The Edmonton International Airport was opened in 1960, two years before JFK Airport’s TWA Terminal. My American mother, my German stepfather, and my German-born American citizen brother and I moved from Konstanz, Germany, (by way of Eugene, Oregon) to Edmonton in 1991, our permanent resident landing cards sticking out of our American passports. (My stepfather became a US citizen around 1990, a move which required him to revoke his German citizenship; the Canadians are more understanding of dual citizenry.) After that initial arrival, we flew to Germany every year to visit my stepfather’s family, always out of Edmonton International Airport. To me, the airport felt massive and crowded, featuring spotless white floors and high ceilings. I recall that we took direct flights, but Wikipedia tells me that there weren’t any from Edmonton to Frankfurt.
The Edmonton International Airport (YEG) is located about 25 minutes southwest of Edmonton. The drive is flat and feels longer than it is. The city edges itself out of existence, gradually. It’s dense, urban, and then it flattens, becomes a row of slightly less dense urban compositions, then anodyne shopping centers, then a sense of the mass of the city dispersing, disappearing, then flat flat flat prairie, then the airport.
Earlier this year, I was in Tulum with my friend Chani Lisbon. She is a comedian who was then between jobs; I’ve been between jobs since I graduated college 15 years ago. We both needed a break, and flights out of New York were short and relatively cheap. The first night, I went to sleep and then I woke up in the middle of the night anxious about an email exchange with a client. I calmed myself by putting my hand on my chest and remembering that day in the hospital after I almost died where I’d promised myself never to equate my self-worth with work again. And I had the thought, and very explicitly, that I needed to remember what was important. And that was life. And love.
The next morning Chani planned to meditate and she went outside while I stayed inside to catch up on work emails when a message from my brother arrived saying that my stepfather was in the University of Alberta Hospital having just had nine pints of blood transfused. Right around the time that I was waking up and putting my hand on my chest and reminding myself that work isn’t everything, that I once almost died, my father was being given nine pints of strangers’ blood to save his life.
Chani came in to see me trying to catch my breath. “I just knew I should come in,” she said. I’d told her to leave me alone for twenty minutes while I read my email in silence, but she’d just known. “I need to go,” I told her. She wasn’t sure. Wasn’t he okay? Maybe, but he was alone. I didn’t want him to be alone. I’d learned how awful it is to be alone. She suggested we pause and meditate. We did. I still wanted to go.
Cancun is the ninth top destination from the Edmonton International Airport, a Canadian WestJet hub. That’s why I was able to find a same-day flight for $200. I left Chani, who said she’d be fine. I drove up the Mexican highway to Cancun, tried to force myself to eat a taco. I cried at the Cancun airport. I cried getting on the plane. I didn’t cry when I saw a line of Canadians waiting to get on the flight. I wondered why there was a direct flight from Cancun to Edmonton, of all places, and then I recalled my childhood of Canadian winters, where we wore snowsuits for six months of the year. February in Edmonton was piles of snow covered in a layer of exhaust. Everything was grey and brown and felt dead. Warmth was impossible to remember. Of course there was a direct flight to Cancun.
In 1998, the Edmonton International Airport underwent a massive expansion, and now it feels big and clean and nice and good, the way it felt when I was younger, but this time the spaciousness is real, not just imagined. That’s good, because for a while it felt small and shrinking and like everything was ending.
“Death comes for us all,” I said to the border agent when I crossed in, when he asked me why I was there, and I said to care for a sick parent. A new hotel, which looks like someone tried to look at something Zaha Hadid had once designed and then decided to scrap, opened a few years ago. A lot of money flowed into Edmonton a few years ago. Something about the Alberta tar sands. My sister, my stepfather’s stepdaughter from another marriage, worked as an EMT on the tar sands. The tar sands explained why the Hardware Grill in downtown Edmonton could charge more than C$50 for an Alberta angus steak. My mother thinks it explains why my stepfather was in remission from bladder cancer only to be diagnosed with stage IV leukemia. He needed so much blood because his bone marrow was almost entirely leukemia.
The Edmonton International Airport is a gateway. For a while, Edmonton was seen as the gateway to the north, specifically to Yukon, which was home to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896. Calgary, our neighbor to the south, is the Dallas to our Houston. It’s bigger and flashier and there’s more money and there’s a famous stampede and in the mid-90s our premier, who should have lived in the capital, Edmonton, lived in Calgary, which was the biggest scandal to befall our political system at the time. Edmonton was more of a border place. It was always in between. I used to tell people that I grew up in the northernmost highly populated city in Canada. There was something to its isolation, even as it marked a border.
Other than that, the airport feels anodyne. The floors are linoleum. The colors, I think, are a sort of greenish blue. There are long walkways from the terminals to the entrance. It is one of those airports that lets you enter the United States before you geographically enter the United States. You pass through customs and then there’s a sign that says, “Welcome to the United States.” You’re still in Canada but you’re also in the United States. Canadians always refer to the US as “the States,” which I love, because it reminds me that saying “America” when you mean the US is short-sighted. The Canadians don’t want to be Americans. The Americans, often, long to be Canadians. To Germans, my family were always the “Amerikaner aus Kanada” (the Americans from Canada).
I feel like I’m home when I land in Germany; when I come out of the subway station at 34th Street Herald Square in New York; when I check in to the Sedona Rouge Hotel & Spa in Sedona, Arizona. And yet there is this airport, in the middle of the vast country in which I spent so much of my life growing up, and within it is a piece of the US and within it is also a piece of all of my memories, and the complexity of my family, and the way in which we feel that we have all transcended blood and its borders, and the way in which my stepfather is my father even though I have another father. The Edmonton International Airport reminds me that everything is always coming and going, that I can never see anything clearly or accurately, that I never understand the scale or size of events as they are happening, and yet that family is produced through landing cards and airplane flights as much as through blood and chromosomes. It reminds me that death comes for us all, but it isn’t here yet.
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Eva Hagberg Fisher