I have been an air traffic controller for nearly 22 years, and I’m lucky enough to be able to say that I still absolutely love my job. A fun fact about me is that I’m actually trained to work in both tower and approach environments, but I’ve always been grateful that my entire career has been spent working exclusively in air traffic control towers. There’s a funny, self-aggrandising hierarchy amongst approach controllers in which they believe that they’re the top guns of ATC, and that the tower is where air traffic controllers go to die (we don’t call them figjam for nothing). I’m not going to get into that debate here, but I will say that every single day I go to work I’m thankful that I get to look out the window and see the aeroplanes I’m controlling, rather than being stuck in a cheerless radar room with row upon row of radar screens and no windows or natural light.
Truly, one of the joys of my job is just being able to watch the aircraft fly. In 22 years I reckon I’ve seen over a million takeoffs and landings, so you’d be forgiven for assuming I might be a bit jaded by it all. But no, I still totally get off on it. I definitely wouldn’t call myself an aerosexual, but there is one particular aircraft’s takeoff which absolutely fills me with awe and wonder every time I see it, and that aircraft is the Boeing 747. For something that has a maximum takeoff weight of 442,252 kilograms, the Jumbo jet veritably glides off the runway with such elegance and grace, it still takes my breath away.
The first B747 flight took place from Everett, Washington in the United States in 1969, with the model entering service a year later. Years in the making, the “Dream Team” of over 50,000 employees that worked on the aircraft, produced a remarkable feat of aviation engineering which revolutionised air travel by making it cheaper and easier for people to fly. The Boeing 747, which is capable of carrying 660 passengers (in a single, cattle-class, configuration), is commonly referred to as the Queen Of The Skies and is beloved and revered by aviation enthusiasts all over the world, including me. It’s no surprise that the 747, with its unique and classic shape is one of the most iconic, popular, and most recognisable aircraft in aviation history.
How much do I love the B747? Let me tell you the ways. I own a clock, a truly magnificent work of art, made from an actual Boeing 747 passenger window. I love the fact that I have a little piece of flying history up on my wall. I love that instead of rusting away in some desolate scrapyard heap, part of this remarkable aircraft was salvaged and lovingly handcrafted into a beautiful timepiece. For over two decades, the window that my clock is made from travelled thousands of miles, at altitudes exceeding 40,000 feet. Its history no doubt contains tales of severe turbulence, strong winds, rain, freezing temperatures and possibly even lightning strikes. My B747 has traversed the globe countless times, crossing oceans and deserts, and possibly even poles. Her ports of call have included New York City, Miami, Cape Town, Singapore, San Francisco, Johannesburg and São Paulo (special shout out to all the aerosexuals out there who keep track of this sort of stuff).
Who knows how many passengers gazed out of my window, on their way to a holiday, a business conference or to start a brand new life. How many people looked through my window with wonder, how many with terror or sadness or with joy. How many of them had a little too much to drink out of too many miniature bottles of booze? Who was the youngest person to ever sit in my window seat? Who was the oldest? Oh, what stories my window could tell. How many hard landings did she have to endure, and how many landings did the pilot absolutely glue to the runway? Did my British Airways 747 ever experience a near miss? How many times did she have to divert due to a sick passenger, or an unruly one? How much drama and intrigue unfolded in the galley, long after the cabin lights had been dimmed? And exactly how many people were initiated into the mile high club? These are things I’ll never know, but it sure is fun to wonder. The things I do know about my window is that the registration of the aircraft it belonged to was GCIVM (that’s Golf Charlie India Victor Mike to the uninitiated). Her maiden flight was on Tuesday, 27th May 1997 and her final scheduled flight was 23 years later, with wheels touching down on Sunday, 15th March 2020.
Sadly, in July 2020 British Airways retired their entire fleet of 31 passenger Boeing 747s due to the sharp downturn in air travel hastened by covid. I received my clock seven months after my B747 was put out to pasture, thanks to two brothers in England who have combined their love of furniture-making and their passion for aviation to form a business called Plane Industries, repurposing old aircraft parts.
