The Old Woman On The Plane…

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“A kind gesture can reach a wound that only compassion can heal.”

~Steve Maraboli, Life, the Truth, and Being Free

In what now seems to be many lifetimes ago, I was once a flight attendant for a major airline.  In my many years of flying, I encountered hundreds of people on the plane from all walks of life, colors and nationalities.  Young, old, students, businessmen and mothers traveling with their children.  Some were wealthy, some poor.  Some incredibly kind… others, not so much.

But I loved my job.  Most days, everything went smoothly.  My crews were some of the best people I’ve known and I made it a point to treat my passengers as though guests in my own home.  I took pride in my career.  However, I must admit, after several years of flying there were days I was simply exhausted from the extreme hours.  Like many people, I suppose I became complacent as I muddled through our take-offs and landings with the mundane, robot-like precision of just doing my job and getting through the day.  The check-list of stocking the galleys, boarding, safety demonstrations, serving beverages, wishing them a pleasant arrival to their destinations… repeat.

But could it have been the case that there people who, during the hectic process of take-off and landing might have needed a kind word, a touch on the shoulder, a smile and I had dismissed it because I was too busy “making it through my day?”

All those passengers had stories to tell.  Each one of them were on my flight on that particular day, living out pages being written for the many chapters of their lives, and every one of them had boarded my plane by chance, headed to a destination for a reason I could never understand or possibly fathom… was it a graduation?  A wedding?  A presentation for the business deal of a lifetime?  Was someone sick?  Someone scared? Someone hurt?  A betrayal? Starting over?  A goodbye? A funeral?

And then one bright sunny day in Montgomery, Alabama, Ms. Maggie boarded the plane.  She had snow-white, slightly disheveled hair and looked to be in her early eighties.  She sat erect, almost defiant,  in her seat by the window.  Aisle five, right behind first class.  There was no one else in the row with her.

Ms. Maggie arrived as most blessings do that come to become a beacon of light in our lives, when I least expected it.  She came on a day I suppose I needed her the most without even realizing it.   I was physically and spiritually worn out.  Being freshly divorced, I had allowed myself to grow inward and I had lost my ability to see anything but my own pain.

I was the flight attendant in charge when the girls came running to me out of sincere frustration.  “Oh my gosh, if that old lady rings that call button one more time, I swear,  I’m going to blow one of the doors and kick her off the plane myself!”  It was plain to see, they were quickly losing their patience with Ms. Maggie.  She was being extremely difficult.  She complained the cabin was too hot.  Then too cold.  Then she needed a blanket.  Peanuts.  Aspirin.  Another cup of coffee.  More sugar for her coffee.  A pillow.  One call button ding after another.  She was certainly wearing out her welcome on the plane by everyone around her.   I told the girls I would handle her the next time she rang her call button.  I would straighten her out and calm her down.  No worries.

Sure enough, less than eight minutes later….DING!

I reset her button and sat down next to her.  “Ma’am, is there something we can do to make you happy?  You’re ringing your button quite a bit, you know..”  I smiled my best flight attendant smile and patted her hand.

“No, I’m fine.”  She said curtly.  “I just thought you might have…um, well, I thought I might need some…”

“Some what?”  It appeared Ms. Maggie had run out of things to ask for.  I winked at her and she let out a defiant, “Humph”.  She looked out the window and took a deep breath. Then I noticed her shoulders relax and drop.  It was as if she had surrendered all in that single moment.  She continue to stare out the window deep in thought.

“Is everything okay?”  I asked quietly.  She ignored me.

I moved in closer, “What’s your name?”  Still, it was if I wasn’t even there.  I continued to reach her.  Something was wrong, I could feel it.  “I’m Michele.”  Still no response.

Somewhere, a voice deep down inside was telling me to stay.  Something told me that this old woman needed me that day.

“You know… my service is over and we still have an hour left before we land.  How about you and I have a cup of coffee and get to know each other a little bit?  What do you say?”

Without turning around or breaking her trance with the clouds beyond the window, she stoically said, “Maggie.  My name is Maggie.”

