This post has nothing to do with travel to Africa. Directly, anyway. Though it has everything to do with taking this time to travel with my Mother now. This is a personal journal entry I wrote on a flight back from North Carolina last January about a woman I met, and how she helped me learn a bit more about myself.
I wanted to share this personal story after reading a quote from Vice President Joe Biden to Yale graduates after his son’s death from cancer the prior day. In the speech, he said, “It’s not all that difficult, folks, to be compassionate when you’ve been the beneficiary of compassion in your lowest moments … because when you know how much it meant to you, you know how much it mattered,” Biden said. “It’s not hard to be compassionate.”
I think he is right.
“Would you like one”?
The young woman next to me on the flight between Raleigh and Philadelphia offers me a one of her Goldfish crackers. She has pulled it out of her bag after she realized that the airlines don’t even offer peanuts anymore on a flight, and now she’s meditatively putting them in her mouth one at a time.
“No, thank you”, I say.
I have let my I-pad rest against my lap, and am sitting back in my seat. I’m letting her talk. I’m listening, occasionally offering something in response. But mostly I’m allowing myself to be the kind stranger this woman is so clearly searching for at this moment.
Barbara is young. And beautiful with long dark hair and thin sculpted features. She speaks softly, and with an openness and sensitivity that radiates vulnerability.
Her Grandmother has just died and she is heading back for the funeral. She talks about her Grandmother’s sudden illness – throat cancer – and her death that happened quickly and almost immediately after Barbara visited home just a few days prior.
She talks … “I think she was waiting to see me before she died.” I tell her that I think many people know when it’s time to die, and have a sense what matters most before they leave.
She says her Grandmother didn’t want chemo. She did not want to go through it. I tell her that was a perfectly understandable, and she chose to spend her last days with those she cared about rather than sick and hospitalized.
She says she can’t understand the cancer – her grandmother quit smoking twenty years ago. She is trying to puzzle out WHY – the question all cancer patients and their families struggle to reconcile. I tell her they don’t know what causes most cancer yet – that it was probably nothing her Grandmother did that caused it.
She tells me the story about the visit home when she surprised her family and Grandmother and how delighted they all were to see her and what a wonderful day that had been. I tell her those are the things that matter most, and her Grandmother would have held that memory close, too.
She shares that she is alone in North Carolina now after moving down for a man who left her after she told him she was committed. She is adrift and hurt and obviously lost.
Finally she turns to me and says, “I’m so glad you are here and we talked.”
I tell her I think sometimes people just come into your life at the right time, when you need them. Or maybe they are always there, but we don’t let ourselves see them because we are so caught up in our daily world. And she thinks about this and agrees, telling a story about meeting two people in a coffee bar after her break up who befriended her and helped her through the first few days of hurt.
And after we land and slowly file off the plane, I watch her stride off down the concourse. Maybe a little lighter. Or maybe that was my imagination and what I wanted to see.
As I sat next to her on that flight and listened to her talk, I wondered what had changed in me to become the person others turn to when they need comfort. Because I don’t think I was always that person – though I’ve always been a good listener, and a listener who is often able hear what goes unsaid.
But I think the change is in my compassion for others, and empathy for another’s pain, and a patience for human imperfections that were learned in the years of my own sickness and healing as I dealt with my breast cancer and the long recovery from treatment. So many people offered me compassion and kindness when I needed it the most. And the gift remaining from that difficult time is that I now have the ability to share more of myself fearlessly – with friends and strangers.
I’ve heard that coming though a difficult struggle makes you a better human being.
Maybe that’s actually true.