I have lived much of my career up in the air. Literally. I have traveled between countries around the world dozens, if not hundreds, of times. I’ve clocked a lot of mileage and consumed countless (barely edible) meals served at 36,000 feet in economy class. Only once in all the years I’ve spent shuttling from country to country, assignment to assignment, have I been bumped to First Class on a long haul flight. Sure, I’ve had the occasional luck (well, only twice) to be moved to Business Class (the most rewarding of which was for that 16-hour flight from Dubai to Dallas a few years back), but First Class, not so much. It had never happened – until the day before I was fired.
I vividly remember boarding the flight from Rio de Janeiro to Miami in the early hours of January 17, 2019 – the day my father would have turned 75 were he still alive. It was just past midnight when my group number was called. The gate agent scanned my boarding pass and the light flashed red. I was immediately concerned, thinking, Damn, am I going to make it home tonight (or today, or tomorrow – whichever)? But the American Airlines employee reached over the desk, grabbed a new boarding pass, and the light switched to green. I was now in row four of the plane – First Class.
Strangely, I didn’t ask questions, and the gate attendant didn’t offer an explanation. I just took my seat assignment and moved forward. In fact, I almost ran – I couldn’t believe my luck. After all, for a frequent flyer, First Class on a Boeing 777 is amazing. The elbow room, the privacy, the ability to recline entirely into a sleeping position – it’s truly a luxury. As I strapped on my seat belt, I welcomed a glass of champagne from a member of the flight crew and settled in for the long flight home.
Out of my backpack I pulled a sizeable stack of newspapers. The New York Times is my travel companion – I store up several weeks worth of Sunday print editions to read throughout my captive hours on airplanes. It’s pure comfort. But that night, the New York Times would bring me to tears.
As I rested comfortably in my First Class seat, I browsed the year’s final issue of the New York Times Magazine – an overview of 2018’s most compelling moments. The very last story on the last page was about Baby Orca. I had missed this headline from earlier in the year, but now, several miles in the air, I could not hide my emotions and sobbed openly while reading about how three pods of orca whales living precariously in the Puget Sound were struggling to breed. I read about how it had been years since a baby orca in this family had been born alive, or had lived for more than a few minutes or hours. One such recent experience – that of Orca J35 (also known as Tahlequah) – was particularly newsworthy and heartbreaking.
After carrying her calf for 18 months in utero, Tahlequah gave birth to her baby orca – a female – surrounded by members of her family (and within view of researchers observing from a nearby boat). It didn’t take long, however, for the newly born calf to die. As her several-hundred-pound-body began to sink, Tahlequah refused to let her go – instead, holding the lifeless baby orca on the surface of the water, swimming with her dead calf on her nose for 17 days and for over 1,000 miles.
This phenomenon, as painful as it is to consider, is not entirely uncommon. Researchers studying bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, for example, noticed similar behavior among mother dolphins that lost their calves due to toxic living conditions. But until baby orca’s death in the Puget Sound in 2018, no one had witnessed such a lengthy period of marine mammal “grieving” as Tahlequah’s.
The NYT story about the struggles of orca whales was, of course, troubling simply because of our environmental realities and the various threats to our biodiversity and global ecosystems. It has also been determined that we tend to cry more often on airplanes than we do when we have our feet on the ground. But my emotional reaction, to be honest, was much deeper. It was that image of dead baby orca being held on the surface of the sea by her grieving mother for two-and-a-half weeks. The sheer strength, the will, the pain, the trauma – all of these emotions washed over me in a profound and intense way. In fact, they still do. What had mama orca been thinking throughout that time? How did she manage this? Why did she manage this? And what made her finally say her goodbyes and move forward? It felt familiar for some reason, but I wouldn’t fully understand until a few hours later.
After landing in the United States I switched my phone off airplane mode and checked my email – standard procedure for just about anyone, but certainly for a university dean who spends a great deal of time reading and responding to emails. About two messages in I froze, flushed, and then read and re-read a formal letter from my then supervisor, the provost of my university. It contained a negative performance review – the first of my life – and one that, in my opinion, was quite unjust. I quickly reviewed the previous week’s events in my head – the phone call I received about significant budget cuts to the college, the heated conversation, the feeling of being completely unheard and silenced.
I spent the next 24 hours negotiating my firing process – something that now seems so surreal. After the termination was managed and I was able to exhale for the first time, I thought again of Tahlequah and her baby orca. I couldn’t help but feel the symbolism: I too had been trying desperately, behind the scenes, to lift up and keep afloat a “dead” college – one that had, for various reasons, fallen out of favor and was being subjected to administrative and budgetary attacks – not for weeks, but for months. There will undoubtedly be debate about that statement, and there isn’t much more I can say about it now, but on that day – January 18, 2019, less than 24 hours after my first First Class flight and my tears for baby and mama orca – everything seemed to make sense. And like mama orca, I too had to face the reality that there was no option but to let go and move forward.
I have thought a lot about this concept of “forward” throughout my life, but especially since that day. I have had various conversations with others, some quite randomly, about the importance of moving forward and not looking back. I have always been one to look ahead. I firmly believe you shouldn’t keep reading and re-reading your past chapters. I don’t even use my car’s rearview mirror all that often. I mean, who really needs to know what’s going on behind you? Forward has always been my line of sight – even when I wasn’t sure of what I was looking forward to.
Despite the personal and professional pain and difficulty that is involved with being fired, which feels like losing a loved one (and in reality, I have lost many loved ones throughout this transitional process), there is still no better view than what may lie ahead – even if that forward-looking view still seems somewhat distant and not yet fully in focus.