It was July 21st, 2013, one of the highest traveling months of the year. The male airline employee at the gate was tall and gray-haired. I was flying stand-by.
“Is there any way I could find out where I’m at on the stand-by list?” I asked. (I checked an hour earlier and a female airline employee told me there were thirteen stand-by seats available. It looked hopeful.)
“I’m sorry. I won’t know for sure until fifteen minutes before departure.” He said. I looked at my phone. That was in about five minutes.
A few minutes later he called a woman I recognized up to the gate. She and I were a part of about ten people flying stand-by and unable to get on an earlier flights that morning to Chicago’s Midway airport. The first one of the day was cancelled and its passengers rolled over into subsequent flights.
I lugged my carry-on to security at 7:10 AM and arrived at the gate twenty minutes later. (Getting time stamped at the gate is a big deal if you are flying stand-by. It establishes your “place in line”.)
I lost count of the number of flights I tried to get on over the course of seven and a half hours. At every gate I saw the same people dragging their carry-on and shuffling into line in front of and behind me.
Amid the “who’s next in line” kerfuffle (and earlier in the day) I chatted with the woman just awarded the golden stand-by ticket. She mentioned her check-in time had been 7:45AM, fifteen minutes after mine. That meant, wait, why was she getting on before me?
After she gleefully bounced into line and onto the plane, I walked up to the counter, up to the gray-haired man (slightly less despondent than the five previous counter employees that had delivered “No room for you!” news) and asked him why she (the golden ticket lady) was able to get on when my time-stamp was fifteen minutes earlier than hers.
He numbly apologized with glossed over eyes and told me there was nothing he could do about it. He said, “Stand-by employees are first, then relatives of employees, then friends.” I was a friend of an employee.
I sat down in shock. I thought this was the last flight of the day to Chicago’s Midway and that it was my last chance to keep my word to my oldest child, my son – the last chance I would have to make it to his Naval Boot-camp Graduation.
He had been in boot camp for two months. We were able to speak only twice over that time. The calls were short. Snail mail was our primary means of contact. One letter took seven to ten days to be delivered, so communication was slow and sparse.
He called a couple of days before the graduation to confirm whether or not I was going to be there. I told him I would be and that I would not miss it for the world. (His father was not around much, not consistently. So it was all on me – to make sure he had the support he deserved.) He was so excited. We both were. I couldn’t wait to hug him, to talk freely about his experience, to see the change I had noticed through his letters.
I sat in a seat close to the gate. My head was swimming. I thought I had lost the last flight of the day. There was no way for me to get a message to my son. I thought he would look up in the stands at his graduation and find me missing – that he would wait for me to hug and congratulate him, only to be disappointed that his mother had bailed on him. (This thought was horrifying to me.)
I called the friend that had given me the stand-by ticket. (Her husband was a pilot for the airline.) I broke down in tears, trying to keep the conversation as private as possible amid an airport full of strangers. As I poured out the events of the day, she was looking up flight schedules. She reassured me that the flight I had just tried to get on was not the last one of the day. There were two more available, two more chances to keep my word to my son, even if it meant arriving the next morning with just a few hours to drive to the ceremony.
I was relieved. Still shaken a bit, but relieved.
There was a marvelous Bohemian-looking woman sitting next to me. Amel was adorned with eclectic, ornate rings and bracelets. She wore a gorgeous necklace that dripped artistry onto her chest. She had beautiful blonde-gray hair that brushed the tops of her shoulders. The locks aesthetically contrasted her burgundy framed glasses. She is a dancer, a drummer, and she is marvelous.
Amel leaned over to me, admitting she had overheard the call with my friend. We talked more about my son. She encouraged me to again approach the automatons (OK, that’s my description. She didn’t actually use that word.) and explain about needing to arrive at my son’s graduation 7:00 AM the next morning.
Again I walked up to the gray-haired man and explained the situation in further detail. I pleaded with him. (I didn’t badger, curse, or threaten like some of the other stand-by, non-golden ticket people I had witness through-out the day. I had been patient and kind at that moment and all day…with all of the airline employees.)
As I spoke, I tried to hold it together. My voice started to crack. Tears started to well.
