by Jane Kenyon
I fall into a heap in my seat. Despite my attempt at an airport bathroom makeover, my eyes are puffy, my cheeks are stained, and I am exhausted. I smile politely at the man crammed into the seat next to me, and try to get comfortable.
“Are you traveling on business or pleasure?” asks the man seated in the coveted window seat. I try to smile at the much over-used cliche’, but I am sure that what appears on my face has the likeness of a smirk, or even a sneer.
I pause to consider his question…..Am I traveling on business or pleasure? I brainstorm some possible answers:
“I am being relocated into the witness protection program.”
“I am an FBI profiler and am going to Memphis to interview a serial murderer for my next novel.”
“I am going to escort a heart which is being harvested as we speak, and will return just in time to assist in the organ transplant.”
I laugh quietly to myself.
“Neither, I guess, “ I respond politely and immediately open my book pretending to be immersed in its contents.
Funny, of all the ridiculous reasons that I could conjure up in my imagination for why I would be on this flight, the last one is probably the closest to the truth. What must it be like to be the courier of that heart? Taking the very essence of someone’s life and simply handing it over to a group of masked faces who will attach it to a stranger’s body. This is what I have become. This is the true reason I am on this plane.
Earlier today, my daughter Joy was in the seat next to me on a flight to Orlando. My very heart, the essence of my person, the thing that had given me life. I was delivering her to her father, where I would helplessly hand her over. She will be with him for the two months of summer vacation, which feels like a lifetime. I have never been away from my daughter, not even for a night.
I watch the anticipation in his eyes as we approach, as he holds out his arms and gathers her in. Her small hand was just in mine, and now my hands are empty and he is throwing her giggling body up in the air and showering her with kisses. He grabs her small hand and his new wife takes the other. They begin walking away from me and Joy pauses to glance over her shoulder and smile at me. Then, they turn a corner and she’s gone. I can hear the faint beeping of that lifeline and then…silence. They are gone. I am the empty carcass that is left behind. He has been given a second chance; a new lease on life. A new wife, a successful career, a beautiful home…and now he holds the precious tiny hand of my daughter, and walks out into the sunshine as I stand paralyzed in the middle of the bustling airport listening to the announcement that my return flight will soon begin boarding.
Just like that, I am left with nothing. I race to the bathroom and try to cover up the evidence that my heart has just been violently ripped from my body. I stare at my face and notice the bags under my eyes from countless sleepless nights when Joy was sick or had a bad dream. I note the laugh lines around my eyes, evidence of hundreds of belly laughs shared with my daughter. I pull up my shirt and examine the huge scar on my abdomen from my emergency c-section, and I can almost hear the ringing tone of my husband’s phone going to voicemail as I desperately tried to reach him to tell him that I was in labor and things were going terribly wrong. I take a deep breath, splash cold water on my face, smear some lip gloss across my chapped lips and convince myself that I can do this. I try to draw on the strength that I discovered the night Joy was born. My husband was nowhere to be found. My baby was breech and the chord appeared to be around her neck. My blood pressure was dangerously high and my head felt like it would split wide open. I drew my strength from Psalm 30: “though sorrow may last through the night, His joy comes in the morning.” I held onto the hope that there would be a beautiful baby girl in my arms in the morning, and I resolved at that moment to name her Joy. Her father and I hadn’t decided on a name, he was absent quite a bit and I wondered how much he even wanted this child. She would be my child, my Joy. This hope gave me strength to endure her terrifying entry into this world, and I drew upon this strength now.
I drag myself up the jetway, shuffle down the aisle of the aircraft, and try not to make eye contact with the other passengers who glare at me as if I am personally responsible for the delay of their takeoff. I flop down into my seat and try not to notice the man next to me sizing me up.
I am jarred back to the reality of my situation as the flight attendant begins explaining the safety features of our 747. “Please secure your oxygen mask before assisting others,” she reads. There’s some good advice! If the cabin loses pressure, you may not be able to breathe. Maybe that’s my problem…maybe I have devoted all of my energy to raising my daughter, providing for and protecting her, and I forgot to put on my own oxygen mask. I forgot to breathe. Maybe if I had, I would have had the strength to fight to save my marriage. Maybe if I had taken better care of myself I would have remained interesting or desirable and my husband wouldn’t have decided to leave me. No…that makes it sound like this is my fault, like I had the power to make him love me. Maybe I could have tried harder; would it have mattered?
I stare up at the panel above my head and will it to open. I need oxygen. I cannot breathe. The stagnant air of the plane is burning my lungs and I feel as though my head will explode if I don’t scream. I jump from my seat and begin making my way toward the lavatory in the rear. The flight attendant pounces and demands that I return to my seat.
“I can’t…..” I stammer. “You don’t understand. I shouldn’t be here…… My Joy is gone!”
My volume is increasing as is the impatience of the flight attendant. She grabs my wrist and begins dragging me toward my seat. My arms are thrashing helplessly, swimming through the dead air of the plane. Suddenly, I am grabbed by a stranger. He grabs me around the waist and quietly assures the flight attendant that everything is fine. He gently lowers me into the seat next to his and begins to soothe me.
“Shhh…..just breathe with me. Take a deep breath.” He is breathing slow and deep and he continues to nod and encourage me to breath in rhythm with him. I begin to feel the seat beneath my body and the floor beneath my feet, and the plane has stopped spinning.
“That’s better…….just breathe,” he continues to say as I sit gaping at this stranger. He is still holding my hand and staring into my eyes trying to will me back to reality. “Why are you so afraid?” he asks. “You are a strong, beautiful woman. You have nothing to fear.”
“I don’t want to be alone, “ I gasped, as if the realization of this statement was even more painful that the utterance itself. “I’ve lost my Joy!”.
“Now, now…..you and I both know that’s not true. First, you are never alone. You are a child of God. Consider how deeply you love your child. That is only a fraction of the love He has for you. He will never leave you, or your daughter. Trust him to be there for her, and remember that He is here for you. He always has been……” He turned to look out the window and he whispered, “He gives you strength, and joy, and He will give you peace. “
He then politely asked if he could get by to use the lavatory. I used this opportunity to thank him and return sheepishly to my own seat. I pondered the man’s words of encouragement for the duration of the flight. When we landed, I watched for him so I could thank him again, but mysteriously, he never exited the plane. He had simply vanished. I took a deep breath and smiled. I was not alone, I had found joy.