It turns out that your neighbor on the plane/bus/train (or the person sitting at the next table at the coffee shop) is a very, very chatty tourist. Do you try to switch seats, go for a non-committal brief small talk, or make this person your new best friend?
In 2000, I was on my way to join my husband in Portland, Oregon. I didn’t want to talk to anybody on the flight. It was such a terrible time for me that even to write about it, makes my eyes water and my throat close up. Still – it’s good to get it down. Because I was so hoping that miracle of miracles, I would have an empty seat next to me. Knowing that this probably would not happen, I hoped that whomever took the seat next to me was a small person who did not overlap the seat and touch me. I did not want to be crammed into a window seat all the way to Albuquerque with someone crowding up against me.
So I wasn’t altogether thrilled when my seat mate turned out to be an extremely obese woman who smelled like she had not had a shower that morning. She sat down and immediately her midsection spilled over into my space. I turned my face to the window in despair. It seemed in my misery that having to share my already cramped space was too much for me to bear.
Still I have come to think that perhaps she was an angel in disguise, or if not an angel, at least someone sent by the angels, because it turned out that with no prompting at all on my part, she told her story. And her story gave me such hope, giving me a respite from the despair and utter sorrow that was eating me alive. She had no way of knowing that I had just lost my daughter – how her father and I had made the agonizing decision to take her off of life support after she had survived a car accident and been in a coma – the doctors had said there was no hope for her, her brain had hemorrhaged, had imploded they said, and she would surely die as her organs failed one right after the other. At the time we had said it would be for the best – she would not suffer, her organs could be donated as she had indicated her wish for this on her driver’s license. However now a month later I was tortured with the thought that perhaps she would have survived. Perhaps she would have recovered against all the doctors predictions, and now she was gone forever. I was worried that I had not expressed my love to her enough while she was in a coma. I was worried that by letting all her friends and other family members in to see her, and putting on such a brave front, that perhaps in her final hours she did not know how her accident, her suffering, and her eventual death were breaking my heart. All these things were weighing upon my heart and my mind, torturing me and causing me such mental anguish that I did not want to live anymore. I was no longer interested in anything – and the only thing that was keeping me going was this sense of obligation to my husband and love for my son.
And so I was on this plane and here was this woman beside me telling me about a car accident she had just recovered from. She had been in a coma, she said for three days. While she was in the coma she saw her mother and two of her aunts – they had come to visit with her and they had had a wonderful time together in a beautiful country cottage setting. She had never experienced such happiness and fellowship and sense of well-being. Gone were any hard feelings or resentments, any family rivalries, jealousies, or old wounds that had existed on this plane. For three days they visited in this place. They ate delicious meals and drank tea. They took walks and played in the stream. They held hands and ran through the tall grass. Then on the third day, they told her that she had to come back. She cried and begged not to come back here. But it was not their decision. They had to go back as well. When they left she felt lost and alone and wept bitter tears and came out of her coma on this side.
She told me that she had been aware of her mother’s death and the one aunt who had died, but the other aunt had been estranged from the family and nobody had talked to her for years. My seat mate had not been informed of her death. And yet when she was recovered enough to check – she discovered that this aunt had recently passed away. She said that what happened to her while she was in the coma was more meaningful than what happens here. She told me that she is convinced that it was real, and that she was sent back for a reason, even though she could no longer perform her duties as a nurse, and her husband had abandoned her when he learned that she was in a debilitated condition.
I told her about my worries and concerns. I poured out my heart to her in a way that I could not pour my heart out to my best friend or my sister, not my mother or my husband, or even my son who had so much grief and sorrow of his own. I felt as if this woman with the greasy hair and the body odor, crammed so uncomfortably into the seat next to mine, had been sent by God to assure me that Manda was okay: that my daughter was in good hands; that she was loved and being taken care of and that she knew how much I loved her. My unlikely angel held my hand and gave me tissues and assured me with a voice that knew personally of such things, that my daughter had not suffered while she was in a coma, and that our decision to take her off of life support once her brain had imploded was the right one. She would not have wanted to come back here, after that, the woman told me. She told me to quit beating myself up; to quit worrying over it. There is a reason for everything. It was all clear to me there, but as soon as I came back, it was taken from me – I was in the dark again, she said.
Since then I am no longer able to look at people the same way, judging them by their physical bodies or their bathing habits. Instead I see a possible encounter, there may be something they need to hear from me, or I need to hear from them. We are all in this together and the more we share and build bridges, the closer we are to escaping this hellish realm of not knowing and not loving.