He was drone-like, impassive, non-responsive. He was doing his job. Again, there was nothing he could do.
Once more I sat down and felt tears fall uncontrollably. My nose began to drip. I tried to stop the blubbering, but a large part of me, well, just wanted to let go. I’d been patient and strong and optimistic all day. I just wanted to cry dammit.
A beautiful African-American woman approached Amel and I. Deborah looked like she was in her late forties. (She confessed later she was sixty-two!) She admitted to over-hearing my conversation with the human-robot at the gate. (Again, not her description, mine.) She said that she was also flying stand-by (to Philadelphia, with a connecting flight through Chicago) and that if they called her name, I could have her seat.
I was overwhelmed and so incredibly touched by her kind offer. I started to cry again, the ugly kind, and sorrow transformed into gratitude. Because of the kindness of these two women, I felt like everything was going to work out somehow.
Instantaneously, the three of us engaged in a lovely, graceful conversation about our lives, our passions, our similarities and differences.
We shared the importance of going deep into struggle verses avoiding, anesthetizing, and escaping it – that by going deep into the hurt, the pain, and longing one avoids skittering the surface of life’s meaning and purpose – that only when we delve into the struggle, into the difficulty of those emotions and completely accept them do we ever really grow. Amel mentioned Elizabeth Lesser’s BROKEN OPEN addresses this beautifully. I admitted to hearing of the book and intended at one point to read it, but had not yet.
We talked about the emotional unavailability of many Americans – how many people, even though surrounded by others, live solitary lives. Amel mentioned that where she lives in California, there is more of a surface mentality and that a sort of grounded community or tribal belonging is lacking. Born in South Africa, she spoke of the “community” of family and how she didn’t realize how much she missed it until living here in the States.
I feel the same about my home town, even though many of my beliefs and views vary significantly from the friends and family – the people I love – that live there. There is a history and legacy of taking care of each other in the Snowflake/Taylor, AZ area. And even though I like the accessibility of a large city, I miss my home town terribly.
I sat in wonder at the beauty, magnificence and grace of these two women, both similar in age and almost twenty years wiser than me. I am forever changed by them, despite the brief encounter.
We exchanged phone numbers and email addresses. Deborah reassured us that we would stay connected but I honestly didn’t know if we would ever see each other again.
Amel’s flight was parting from the gate adjacent to ours and she was soon boarding. That particular flight left without Deborah or I on it. Deborah went off to try for another flight. I hung out at the gate of the next flight to Chicago.
Around 4:30 PM I received a call from Deborah, saying that she was unable to get on the flight she had tried for and that she was headed my way.
I was so excited to continue our conversation. We found some comfortable leather seats in a coffee lounge just a hop, skip and jump from the gate. The cushioned seats felt so nice after sitting on hard seats in the airport for almost nine hours.
I was fascinated by Deborah’s journey through life. She shared her experience of visiting the Holy Land, her growth through two divorces and her current marriage, her journey through (and remission of) lymphatic cancer. She was amazing. And as I listened to her, I noticed a quality of wonder. It was a light and passion for her life specifically. It lit her face, her voice, her every gesture. She reminded me of something I knew, but could only faintly remember, something I had lost, that I wanted to find again – the wonder after heartbreak, the hope during struggle. I could have listened to her all night.
I glanced down at my phone and was surprised how quickly the time had passed. It was fifteen minutes to departure. We scooped up our carry-on luggage, ran to the gate, and were significantly deflated when we heard they had already called both our names to board and then moved us to the end of the list.
Deborah pleaded with the female airline employee and was given a seat. She immediately retorted, “I want Amy to have it.” Again, I was moved and on the verge of tears by her thoughtfulness and devotion to her promise. Deborah gave me the sweetest hug and goodbye, then nudged me over to get in line.
I found a seat relatively close to the front, and after just getting situated I saw Deborah walk onto the plane. We were both grinning. Deborah tried to work some magic on the gentleman next to me – to see if he would be willing to switch seats with her, so she could spend some time with her friend. He graciously refused.
She still smiled, was still bright and beautiful as she nodded, looked over at me and said, “We’ll see each other again.”