“Well, I’m happy to meet you Ms. Maggie.”  I responded, using my best, fake flight attendant-people skills on her… the same masterful, coping mechanisms which had allowed me to take-off into the sunny skies each day and leave my broken life on the ground behind me.

Ms. Maggie didn’t reply.  Instead, she let out a sigh.  Her body dropped even more.  I became concerned.  “Ms. Maggie, are you okay?”

She shook her head from side to side indicating, no… she was not.  I watched as a tear fell down her cheeks.  She didn’t bother to wipe it away.  I put my hand on her shoulder.  “What’s wrong? Please, you can talk to me.  I’m a very good listener.”

She turned to me and with a quivering bottom lip, she simply said, “My Henry is in a coffin in the belly of the plane.”

I gasped and put my hand over my mouth.  I had known we had a casket in the cargo hold, the agent had indicated it on my paperwork earlier.  But I had completely forgotten about it with the hectic pace of boarding and doing our in-flight service.  I just didn’t put two and two together.  “Oh Ms. Maggie,” I said as I scooped up her weathered hands into mine, “I am so sorry.”

Her tears flowed freely now and so did her willingness to talk.  “It was our sixty-first wedding anniversary.  Henry had always wanted to take me to the Las Vegas.  We had talked about it for years but life got busy and we were raising the girls and working… and somehow we just never got around to going.  But this year,  Henry was adamant about going.”  She smiled at the thought.  “He planned the whole trip himself.  Hotels, flowers, theater tickets, even champagne! Oh my goodness, we had such a wonderful time.”  She laughed out loud.

She stopped.  “And then, just like that.  The morning we were scheduled to come home… he just didn’t wake up.”  Her chin began to tremble again.  “I tried my best to wake him but he just wouldn’t wake up.”

For the rest of the flight, I sat next to her, engrossed in her life.  She told me stories of when they were first married-against her father’s wishes, how Henry had served in the war, all about their three girls and seven grandchildren.  “Henry’s pride and joy”, she said.  We both laughed and cried as she combed over the pages of their beautiful love story.  When she couldn’t speak anymore, I simply hugged Ms. Maggie until the Captain indicated it was time to land over the loud speakers.

When it was time to say goodbye, Ms. Maggie cupped my cheeks in the Jetway and told me thank you.  She told me I had been her blessing that day.  But she was wrong.  It was I who had experienced the truest blessing that day.  She had been my lifeline back to the land of the living.  Without even knowing it, she made me realize that merely going through the motions of life was no way to live.  It was time to let go of my past and get back to writing the pages of my own story.

I realized, I wanted a Henry in my life.  Someone who would plan a trip to Las Vegas for me because he knew it was important to me.  I wanted to fill chapters upon chapters of my story with love and children and a zest for living… just like Ms. Maggie had done.

I now understand that there are meaningful coincidences (Angels perhaps?) just like this in our everyday lives that are meant to change us in ways we could never have imagined. Blessings and answers to the burning questions of our lives around every corner.  And sometimes, the biggest gifts of all come from the most unexpected people.

I shutter to think of the many blessings I’ve missed out on along the way because I was too tired or preoccupied to start a conversation with a stranger in the lobby, too rushed in my life to stop and notice that the person sitting next to me on the bus might need me to be a blessing in their life on that particular day…someone to just sit and listen, to hold their hand, to notice them.

I often think to myself where would I be if I had never met Ms. Maggie?  If I had chosen to simply overlook her as just another temperamental passenger in aisle five without giving her the benefit of the doubt…if I hadn’t sat down beside her that day, where and who would I be today?

The moral of the story is:  Take the time.  Even if it’s the most inconvenient of moments for you, take the time to connect with someone who just might need you. Reach out.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a family member, a friend or a complete stranger.  Sit down.  Look them in the eye.  Smile at them.  Let them know they matter…

It’s true that sometimes the most unlovable people are the ones who need love the most.  Love them anyway.  And I promise, the gift you receive in return will be immeasurable.

Thank you Ms. Maggie, wherever you are… I pray you were able to find peace again even though it meant living without Henry.

As for me, you and Henry will live forever…Because of you, I found my very own Henry. And for that, I will always be grateful for Ms. Maggie.


Love & Blessings.

Michele Mathews