Last week, I did something I haven’t done in months: I went on a plane. A red-eye flight. My first real trip post-quarantine. At midnight, I shuffled on board alongside a few dozen half-asleep travelers. We each settled into our separate little corners, which we’d occupy for the next six hours. I hushed my phone into airplane mode, slid my window shut and tucked my AirPods into my ears. “Perfect Places” by Lorde echoed into them.
I felt our plane reach toward the sky with a soft metallic groan. It stretched its wings, waking up for the long journey. The plane jolted awake while its passengers curled into sleep.
As we ascended into the dark ink of the night sky, tears began to roll down my face.
They were brought on by a tsunami of feelings, crashing down on me as our plane took off. The feeling that jumped out at me most was exhaustion. It was a heavier feeling than just being tired from a red-eye flight — I felt absolute exhaustion from this year of COVID-19. Sitting on that flight, fully vaccinated and on my way toward a somewhat normal vacation, was disorienting. It felt like a bizarre dream. During my quarantine, part of me thought we’d never leave home again. For months, normal life had felt like a distant fantasy.
This flight felt symbolic to me. I used to take trips like this for granted, but now it felt unbelievably freeing to be heading to a new destination. Somewhere outside my little quarantined bubble. Finally, I thought, we’re on our way to normal life again. The end of all this is in sight.
I looked around the plane, at my fellow passengers, faces half-covered by masks. I cried for all we had been through that year and all we had overcome. I was surrounded by so many people in a small space after months of trying to avoid that exact situation. I didn’t feel fear — instead, I felt relief. That relief flowed out of me in big, happy drops. I thought, what an insane year it’s been. If I can get through that, I can do anything.
This thought empowered me, and I cried soft, prideful tears for who I’ve become. Over the past several months, I faced some hard truths about myself and made many big changes in my life. I’ve emerged from the chaos of this past year intact and on my way to a better me. Reflecting on my personal growth brought a steady stream of tears down my cheeks. I felt all these emotions roll through me in tearful waves: exhaustion, disbelief, relief, pride. I succumbed to my tears and let them wash over me, releasing all the pain of the past year.
And then, of course, I remembered where I was. I’m in public, sobbing on this plane… the person next to me is probably very concerned.
I glanced a tear-filled eye to my right. My seat partner was in deep sleep, head rolling side to side, the plane rocking him like a baby. I shrugged and hit shuffle on my “time to cry” playlist. If he had been awake, it wouldn’t have fazed me much. Crying on planes is actually fairly normal for me. I’ve gotten many sideways glances, some sympathetic, others judgemental. I don’t mind.
I’m an emotional person, one who’s susceptible to crying at very random times. Last month at Safeway, for example, finding that there was no basil available at the store sent me into a frenzy of tears. I sat crying at the end of the spice aisle before realizing basil is not, in fact, kept in the spice aisle. I also frequently bawl after finishing a good book; once the story ends, I remember the fictional world doesn’t exist outside the pages. Books and basil make me cry easily, so crying on airplanes seems pretty on-brand for me.
I’ve come to enjoy the cathartic process of plane rides. Each one transports me through an insightful self-reflective journey. There’s something about the physical separation, the plane ride serving as an obvious path from “where I’ve been” to “where I’m going.” My thoughts take a voyage of their own — I welcome plane rides because they aid in unpacking my thoughts. Flights help me make sense and take inventory of what’s just happened and what I’m saying goodbye or hello to.
My first flight full of tears was on the way to my freshman year of college, two years ago. It was a surreal trip, one I’d looked forward to since I’d committed to college. When it finally came time to board the plane and launch into the next stage of my life, I found tears trickling down my face. I was scared. I didn’t know what was in store; all I did know was that I had to say goodbye to the many things that were familiar and comfortable. I was leaving my family for the first time in my life. I felt excited but also incredibly nervous — this mix of emotions leaked out of my eyes and fell into my hands.
My first time joining the “Mile Cry Club.”
I now cry on every plane ride since. Over the past couple of years, I’ve taken many plane rides — mostly the over-five-hour flight between San Francisco and Detroit. I’ve noticed my emotions easily overflowing on the trip to school and back. On this flight, I’m always leaving and returning home. I’m leaving behind some of me, my life, my people, my routine. At the same time, I’m returning to a different part of me. That flight — that intermission between two halves of me — allows me to reflect on each chunk of my life that I’m leaving behind. It’s a little over five hours of processing time for me, hopping back and forth between two completely different places, two completely different aspects of me that reside 2,352.8 miles apart from each other.
Perhaps the most emotional time I took this trip: March 2020 — abruptly leaving my freshman year. I’d booked a flight last minute because some new virus was taking over the world, and I wasn’t allowed to stay at college anymore.
Boarding that flight, I was freaked out, to put it lightly. I became a germaphobe overnight, doubling up masks, using an entire package of wipes on my seat and trying to breathe in as little of the possibly contaminated air as possible. I cried the whole way home. I was overwhelmed with sadness — sad to have my first year of college cut short, sad I didn’t have a return trip booked. I was terrified of the virus and the unknowns surrounding it. I didn’t even know what “social distancing” meant or if I’d be able to see anyone upon landing.
I soaked both my masks with tears — each drop mourning a different loss, disappointment, worry.
Flash forward to a year later and my most recent time flying the DTW-SFO path: heading back home for this past summer, May 2021. This flight gave me time to think back on my second winter semester at school. In that timeframe, I met my five best friends and we all somehow avoided COVID-19 for the whole semester. I also went through my first breakup, got a job, joined The Michigan Daily, published my first story, got vaccinated, took four classes on Zoom, applied for way too many summer internships, got rejected from way too many summer internships, joined a Wolverine Support Network group, changed my major, changed my major again, walked the Arb at least 100 times (not exaggerating), spent countless nights at Cantina and Jug, took 5 million COVID-19 nose swabs (exaggerating) and had a slightly-viral Tik Tok moment.
It was a very eventful semester, even with COVID-19 shutting down most of the typical college experience. Recounting all I went through that semester, sitting in seat 24F, I couldn’t stop crying. There was so much to unpack.
Thinking back on these emotional plane rides, I can remember each period of life so clearly. I can recall exactly what made me cry on each flight — what memories or thoughts stirred up tears. My flight home because of COVID-19, for example, was the beginning of quarantine life. Then my most recent flight home, in May of this year, finally marked the end of that period for me. Plane rides help me compartmentalize each phase of my life. I get a little season recap, a review of the memories, emotions, lessons I’ve learned. They allow me to flush out any residual feelings and fully prepare my mind for my next adventure.
As the plane touches down on the ground, I feel… refreshed. I may land with bloodshot, puffy eyes, but I also arrive with a free, clear mind. Planes create the perfect atmosphere for my frantic mind. I find comfort in the process, the smooth gliding through clouds and memories, the tears soothing my mind — swiftly flying toward my next chapter.
Statement Columnist Natalie Bricker can be reached at email@example.com.