I Spent My 40th Sleeping Alone in an Airport—and It Was My Best Birthday Yet

Sara Stillman Berger
Photo credit: Getty Images/Temi Oyelola

From Oprah Magazine

It’s cold and bright. I wonder if this is what it’s like in prison at night. Do they ever turn the lights off? And the noise - the buzzing of fluorescent bulbs, the beeping of janitors’ carts heavy with economy-sized disinfectant, the metallic “crunk-crunk” of ladders being hoisted, and the timed loop of announcements: “There is no parking on the upper deck. All cars will be subject to towing…” Every 20 minutes, I wonder: Are there other people stuck here like me? And if so, if their cars are parked on the upper deck...wouldn’t they just leave this place?


I reposition my lightweight down jacket, now doubling as a blanket covering my shins and my torso-which is possible because I’m curled in the fetal position. Maybe the floor would be more comfortable? But comfort is the least of my problems here: I despise airport germs.

Obviously, I didn’t plan on sleeping in the airport for my 40th birthday weekend. I’m supposed to be celebrating the big 4-0 in Arizona with five of my best childhood girlfriends at Miraval, a spa in Arizona that costs more per day than any other trip I’ve ever indulged in. (And one that Oprah and Gayle famously visited on The Oprah Winfrey Show back in 2007.) But instead of landing for a weekend of relaxing bliss, my plane was delayed while in the air, I missed my connection, and now I’m sleeping in the airport alone while icy rain pours down in sheets against the floor-to-ceiling windows.

Photo credit: Sara Stillman Berger

I turned 40 two months ago. It’s a big number because it means - no matter who you ask - that I’m now officially a “grown-up.” Even when I was 39, I had older friends that would look at me and say, “Aw you’re still a baby!” when I’d mention a surprise gray hair or unwelcome wrinkle. But now that I’m forty, the baby “awww’s” have stopped.

Forty-year-olds are supposed to be confident, capable, and experienced problem solvers. Which means missing a connecting flight should be no big deal for a smart, adult woman like me. But the thing is, I haven’t travelled alone in more years than there are gray hairs on my head (about six). I’m always with my husband, and the success of our ten year marriage has had a lot to do with teamwork.

I’m good at things like planning my kids’ after-school activities, getting a week’s worth of groceries in under a half hour, and making sure we never run out of toilet paper. My husband’s contribution to the team, meanwhile, has always been to plan our travel: I often joke that he is my Tucan Sam , the trusty Fruit Loop mascot who says to “follow your nose!” He’s swift and adept and can navigate any airport like a bomb sniffing dog. And I’m not sure what my nose knows without him.

“Missed my connection!!!” I texted him in a panic when the plane landed in Chicago, where I was supposed to be meeting my girlfriend for our connecting flight to Tucson, Arizona.

“No way!” my husband responded from New York, 790 miles away. Ding! Ding! Ding! Went the text messages on my phone while I frantically de-boarded. My Tucan was already searching alternative routes so that when I talked to the gate agent, I could say, “Well, my husband says there’s a flight to Dallas tonight that connects to Tucson.” And the agent could look at me and my “imaginary” husband and pretend I’m not crazy while he says, “Let me check on that.”

At first, every time a text shook my phone, I felt comforted. But the more my husband tried to help me, the more conflicted I became. My emotions vacillated between “Doesn’t he trust I can figure this out?” And “Holy shit, how am I going to figure this out?” After all, I already knew that the flight I missed was the last one that evening from O’Hare to Tucson.

Not only did I want to be with my friends flying the friendly skies together, but I also did not want to miss a minute of my much-anticipated vacation. And more than that, I did not want to be stuck at the airport...alone. Already, I could see the stores pulling down their metal grates and closing up for the night. I imagined myself wandering the empty halls like Tom Hanks in that movie “Terminal” and felt a kind of nauseousness wash over me that even Dramamine couldn’t fix.

Driven by adrenaline and fear, I searched the floor for a friendly-looking gate agent. When I found him, I did my best impression of a 40-year-old woman, willing the lump in my throat not to erupt into a thousand frustrated tears. “My flight was delayed in the air. I missed my connection,” I told him between gulps. “I need to get to Tucson on the first flight out, please.” He proceeded to search the computer for nearly hour , his face changing from hopeful to disappointed every five minutes. “Here we go!” he’d say. And then: “Oh wait, it’s full.”

All the while, I kept silencing my husband’s calls. He was starting to stress me out even more. He knew I was talking to an agent. Didn’t he have confidence in me? I understood his desire to help, but as much as he wanted to solve this problem-and as much as a part of me wanted him to solve it for me-I knew that I was on my own.

Finally, I called him back. “There’s a flight out to Phoenix at 5 am that I’m going to try to catch on standby , and then I’ll just take an Uber two hours from there.” I stated matter-of-factly.

Photo credit: Sara Stillman Berger

“Did they at least give you a hotel voucher?” my husband asked.

“Yes…” I said, proud that I did something right. “…But I’m going to sleep at the airport.”

This detail threw him into a tailspin. “It’s not safe!” He argued angrily. “Just get a bed!” He begged. “Go to the hotel now!”

Then, finally: “You’re being stupid,” when he realized he couldn’t convince me and he couldn’t protect me and he couldn’t fix it for me. And so, despite his vehement opposition, I stuck with my decision.

By now, I was supposed to be drinking celebratory mini birthday bottles of screw top wine in my upgraded-leg-space-seat. Instead, I found an airport bar just as it was about to close, where the sympathetic bartender gave me Sauvignon Blanc in a plastic to-go cup, complete with a lid and a straw.

I settled into terminal B7 , not far from the food court. And that’s why I’m now curled into a ball, on this tiny chair, sipping wine through a straw, listening to the rain and the ebbing whir of the nearby industrial vacuum working the carpet. It turns out that the airport is like a little city within itself. With the constant noises and the 24 hour McDonalds and the TVs that are always on, it never really sleeps. And neither did I.

At this point, I would now likely be waking up to see the mountains, drink a green juice, and do a vinyasa flow. Instead, I got an Egg McMuffin and went to the airport bathroom to brush my teeth.

As planned, I was the first person on the standby list at 4:15 am. However, not as planned - there was no seat for me on the flight. When the last person checked in - without a minute to spare - the gate agent looked at me and shook her head. I felt the now-familiar well of panic tears.

Photo credit: Sara Berger

In the end, I did make it to Arizona. (Did you ever doubt me? I’m a smart, capable, 40-year-old woman, after all!) I finally stepped foot into Miraval at 3 P.M., a day later than planned. I met my friends on their way into a Body Shred class, them in their adorable Lululemon tanks, me in the same hooded sweatshirt and leggings I’d been wearing for the past 48 hours. “So?” I asked after I embraced them, feeling at last the exhausting relief that I had actually arrived. “What have you guys been doing?”

“We did a trust exercise this morning,” one friend said while the others nodded in excitement. “We each had a partner and had to support each other while we walked across a cable 30 feet in the air.”

“It was scary,” said another friend. “But fun.”

“Oh, cool!” I replied. Inside, of course, I was completely disappointed to have missed the experience. As they went on to their exercise class, I found my way to the juice bar and ordered some warm bone broth, which the barista gave to me in a to-go cup with a lid.

As I took a sip of the healing liquid, sitting on a pillowed outdoor bench with a view of the red, snow-capped mountains, I thought back on my journey and realized I actually didn’t miss a thing. It turns out I did a trust exercise, too-with myself. And I’d agree: It was scary. But fun.

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