I heard on a radio show that there’s this strange phenomenon some people experience when they fly in a plane. They get extremely emotional and even the most stoic travelers struggle to hold back tears when they watch cheesy in-flight movies – even commercials about overwrought expats who’ve lost their credit card send these people over the emotional edge.

I can relate to that.

Whenever I leave my parents’ house after a weekend visit, something overcomes me. I can’t ignore the crushing guilt and anxiety I feel. I can barely get to the freeway onramp without crying just a little. The thought behind this, the one that hits me the second I pull out of the driveway is: I could have been better.

I could have stayed longer and kept their company for a few more hours. I could have sat in the family room and watched TV with them instead of hiding in my room. I could have gone out to dinner with them instead of succumbing to my discomfort and taking off as quickly as possible. I could have resisted the urge to talk back to my dad for a relatively innocuous comment he made. I could have said “thank you” for washing my car – something he does every time I visit without fail. I could have told my mom how beautiful I think she is – something she probably stopped hearing decades ago. I could have let down my many, many walls of defense and had an actual conversation. I could have been nice. 

Here are the things I wish I could say to them: Thank you. For everything. Thanks for making the crazy journey to come to this country so their kids – who weren’t even born yet – could have the best opportunities in life. Thank you for teaching us to be hardworking, intelligent, confident, and funny people. Thank you for finally letting me decide my own future, as much as they wish that I’d chosen a different path. Most of all, I wish I could say “I love you” because maybe that would cover everything. And this is what keeps me up at night: That I can’t say these things. That my parents might leave this earth never hearing the gratitude that should be sung from the mountains into eternity. That there could exist a world without them.

Eventually I fall asleep. Flights land, cars pull up to homes-away-from-home, and life goes on. Tears dry and I breathe.