This is Really Happening
Flight 471 had a perfect landing at SeaTac airport that Sunday evening in April. We were returning from a weekend wedding in southern California. Our plan was to have dinner in the airport, pick up our car, then drive the hour and a half home to Bellingham. We would get to bed a little later than usual that night, but we would be off to school and work the next day, a little tired, but totally doable. And now, it was happening, the unimaginable. Unimaginable because I had never dreamed this would be happening to me, to my family, to my son.
We joined the single-filed crowd in the aisle of the Boeing 737 to work our way off the plane. Emerging from the jet bridge, we began looking for a restaurant where we could sit down and get some food. I asked our 10-year old son, Hans, what sounded good to him.
He replied, “I don’t know.” This had become a common response recently.
“Okay, we’ll go have a burger,” I directed, tired and a little short.
Hans became angry, “No, I don’t want a burger.”
“Alright, how about pizza?”
“No. I don’t know what I want! Oh never mind!” becoming increasingly angry.
We continued walking, my frustration mounting as every restaurant we came upon was adamantly declined. We were approaching the food court, and I thought with some relief, everyone can have exactly what they want. But Hans couldn’t decide what he wanted. I was impatient, offering suggestions. Then Hans walked over to a post, put his forehead against it and began to cry saying, “I don’t know. It’s too much.”
He looked up at me angrily, tear-streaked face, and walked briskly away. Just like that. He walked away from us in a crowded airport saying loudly, “Leave me alone!” And there I was, standing in the food court of the SeaTac Airport, and time stood still for just a moment. My oldest son had just bolted in a crowded public place. I thought to myself, “This is really happening. Put on your work hat.” I am a Special Education teacher by degree, specifically trained to work with students who present with challenging behaviors. I’ve had students run from me, hit and kick me, call me names, and fall apart. I know misbehavior and I know how important it is to stay calm.
Looking over at my husband, Arnold, I said, “Take Andre to get pizza and noodles, find a table, and I’ll bring Hans back here.” Pizza and noodles were typical foods that Hans liked.
I knew I needed to keep my eyes on Hans. In my mind, it was no different than a man overboard. And I wanted assistance. I began to scan the crowd, looking for security. I thought that maybe Hans would respond to me with a security officer. He had always been enamored with police and soldiers. It occurred to me that I had never paid attention to whether there were security officers present and now that I was looking for one, they seemed to be everywhere. For some reason that slow motion thought string struck me as funny. I saw a lady, grey hair and a bit overweight. “No, not her,” I thought. There was an older man, not very friendly looking. “No, not him either.” Then I saw a young man with a kind face, physically fit.
I approached him and asked, “Are you a security officer?”
He replied, “Yes.”
“My son has a disability,” I lied, “and has just bolted. I need you to walk with me while I follow him.” We followed Hans as I pointed him out, the boy in the skinny jeans with the tie dye pink t-shirt, red and black plaid baseball cap. The young security officer told me that he was about to go on his break, but he would walk with me. He also told me that he couldn’t touch my son. I assured him that I didn’t need him to do that. I thought to myself, “If I need to, I can.” In addition to being a Special Education teacher, I was a Right Response trainer for the school district that I worked in. I have had to restrain and escort children who are unsafe. Hans wasn’t being unsafe, other than bolting from his family, and I didn’t want to lay hands on him unless absolutely necessary. I knew that laying hands on a child in crisis only escalates the situation.
The security officer, taking his break time to assist me, asked me if I wanted him to call the police. I quickly replied that I did not want the police involved. I was pretty sure that Hans would respond to just having a security officer with me and I did not want this to become a bigger situation than it already was. As I called to Hans to wait for us, he turned around; anger seething from his face, “Leave me alone!” he yelled, then kept walking.
I told the security officer, “We’ve never had this happen before.” Hans was walking briskly down the hall of concourse C.
The kind security officer told me, “This is a safe place for this to happen, there isn’t really anywhere he can go.” What had just felt overwhelmingly scary to me suddenly became completely manageable. As we got closer, the security officer called to Hans, “Hey, do you like baseball?”
Hans stopped and replied, “No.”
I interrupted, “He likes the Seahawks!” at the same time that I thought, “be quiet, Heather, let this guy engage Hans!”
The security officer laughed, “Yeah, who doesn’t love the Seahawks right now?” referring to the fact that they had recently won the Super Bowl! They exchanged small talk about sports and we were able to get Hans to walk back with us to the food court. He didn’t want me within 100 feet of him. I assured him that I would follow 100 feet behind him.
When we got back to the food court, Arnold and Andre were waiting, pizza and noodles in to go boxes and worried looks on their faces. The security officer, whose name I wish I had gotten so I could thank him later, told Hans he needed to stay with his parents. At the same time, I quickly explained to Arnold and Andre that Hans didn’t want us near him. He would follow Arnold and Andre and I would follow Hans. Arnold and I exchanged looks and Andre asked us, “What’s wrong with Hans?” I didn’t know.
We proceeded to lead Hans through the airport to baggage claim to pick up our luggage; Arnold and Andre, followed by Hans, followed by me. After retrieving our bags, we continued to the bay where we waited for the shuttle to pick us up to take us to the parking garage. Hans immediately hid behind a large pillar.
I left a box of pizza on the bench next to the pillar, “Here is your favorite pizza, pepperoni. You can eat it if you want to. I will leave you alone.”
He ate a few bites. When the shuttle arrived, he boarded first and went directly to the back of the bus and the three of us sat in the front. The shuttle filled. Every seat was occupied and my son was surrounded by strangers. I watched with my peripheral vision, pretending to look out the window. My aching heart was racing as he sat in the back with strangers, so evidently angry, but probably terrified as well. I knew I was terrified. What was going on? My thoughts exploded.
We arrived at the parking garage and I was afraid he was going to bolt again, but this time there were lots of places to go and none of them were safe. I kept my distance, pretending to be calm until our car was brought to us.
I let him get in first, followed by the rest of us, “We will give you as much space as we can,” I assured, and then we began the long ride home.
He was angry, kicking on the driver’s seat, pulling on Arnold’s seat belt, and swearing. Arnold asked him to stop. I told him to keep the driver safe, that if he didn’t we would have to call the police. He didn’t care and my statement just became an empty threat as I was unwilling to call the police. I tried to engage him with the i-Pad. He refused. I pulled up a game and handed it to him. He finally settled playing Dragonvale, eating pizza, and talking to himself, interspersed with the angry outbursts of kicking the seat and yanking on the seat belt. Had I known then what I learned later, we would have gone directly to Seattle Children’s Hospital Emergency Room and checked in. Instead, we endured an hour and a half of what seemed like crazy behavior.
We arrived home, later than planned. Arnold unloaded the bags. I ushered Andre into the house and up to the bathroom to get ready for bed. Hans went into his room, slammed his door and went to bed with teeth un-brushed and in his clothes. I was exhausted and afraid. The next day began my frantic search for answers and help.