At Home at O’Hare

Summer is right around the corner, and we all want to get out of town and see something new. We spend a lot of time driving to and from airports, and there’s loads of time hanging out there. Sometimes there is just enough time to jump on the flight, other times it’s all night long.

For me, most travel somehow involves Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Before I moved to the Northwest for college, I used to live in the Chicago area, and I like to say I was raised in Illinois but grew up in Seattle. When I graduated from high school, I set my sights on the Northwest to be set free from what felt like boring Midwestern suburbia, a restrictive dress code, five months of winter, and so much stuffy church.

I was not disappointed.

Hello, ripped jeans, Puget Sound, rock star church, five months of spring, and the best coffee I could dream of. I didn’t drink or do drugs, I just woke up every morning and let the Olympic mountains stun me again.

My infatuation turned into love, then commitment, and early on I found myself mostly staying out west and making only short trips back home to see family.

That was back in the ’80s, and since then I’ve flown from the Northwest to well over 100 encounters with O’Hare, if you count both coming and going. I know a few business travelers who laugh at that and say, “Hey, I do that in a year!” Still, to me it seems like I’ve seen a whole lot of O’Hare since I made my home in the Northwest several decades ago. O’Hare has seen me, too, as a witness to the seasons of my life.

At first, there was the college and travel bug phase, where that trip to Europe became a year, and many other excuses for repeating world adventures. Then there were weddings and family reunions, babies to introduce and big number birthdays, and eventually funerals for grandparents.

We all got older and O’Hare got bigger, somehow managing over 200,000 travelers per day, according to the FAA. Our families grew, too. Amazingly, thanks to deregulation, the cost of a flight from Seattle or Portland stayed roughly the same, around $400 round-trip, minus the free bags and a meal.

These days O’Hare hosts my emergency visits to check up on mom and dad — after dad’s heart attack, mom’s broken leg, her broken hip. Mom and dad don’t pick us up anymore, it’s just too confusing. I’ll take Uber and we can all relax. I always fly nonstop and at the end of that hideously early flight awaits my reward: Chicago junk food heaven. Italian beef, Italian sausage, deep dish pizza, or a Chicago dog. Take your pick, all in United’s Concourse C.

Just one O’Hare story, for the road. It happened not long ago. We had just arrived in Chicago, all of us bleary-eyed from the overnight flight. It was day one of a family summer vacation involving cousins and a wedding and museums and waterskiing, when we discovered my husband was having a stroke.

Two surreal days in the hospital, a haphazard shuttle of kids to buses and planes and there we were again. Terminal One. This time I was pushing my husband in a wheelchair in a bubble of quiet as we rolled toward our gate. I felt as strong and able to produce tears as a paper sack. My husband’s spirit was good though, and O’Hare’s waiting area turned into a practice space for his wobbly first steps in between rows of chairs. We even smiled a little.

It’s two years later and my husband is up to full speed and I’ve been four times back to Chicago. O’Hare remains the same, a haven and a headache. Mostly, it’s a stage, featuring the life and times of a visiting daughter.













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