British Airways isn’t the only airline to stop flying the fuel guzzling, four-engine wide-body aircraft. Demand for the Queen Of The Skies has dwindled in recent years and two years ago Boeing regretfully announced that they planned to stop making the aircraft in October 2022. It will be a very sad day in aviation when the last Jumbo jet rolls off the production line, but I do feel some consolation that the B747s currently being used as freighters will remain in service, roaming the skies long after I ride the tower elevator down to the ground floor for the very last time.
How much do I love the B747? At the beginning of May, I got my very first tattoo in Amsterdam, at the ripe old age of fifty. The image is an outline of a Boeing 747 taking off, on the inside of my left wrist. Though it is beautiful, the aircraft doesn’t just appeal to me aesthetically. It also represents my work, which I love. It represents the job that totally changed my life and allowed me to pursue and indulge in my other passion, travel. It represents my wanderlust, and my desire to soar, and to keep seeking new experiences in far-flung places. It represents hope, and anticipation and joy.
You want to know how much I love the B747? My very first business class flight was in a Jumbo jet. I was travelling home from a trip to San Francisco in 2006 and the plane stopped over for about an hour in Sydney. When we re-boarded to fly the final leg to Melbourne I decided to shoot my shot and boldly asked if I could sit in business class, playing the old “I’m an air traffic controller” card. Don’t ask me how, but it actually worked!! The lovely cabin crew escorted me up that glorious stairway to heaven, also known as the upper-deck, business-class section, where for the next hour they plied me with champagne and treated me like a queen. Queen of the goddamn skies.
Dubai really is like no other city in the world. Check out this post-covid promotional video if you don’t believe me.
See, I told you! Looks amazing, right? Well, it actually is an amazing city, made even more remarkable by virtue of the fact that it has grown and developed out of nothing, in one of the least hospitable places on earth. That the country even exists at all is testament to the vision of Sheikh Zayed, beloved father of the UAE. And the city of Dubai, the shining star of all seven emirates, is evidence of the determination of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum to transform the emirate that he rules over into one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
In fact, Sheikh Mohammed has many ambitions. His most recent philanthropic campaign is a drive to provide one billion meals to needy people in 50 countries around the world. The Ramadan initiative, called “One Billion Meals”, aims to develop “long-term solutions to improve lives across the world, without any discrimination” by collecting donations from the public until enough money has been raised to provide the aforementioned billion meals to “women, children, refugees, displaced people and victims of disasters and crises”. A noble cause indeed. Unfortunately, the initiative does not include people living in the UAE, with the website explaining, “Charitable institutions and humanitarian associations within the country already engage in community campaigns and continuous projects that meet the needs of impoverished individuals and families in the UAE”. Wonderful.
Remember that video I showed you earlier? Every single building you see in that clip, every swimming pool, every harbour, fountain, iconic building, highway, resort, metro, island, amusement park, aquarium, hotel and mall was built by the hands of immigrant labourers, predominantly from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. It is through their blood, sweat and tears that this sparkly, shiny city was created and yet, for some reason, their faces are never represented in any marketing videos. They get no kudos, they receive no recognition and they are shunted out of the way to live in hot, dusty, squalid labour camps, several men cramped together in a single room, the overpowering smell of garbage inescapable. And that just really sucks because, despite being out of sight and out of mind, they are still here. They are real people. And they deserve a little bit of time and attention and kindness and respect, just like everybody else.
So I want to show you their faces here.
These are the men that the Sheikh doesn’t want to feed as part of his fancy One Billion Meals crusade because their needs are apparently already being met. Charity, it would appear, doesn’t necessarily begin at home. Or maybe feeding your own workers and providing them with better living conditions isn’t as strong a virtue signal to the world as a catchy slogan is (though in my humble opinion, it really would be). So this Ramadan, as we have done for the last nine years, David and I and some of our wonderful, generous friends set out to provide these unseen men with a delicious, filling Iftar meal to break their Ramadan fast.
