My sister Carla died of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, in August, 2013. I got a call from her husband a few hours after she passed away. He told me that she had a panic attack and stopped breathing. The funeral was two days away and I had to quickly book a flight and cancel my classes.
My daughter drove me to the airport early the next morning. I hadn’t flown in a while and had trouble figuring out the computer’s directions on the check in monitor. A man at the airline desk reluctantly gave me a few tips, and when I asked another question he was openly annoyed and spoke to me as if I were mentally challenged. I was tempted to tell him that my mind was a foggy from stress, and that I was grieving and had trouble putting two logical thoughts in a row. I could have gone on and told him that when I landed in Dayton I would also be staying with my parents and would be a constant witness to their suffering. But I didn’t bother. I had dealt with service counter jerks before, and knew that their capacity for empathy was usually stunted.
I made it through security and took my time getting to the gate. I tried to read a book that I had brought along, but while it was very funny the humor was deeply cynical. I put the book aside and tried to meditate. The crowd noise and announcements over the P.A. kept interrupting me whenever a moment of peace began to quiet my mind.
We got the announcement to board, and when my area was called I got into line. A woman ahead of me was pulled aside and sent to the service desk at the gate, and she was irate. She said very loudly, “First you give me a hard time when I checked my bags, and now this!” The airline rep ignored her as he studied his computer monitor. When she continued to complain he looked up and said, “We’re moving you up to first class.” And then added with a patronizing tone, “That isn’t so bad, is it?” The woman glared at him and muttered angrily as she went past him to board the plane. The rep and a stewardess rolled their eyes and shared a whispered joked about her behavior.
When it was my turn to show them my ticket they pulled me aside also. I wasn’t concerned. I was moving along in such a mental daze that I didn’t care where they sent me or what the problem might be, and I suspected that I might be in for an upgrade too. They gave me a seat in first class, and when I got onto the plane I saw to my chagrin that they had placed me beside the irate woman who had complained so bitterly. I didn’t want to sit next to an irritable person who seemed to be looking for a fight.
I took my seat and got a better look at her. She was a business woman in her forties with short, curly brown hair and a round face. She looked supremely tired and distressed, but was polite to me when we exchanged a few words. She described her problems at the airline counter, and I told her that we must have run into the same hostile ticketing agent.
After the plane took off I asked her what her final destination was. Our flight was headed to Atlanta, and I assumed that we would be catching separate connecting flights. She got a stricken look on her face and told me that she had got some very bad news the night before while attending a conference in Orlando. She was flying home to North Carolina because her son called and told her that his best friend had an accident while white water rafting. He was thrown out of a raft, struck his head on a rock, and was submerged for a long time before being pulled out. The doctors gave him no chance of recovery.
The boy had been in and out of the business woman’s house when he and her son were teenagers, and she looked upon him as her second son. She also grieved for her son and worried about how he would deal with his friend’s imminent death.
I let her talk for a while and she told me about happier times with “her two boys”, the effort she had made to have a successful career following a divorce, and about the health problems of her current boyfriend. She relaxed as she talked and we began to enjoy each others’ company. She finally got around to asking me about my trip, and I told her about my sister.
We talked for a short while about our experiences with grief. I said that I believed in an after life because I had a dream in which my deceased grandfather appeared before me and reassured me that he was fine where he was. He had crippling arthritis in his knees and walked with a cane the last few years before he died, and in my dream he did a soft shoe dance and said, “Look at me now!”
By the time we landed we had settled into a comfortable and companionable silence, and I remember thinking about how wrong my initial judgment of the woman had been. She was a caring person who had snapped because the stress had been too much.
When we deplaned I saw her briefly as she came out of the gate. She looked anguished and disoriented again, and I realized that the weight of her problems had resettled on her shoulders, that she was thinking about the difficulties that awaited her when she got home. Our conversation had left me calmer and steadier, and I wanted to say one more thing to help her feel better. But the look on her face told me that she was locked in her own private hell, and I decided to let her go. I wasn’t sure if anything I said would help or hurt her situation. I knew from experience that when people try to comfort someone in mourning they often find the wrong thing to say. I had been guilty of that on a few occasions.
I caught the next flight and landed in Dayton around noon. I picked up a rental car and drove down I75 to my parents’. I began to feel a sense of dread as I got closer, and I realized that I was worried about providing comfort to my parents and to my sister’s boys. I had a long history in my family of acting as an irritant rather than a balm even when I had good intentions.
The thought came to me when I hit the outskirts of Kettering that the real pain was about to begin. My sister had opted for a traditional viewing, funeral mass and burial, and I had always found that whole process to be an exercise in prolonged torture. I thought about the expression on the business woman’s face when we deplaned, and I wondered if it was a mirror image of the way I looked at that moment.