As I approached seat 13B on my flight to Atlanta, I was happy when I saw the gal in the seat next to mine was a sweet-looking older woman. I was heading home to my family after a few days away and thought she’d make a nice person to talk with on the two-hour flight.
But, she didn’t even acknowledge me when I sat down. I offered up a hello that I thought would break the ice.
She seemed annoyed, even at the kind flight attendant who went out of her way to get our trip started with smiles, despite the delay in departure. This flight attendant shared some silly riddles and got applause from the rest of the passengers. But not the lady beside me, who just shook her head, like she wanted to be anywhere else on but this flight.
I figured maybe this woman was just a grouch, and it certainly wasn’t my place to try improving her demeanor, so when the door to the plane closed and nobody else sat in 13C, I slid over, figuring I’d prefer to have space between us instead of being inches from a mean person.
She could be miserable all by herself, I thought to myself.
So, imagine my shock when a few minutes later, she turned to me and shared her news.
News that changed everything between us.
“I lost my son this morning.”
Just like that. She said it. And her eyes said even more.
I saw sadness that could have consumed the entire plane.
I know it consumed all of me.
“He was my soul mate,” she went on to explain.
I unbuckled and slid back over to the seat next to her, putting my arm around her shoulders, holding a woman who went from meaning nothing to me to meaning everything.
A hundred questions filled my mind.
“How old was he?”
My mind was racing.
All I could ask her, though, was his name.
“Don,” she answered.
I could tell just saying his name filled her with joy and heartache all in the same breath.
“Please tell me you have someone coming to meet you at the airport,” I pleaded.
We were flying into Atlanta and that airport is massive. I didn’t want her lost in the maze while her heart was clearly broken in two.
But Atlanta wasn’t her final stop. She told me she was ultimately going to Indiana, where he lived, but just learning of his death, she had to go to Atlanta to get to Louisville, only to be picked up there and driven to Indiana.
The journey was going to be long. And hard.
“I never thought I’d be burying one of my own children,” she explained.
She went on to share that she’d outlived her husband, her siblings, her in-laws, so many of the people she loved.
And now, her son.
“I’ve been operated on so many times,” she continued, “I don’t know why I’m still alive, except now, to be there for my daughter-in-law.”
They were close, she shared.
She went on to explain that her son died suddenly, the day before, but no one could reach her until this morning. His death happened fast. He had complained shortly before of a headache. He simply went to stand and collapsed. Never to be revived.
His oldest child had died three years before from cancer. Now, his other three girls would have no father.
And his youngest, his son, would be graduating from high school tomorrow.
Tomorrow. And just yesterday, his father died.
The cruelty of it all crushed me.
And I never knew him.
But it wasn’t hard to put myself in her shoes, and think about my oldest child, my son.
I told her how my son had just gone off to college the year before, and how I literally felt like I could not breathe when I had to leave him on that campus three and a half hours from home.
I told her how I missed him terribly every single day, how I desperately wanted to go to that campus and hug him every single morning.
And how happy I was when he came home for the summer. How it felt like my heart was whole again.
We both knew what the other was thinking at that moment.
Her heart would never be whole again.
She described her child as her soul mate, being born while her husband was serving in Korea. It was four months before the father and son met. This mother and son bond was tight. Like my own. And now, she was lost in sadness.
She pointed at her bag at her feet, explaining that it’s all she packed and she had no idea what was in it, other than a nightshirt and a pair of shoes.
No one was with her on this flight.
She was alone in her sadness.
I hugged her some more, trying to offer comfort.
I wanted her to tell me more about him, hoping it would help somehow, but the tears were being replaced by numbness.
Talking didn’t appear to be helping anymore.
And just like that, she turned to the window, staring at the world below, and at the same time, staring at nothing at all.
She didn’t speak again the rest of the flight, and I didn’t push it.
Instead, I thought about my own family, and how it must feel to have to bury so many others you love.
Less than three years ago, I lost my dad. I haven’t been the same person since. I don’t believe I ever will.
And I can honestly say I will never be the same person I was before being touched by this sweet old lady, sitting next to me in seat 13B.