Strangers on a plane

Santa Barbara Labor Day Weekend

We just returned from our first trip back home to California since the fateful trip in April. Though I had some underlying anxieties about traveling home again, knowing full well that the trip home did not cause what happened, it was actually a pretty positive experience.

We enjoyed a few lazy days the Bay Area after a long Labor Day weekend in Santa Barbara celebrating my cousin’s wedding with my sister, my new baby niece, my mom, and my mother’s side of the family. Brian broke out our new-to-us DSLR and got to becoming a bona fide [amateur] family photographer. It was, all in all, a very good trip.

Birthday walk on the warf in Santa Barbara. Gorgeous view which ever way you look! (Image by Ready Set Sarah)
Birthday walk on the wharf in Santa Barbara. Gorgeous view which ever way you look! (Image by Ready Set Sarah)
My precious niece Stella. Those stunning eyes! (Image by Ready Set Sarah)
My precious niece Stella. Those stunning eyes! (Image by Ready Set Sarah)
Who can resist those cheeks? I could have spent forever snuggling this little lady. (Image by Ready Set Sarah)
Who can resist those cheeks? I could have spent forever snuggling this little lady. (Image by Ready Set Sarah)

I was dreading our early Sunday morning flight home. I’m never really ready to leave my California home. Reluctantly, we rose at 4am PST and packed the last of our things. We enjoyed a last few minutes with my gracious dad, our ride.

Making a connection

Through security and waiting at our gate, I began to get my typical pre-flight jitters and pestered my husband until he agreed to move closer so that I could hear the gate agents better. Standing alert, waiting for the cue to board, a woman approached and asked for my help understanding the boarding process. I explained that she was Zone 2, and would have to wait until the priority and zone 1 customers had gone.

Another woman, older and with a more frazzled expression, approached me as the first left. She also needed help understanding when she should board. Her boarding pass was crumpled and her hands were a bit shaky as she held them out so that I could examine her pass. I explained her zone and the system for boarding, she explained that it was her first time ever flying alone. She asked if I flew often and if she’d be allowed to use her phone on board. I gave her a few pointers and answered her questions before we parted so that she could line up with the other zone 2 passengers.

I didn’t think much of our interaction, I try to make a point of helping people when they need a hand understanding a process or finding their way. This seemed no different. I can understand the feeling of being anxious, jittery and afraid of somehow missing something or getting left behind. We boarded the plane with the other non-elite (who forgot to check-in early) passengers in zone 3.

A few hours into the flight, waiting for the bathroom, the older woman met me with a startled look as she left the teeny lavatory. We met eyes and I saw that hers were red and glossy. Coming right up to me she explained with liqueur laden breath and wet eyes that she had been very upset earlier when she’d asked for my help because it was her first time flying alone. Her husband had died the day before.

My heart and stomach sank. I immediately felt a strong connection to the woman. The feeling of flying home, looking around at all the frazzled, happy, distracted travelers and wondering if they could see the pain and loss on my face. Feeling the overwhelming need to be taken care of, given space and consideration as I grieved the fresh loss of my own last April. The need to be held close as the feelings mixed with general travel anxiety.

I told her I was so, so sorry. I knew that wasn’t enough. I gave her a hug. I held her for a minute, her small frame and frizzy blonde/grey hair, her sorrow and her bravery in reaching out. I hugged her because it was all I knew to do. I hugged her because I knew how much it helped me to have Brian there to hold me when the sadness and newness of the pain took over me as we traveled home.

The other passengers who had been waiting looked on in surprise as we separated and the grieving woman slipped off to return to her seat. I didn’t even see which way she had gone I was so taken by the quick but weighty exchange.

This story needs no moral, but it was a heavy reminder of why I reach out, and respond when someone reaches out for a hand. Sure I’m a crotchety traveler sometimes, but it doesn’t hurt to open yourself up to the people around you. To hear them and help them when they ask a question or look befuddled. You never know what they are facing or where they are going or coming from.







2 thoughts on “Strangers on a plane

  1. A VERY touching story of your journey home! I loved your expression of understanding and caring. Thank you for sharing it.

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