I always get a kick out of being at these food handouts, witnessing the gratitude on the faces of the men, feeling the love that comes from giving to someone in need. And this year did not disappoint. This time though, there was a feeling in the air that was different. Normally we hand out the meals from the back of a van on the street, but this time the meals, packed up in boxes, had been placed inside one of the dormitories. That made it feel more intimate, and more personal. We were in their world now. It was also more chaotic than usual because guys from neighbouring labour camps had caught wind of the handout and swarmed the joint. It always feels really bad that we can’t feed every single person who needs a meal, but that’s life I guess. We were there to give food to the guys living in that particular dorm, and that was made a little tricky by the interlopers. Eventually we figured out a system in which a representative from each room would approach and tell us how many men he was cohabiting with (usually between six and nine) and he would then be given the correct number of bags, each containing some dates, a piece of fruit, a bottle of water, some laban and a hot, tasty biryani. That system seemed to work out OK.
David and I stuck around after the food was gone because I wanted to take some more photos. With the other volunteers no longer with us, we felt a little out of place, like we didn’t belong. But I was never afraid. On our way out, a few of the guys approached us and asked David and me if they could take selfies with us. Of course we agreed, and before long we were surrounded by a throng of young men, taking photos, as if we were movie stars. This was the first time we’ve ever personally interacted with the men we’ve given the Iftar meals to, and it was wonderful. I hope to do it again next time, as it really made my day.
Our campaign to feed 2000 men was a drop in the ocean compared to the billion meals that the Sheikh wants to donate in his name, but for me what made this year so special were the fleeting human connections I made with those men. I had the opportunity to chat to a few of the guys, and I made an effort to look as many of them as I could in the eye. I got the chance to see them. As people. I smiled at a lot of them, and received many smiles in return. And it was these beautiful smiles that truly uplifted me on that day. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has been quoted as saying “Even a smile is charity.” And if that is the case, then it was I who was enriched by the experience. Because I walked out of that camp absolutely elated and exhilarated, walking on air. I wonder if Sheikh Mohammed knows the feeling.
My Mum died three years ago. Saying it out loud anchors that awful event in time, crystallising exactly how long ago it happened. About a year afterwards, a certain pesky virus barge-assed its way onto the world stage, rudely grabbing time by the balls, warping and skewing it, and rendering us all collectively stranded in temporal limbo. Multiple lockdowns, bans on travel, social restrictions and endless zoom meetings all served to smudge the days together, leaving us few memory milestones with which to mark time. My Mum’s death is a pretty major milestone. And yet, because of the pandemic, I find it difficult to reconcile the time that has passed since she died with everything that has occurred since.
But there are so many stories about my Mum that you don’t know. Stories of little nothings, stories of things that left a mark. Funny stories, sad stories, weird stories. When someone you love dies, your relationship stops being dynamic. No new memories are created with them, and what you’re left with is just a series of static snapshots from the past. And it’s all too easy to fall into a pattern of remembering the same curated catalogue of memories, which can then actually become your entire memory of them. I don’t want that to happen with my Mum. I want to remember as much real detail about her as I can. And so I’m reaching into the past, beyond the inadequate narrative that has already started forming. I’m reaching back into the history I shared with my family, into the day to day stories that may have felt inconsequential at the time, but which have become precious pearls to be salvaged from the past. Stories that would otherwise be in danger of fading from memory. And I would like to share a few of them here, for posterity. So that a fuller, and more colourful and textured version of my Mum can live on in the world. Even after I’m gone. These aren’t necessarily true versions of events that happened, but rather just my personal, fallible memories. And like I said, they’re only snapshots, marred by time. But these memories are my truth. And they are all that I have left.
So, this is some of what remains.
The time I dropped my bag in the middle of a busy K-mart, frozen as I watched what somehow seemed like a million tampons slowly spill out and dramatically roll across the department store floor in every direction. Wishing for the ground to open up and swallow me. Hoping, beyond hope, that no-one had seen it. Which is exactly the point at which my Mum started bellowing with laughter, bringing everyone’s attention to the errant tampons, pointing at each one as I awkwardly ran around trying to collect them all. Why Mum, why??
Or the time I fucked around with a faulty bedside lamp when I was six years old and copped a mild electric shock which threw me to the floor. Mum ran in, naked from the shower, yelling at me, while also lovingly sweeping me up in her arms to give me a comforting cuddle. And the time I was seven years old and decided to visit the lovely old lady over the fence, kind of forgetting to tell anyone, precipitating a missing persons call to the police and a neighbourhood search party. While Mum was frantic with worry, I was learning how to play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on the piano, leafing through old encyclopaedias and chatting with “Granny” over tea and biscuits. When a policeman eventually reunited me with Mum she enveloped me in a tight embrace, tears cascading down her face. She squeezed me so hard, and then flipped me around and smacked me just as hard on my bewildered, embarrassed butt. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. But I felt the love.
