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Airport security thought my mother's ashes were a bomb

EMILY FLAKE/The Globe and Mail

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One bag has the security guy flummoxed. He stops everything and is peering closely at the screen. It is – I swear – Sept. 11, the eighth anniversary of the deed, and though it is after 9 p.m., the staff at Los Angeles airport know they haven't pitched a shutout until midnight.

The conveyor belt comes to a rest. My flight to Toronto leaves in under 40 minutes.

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He stares and stares, and when his staring doesn't solve the puzzle, he does something funky with the screen, highlighting a specific quality of the contents – maybe the metal? He seems concerned with what looks like a box half-filled with a black brick. Though it's not as tidy as a brick, more like … clay? Putty? Gun powder?

I realize at this point that there's a distinct possibility it's my bag he's staring at, but I'm a little afraid to say anything.

He shouts "Supervisor!" which does nothing to defuse the tension. A handsome Will Smith-type arrives on the scene and listens as his subordinate explains. Fingers trace lines on the screen. After some hushed deliberation, they agree to inspect the bag by hand. As it rolls out, the supervisor grabs my Le Sportsac, looks me in the eye and asks, "This yours?"

I lean forward and half-whisper: "It's my mother's remains."

Something in his eyes changes and I realize he's dealt with this before. In an instant, comprehension, relief, pity all flicker on his face, quickly glazed over by a stern professionalism. But now that the bomb could very well be someone's mom, I feel him reaching for the space between suspicion and compassion.

He brings the red bag, me, and the original X-ray guy over to where they check passengers' computers for abnormalities by wiping them with a weird swipey thing – a swatch of white material no bigger than four postage stamps. Will Smith swipes my red bag very carefully, trying to pick up the iron filings or lead dust or radioactive substances I used to make my bomb this afternoon.

I am embarrassed because my dinner is sitting atop my mom. She wouldn't mind at all, but I realize it looks a little dodgy to anyone with normal respect for the dead. Under the Tupperware container she lies, with her name, age and date of death written on a brass plaque welded to the wooden box that contains her.

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As the official inspects the mini-casket itself, his movements become hypnotically deliberate. The airport is bustling, but for the three of us everything stops as we fix our attention on the swipey thing.

They want to take her out of the bag and run her through the machine again. Though I would never refuse, and Mom wouldn't object – she was a nice Canadian and never rude – it's not as if I really can. If I say no, I presume they will flip the box, yell for a screwdriver and open her up right here – bits of Mom wafting up into their nostrils. Would they shake her first? Hold the box to their ears? Would parts of her be spilled and picked up by the sneakers of travellers, who would transport her all over the world tonight? Not so bad. She loved to travel.

"We're going to put some coins underneath the box to make sure we can see all the way through it," explains the supervisor. He is being very solicitous to me, which I find heartbreaking. I haven't had a "my mother died" crying jag in quite a while, and his humanity stirs me. It makes me think: Whom has he lost? Under what circumstances? How many rivers of pain run through his life? His eyes have gone from guarded to warm. "That's fine," I say.

As the younger inspector places my mother in her own white plastic tub, he moves with a strange mixture of respect and anxiety. Mom, in the box, in the tub, gets passed to the opening of the X-ray conveyer belt, where hushed explanations take place. There is a solemnity among the people in the know that makes me want to cry. I am sad not just because she is dead – that has become a reality – but because these perfect strangers have taken my life, and its little tragedies, and are holding it in their hands with an unexpected tenderness. As if, in this moment, we are not individual people, but all the love we have given and received in our lives.

They see the coins. Thank God. My dinner gets re-zapped and comes through right behind her. A third man, clearly a superior to everyone because he wears a suit rather than a uniform, asks "would you like to go back to that area?" as he points to the swipey enclosure. I guess he's not entirely sure how to say "and put your mom back in the bag," or "so we don't freak everyone out," or "I lost my mother, too, and I love you right now."

He escorts me back to the inspection station. "It's nice and flat here," he says, placing his palm delicately on the metal table. I remove all the debris from the bag and wipe it out a bit. The reverence of these strangers has rubbed off on me. I place Mom carefully in the red bag and lift the handles to enshroud her in Le Sportsac's classic parachute material.

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Carry-on intact, I exit my little area and walk past the uber-supervisor. He is definitely old enough to have lost his mother, even a friend or two.

"Thank you," I say, holding his gaze for a moment. He nods. I mount the escalator and a lump finally arrives in my throat.

Jessica Porter lives in Los Angeles.

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