotel, getting on the elevator, getting food – proved to be very difficult.
By evening, I was incredibly low in spirit. I felt foolish not brave. I felt horrible for the way we’d inconvenienced so many people. I thought I’d made a big mistake taking Rhema on a journey she simply couldn’t handle. I was angry that it was so hard. In spite of the wonderful help we’d received all day, I was bitter. When we were seated on the plane and I was holding Rhema begging God to help me hold on and she escaped, those moments, that’s when I needed the help.
I texted my sister, “It was worse than my nightmares.”
She texted back, “Now God will bless bigger than your best dreams…”