Burning up with a fever of 41º when I was eight years old, I remember my Mum on the phone to the doctor, carefully writing down his instructions to fill the bathtub with cold water and ice-cubes, and to plunge me into the tub every 20 minutes until my temperature dropped. We both cried as she talked me through it, her hand gently on my chest to keep me calm in my delirium.
Mum rebelliously sneaking a McDonald’s cheeseburger into the hospital when I was recovering from ear surgery when I was fifteen. I greedily scarfed the burger, basking in the glow of our conspiratorial secret. And then I threw up, everywhere. The nurses were not impressed with me, or Mum.
One night when I was a baby and Mum was heavily pregnant with my sister Mary, she heard a noise in the backyard and called the police. Dad was on the road, trucking interstate and she was always so anxious and scared when he was gone. When the cops arrived, they took one look at the bear trap she’d set up outside the back door (oh yes, I did say bear trap), turned to her incredulously and said, “Uhhh no, lady! Nooooo!!” adding that she’d be the one in trouble if a burglar was injured by the trap. She didn’t quite understand what the problem was, but she promised she wouldn’t use it again.
I’ll never forget the feeling of drama and excitement the day Mum won $1000 on a scratchie ticket. She made a grand entrance through the front door of our Elwood flat with an enormous smile on her face and four brand new, big, puffy doonas stuffed under her arms. Being relatively poor at the time, a feather duvet was the epitome of posh luxury. As a ten year old, I remember thinking, wow, so this is what it feels like to be rich!
When I was transferred to the country town of Albury/Wodonga for work a few months after my Dad died, Mum decided to come with me for the first couple of weeks to keep me company and help me settle in. We developed a routine, including daily walks along the Murray river where she taught me which wild grasses were edible, and which ones to avoid. We’d cut them out of the ground with my crappy Swiss army knife, and carry them home in a plastic shopping bag to cook and eat them together, savouring the quiet comfort of each other’s company. We didn’t have to say the words but we were both desperately missing my father.
My Mum was the most accommodating person I’ve ever known. But she developed a dramatic flair for stubbornness in her later years. On our way home from that trip to Wodonga, tension started running a little high. After nearly three hours on the road, we’d just reached outer Melbourne in peak hour traffic and it was pissing down with rain. We got into a “disagreement” about the cause of my father’s lung cancer. Red flag territory. We were waiting for a traffic light to turn green, and I demanded that she admit that Dad’s history of smoking had to have contributed to his illness. She obstinately refused, citing his work with asbestos and other toxic chemicals as the main cause. Tempers flared and I insisted, declaring that I wasn’t going to continue driving until she admitted she was wrong. Obnoxiously, I pulled on the handbrake and turned the engine off for emphasis. We were parked, baby. At a busy highway intersection. In rush hour. In the rain. I knew she would be uncomfortable with this, but, unexpectedly, my mother wouldn’t budge. The light turned green and the cars behind me started going crazy, honking and beeping. My windshield wipers were no competition for the rain bucketing down in sheets, and the windows were fogging up from all the hot air in the car. I desperately wanted to prove my point but I was also starting to freak out. This wasn’t the way I had expected my little stunt to go. Cars started driving around us as we continued shouting at each other. Me shouting at her to please, please, please just admit it so that we could go. Beseeching her. And her shouting at me that she would do no such thing. Stoic. Defiant. She parked herself in the passenger seat with her arms crossed and a stony look in her eye that I’d never seen before. In the end I caved, releasing the handbrake and turning the car back on in defeat, inching forward towards the traffic lights that had cycled back to red. We sat in heavy silence for a minute, and then looked at each other and burst into laughter, falling into each other’s arms. Discovering this stubborn streak in my mother shocked, and (I’m not gonna lie) impressed, the hell out of me.
