I skipped out on my week 3 writing prompt for the IndieInk Challenge because I needed a little break from the blogosphere. However, I promised Maren that I would write a response to her prompt. And now I have. Sorry it is so late. Here is what she wanted:
You meet someone on a plane. Over the course of the plane trip, you become very close (but not in a sexual way!). Why? What happened?
There were one hundred other passengers waiting to board the flight from Lambert St. Louis to Tampa, yet I was alone. While they looked out the window at a plane that represented freedom on their spring break, I looked out at what symbolized one of the worst trips of my life. They were vacationing; I was going to visit my dying grandmother. And it would probably be one of the last times I would see her. Luckily I had pre-registered for my ticket, which meant that most of the other fliers were behind me. It was easy to ignore their laughter.
I grabbed a seat near the front of the plane: the back made my stomach queasy and the middle was 10 rows away from every person. Anyone could see me if I sat in the middle. I didn’t want to be that close to anyone. Not today. Granny was dying, my three-year relationship was failing, and these motherfuckers were wearing Mickey Mouse ears on a flight to Tampa.
My only luggage was stowed away in the carry-on compartment. Packing was exhausting and, quite frankly, there were much bigger things on my mind than making sure I didn’t wear the same outfit twice.
While I waited for the rest of the passengers to board the plane, I thought about how cancer affects the senses. I wondered what it tasted like. I wondered what it felt like. I wondered if, when I held her hand, I would be able to feel the cells that were killing her. And while I sat inside of my head, thinking about how awful my Granny must be feeling, a hand reached out and grazed my shoulder.
Excuse me, sweetie. Is anyone sitting in that seat next to you?
“No, ma’am. But nobody is sitting in the aisle seat either.”
Oh that’s alright, darling. I like sitting between people. It’s not every day I get to be around this many. I like sitting in the middle.
I was back inside my head before she finished hinting at loneliness. She smelled like baby powder and Estee Lauder, and her voice was far too kind for me to reply with anything less than adoration. But I was hurting. I was mad. How, while dying inside, could I respond to her with the same sweetness? And how, on a flight when I wanted to be left alone, did I get stuck next to the one person who wanted to hear my voice?
“There aren’t many people who prefer to sit in the middle seat, ma’am. I guess pre-boarding isn’t something you worry about.”
Even early in the conversation I found it exhausting. I was trying to be respectful, but she clearly didn’t understand what I was dealing with.
“Oh no, honey. Life’s too short to be rushing around, trying to be the first in line for everything. The view is just as nice from the back of the line. I get to watch everyone else before entering. I saw you. You looked lonely. I thought I’d sit next to you. I’m lonely too.”
“How can a conversationalist like you be lonely? You had no qualms starting a conversation with a perfect stranger.”
My response was guarded. But I was hoping she would take the hint and let me sit in peace. I needed time to harness my emotions. Granny couldn’t see me upset. Not on our last trip together. We were going to celebrate her life. I needed to internalize everything before I got there. This woman, clearly, was not going to allow me to do that.
“You look like my granddaughter. She is just your size. And she has that same smile. I haven’t seen her in 10 years. I thought, maybe, sitting next to you would help me remember her.”
I honestly didn’t know what to say. So I didn’t say anything.
I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable, sweetie. I miss Amelia. That’s her name, my granddaughter. Her mother and my husband had a falling out all those years ago, so we never got to see her. Even after my husband passed, my daughter wouldn’t come visit. It’s nice to see someone who reminds you of another person you’ve been missing. That’s all. I came to St. Louis to see if I could find her. She’s in college now. I was hoping…but, well, no luck.
I could see the pain in her eyes. It mirrored the same pain I was feeling. I felt bad for the woman. I wondered what it would have been like to be taken away from my Granny. And, suddenly, the pain inside of me grew a bit. While I was sitting next to her suffering because I was about to lose my grandma, she was sitting beside me suffering because she had lost her granddaughter ten years earlier.
“I’m really sorry you didn’t find Amelia, ma’am. I’m really, really sorry.”
Tears started pouring down my face. It was unexpected and exactly what I needed. The emotion I wanted to hide from Granny was now being released. I had three hours before I needed to appear strong. Perhaps the swelling around my eyes would shrink by then.
Don’t cry for me, dear. We all make life choices. Some hurt. Some heal. It’s what we do afterward that makes us grow. I could have reached out sooner but I didn’t. That’s my fault. Some days it’s hard and others I still smile. Today I smiled. Even though you aren’t really Amelia, I believe you were put on this plane for a reason.
Well, I begged to see her. I prayed and cried. Today was my last day in town and I couldn’t find her. That’s alright though. I felt really sad about it. And then I saw you boarding the plane. It was like a little sign from above, telling me that maybe she’s out there, boarding her own plane, living a life she loves. And that thought made my whole trip better.
It was on that day in 2005 that I realized that my pain was no different from the pain of others. We all hurt. We all suffer. It’s how we do it that matters. It’s okay to have baggage, but if you let it hold you back, if you aren’t strong enough to carry it with you, you’ll never learn anything from it.
I never got the name of the woman sitting next to me. But I did tell her my story. And when the plane landed in Tampa that evening, she walked with me through the terminal to baggage claim, where she met my Granny. And she told her how kind I was to talk to her the entire trip. She said it was refreshing. She said I was kind.
My Granny believed her.
If I hadn’t sat next to this woman on the plane, who knows if I would have been ready to face the rest of the week in Florida. My grandma and I walked hand-in-hand down the beach one evening. During that time I told her how thankful I was for her. Every word was powerful and heartfelt. Each of them released the pain from my heart.
For many weeks before my trip I was angry that she and I had to go through this. It wasn’t until I met the woman on the plane that I realized it could be much worse. I got to spend 21 years with my grandma. Amelia did not.