As you might be able to tell, I didn’t always have an easy relationship with my mother, and that was especially true during my adolescence. Between the ages of 15 to 23, I was an insufferable asshole to every single person in my family. When I was 18, Mum spent three months in Greece after her father died. I remember the day she came back. Mary and Pieta were jumping up and down with joy when Mum walked in the door, while I hung back, wearing “trendy” new clothes, heavy eyeliner and a big, fat attitude on my face. Too cool for fucking school. I know that my icy reception must have hurt her, but at the time I didn’t give a shit. Memories like this bring me a great deal of pain, but they still deserve to be remembered, just as much as the good memories do, because they are part of the deep and complex relationship I had with my mother.
I remember Mum’s beautiful singing voice. When she was young, she harboured a secret desire to be a professional singer, and she worshipped the popular Greek musician Marinella, closely following her career for decades. Whenever my Mum broke out in song, she would get a faraway look in her eyes. I don’t know where she went, but she owned the world when she sang. To my untrained ear, my Mum sounded just like her idol and now, whenever I listen to her favourite Marinella tracks, I get shivers. All I can hear is my mother’s voice.
Spending time in the garden with Mum during our more recent visits back home, I was pleasantly surprised to see how popular she was in the neighbourhood. All day long, people would drop by, or stop to have a chat. I had been concerned (from afar) that she was becoming too reclusive, so it helped me to worry less about her, knowing that she had a strong network of friends to keep her from getting too lonely. When Mary, Pieta and I were living at the house after Mum died, we had to tell the postman that Mum had passed away. The man handed us our packages and cried on the doorstep.
There are many memories of Mum intently leafing through the pages of a book of dreams when I was 9, 13, 17, 31 explaining to me that the snake I’d dreamt about represented something to be wary of, perhaps a person who didn’t have my best intentions in mind. Or telling Pieta that her dream of losing a tooth meant that she needed to be careful about losing something important in her life. I never really believed in these things, but I did enjoy being entertained by the mystical spirituality of it all. And I respected my Mum’s belief and conviction in the symbolism. She was also passionately interested in fortune telling, numerology and astrology. Perhaps because she wanted to believe that life could be influenced by things greater than us. That there was a chance that things could always get better, despite the odds.
The infamous and shocking morning that Judy, a family friend staying at our holiday house, brushed her teeth and notoriously spat it out in the kitchen sink, casual as you’d like. Mum nearly fell on the floor, absolutely apoplectic in disgust and horror. The incident became folklore in our family and we talked about Judy’s unforgiveable crime for years, long after we lost touch with her.
I have so many memories of my Mum’s vivacious smile from every time David and I arrived at her house in a taxi from the airport, suitcases in tow. The excitement and joy in her heart so easily expressed in her big, beautiful smile is forever etched in my memory and in my heart. Twelve times in eleven years I saw that look on her face. The flip side was how sad and deflated she would become on the day we had to leave Melbourne to return to Dubai. We’d be watching TV, waiting for our ride to the airport and I’d glance over and see Mum looking at me, quietly soaking me in, with her doleful brown eyes. Clutching onto her unspoken wishes that we could just stay, forever. I’d go and sit next to her, holding her in my arms, squeezing her hand tightly, my heart burdened with sadness and guilt. It never got any easier.
I’ll never forget the messages that Mum and I exchanged the day before she died. I was burning the candle at both ends in Tbilisi and WhatsApped her to conceitedly complain that I was suffering from a migraine headache. She was worried about me. Even though she was in a great deal of pain, her primary concern was the wellbeing of her daughter. I remember that so clearly. And I also remember her telling me about the change in Melbourne weather. She told me that she was cold. And a few hours later she was dead.
In the months after my Mum’s death, crushed by the weight of my grief, I struggled to remember our last day together, or the final time we said goodbye. Can you even imagine? I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen my mother alive. All the farewells we’d shared over the years melded into a blurry melancholic montage, and I couldn’t pinpoint that one single very important moment. Over the last three years I believe I’ve accurately recreated it with the help of David and my sisters, and the messages that were sent on the family WhatsApp group that day. But I’m still not really sure. That’s the problem with death, and it’s the problem with goodbyes. Every single time you say goodbye, could be the last time. You never know which moment is going to turn from just another everyday interaction into one of the most important moments of your life.