Let me begin by saying I love traveling, but I am not a fan of the whole… getting there part. About a month ago, I flew to Florida for work. As I sat waiting to board with my boss, I tried to think happy thoughts. I tried to seem like I had it together, that I wasn’t freaking out just a little bit about the fact this was my first time not sitting with someone I knew on a flight (because usually, I claw my nails into my husband’s arm when I get scared). I was sitting in the airport praying when I heard screams. Interrupted, I opened my eyes. A family entered our area: a mom, a dad, twin boys, a little girl, and grandparents. This little boy was not happy. A distraction from my own anxious thoughts, I said to my boss, “Oh, you know I will end up sitting next to him. It’s my luck.” We shared a laugh.
I boarded the plane and found my aisle seat. Soon after I sat down, a middle-aged woman made her way to the window seat next to me. We immediately started chatting. A few minutes later, the family from the boarding area made their way toward me. The family sat down in the row in front of me, across the aisle, and the grandfather sat down next to me. The mother immediately turned to me and said, “I apologize for your flight.” This seemed promising… The grandfather introduced himself to me and told me he expected them to sleep once the plane took off. Neither of the boys fell asleep – the louder of the two screamed continuously and shouted the same words over and over again. It soon became clear to me that he had behavioral issues.
The grandfather and I continued talking throughout the flight. I learned that the twins were 3 and he and his wife watched them during the week. He said his daughter and her husband had trouble paying their mortgage, so they switched houses to cover it for them, but he didn’t complain. He told me stories of his travels while in the Navy. He told me his daughter played collegiate level soccer and said they used to go to games all of the time. I looked at his son-in-law. He seemed disconnected – absent from the situation. I wondered if he had met this man’s daughter back in college. The grandfather said they were going to DisneyWorld and he hoped the kids would have fun. He sat his grandson on his lap and read to him during the flight – never wavering once with impatience, as the little boy kicked and flailed his arms and legs, almost spilling my water as he yelled for more apple juice. The grandfather asked me about my life – Where do you live? When did you get married? I knew someone from there once. What do you do for work? Are you vacationing? Will you have children someday? He said he hoped his grandson didn’t change my mind. I politely smiled and said, “Not at all.”
When the plane began to descend, he saw me close my eyes and breathe deeply and said, “You’re okay, you’re okay. You can hold onto my arm if you need to.” In the 2 hour flight, I felt like I had gained a new grandfather myself. As we landed, he said, “I’m really glad I got to talk with you today. I’m glad I sat next to someone who is friendly.”
I got off of the plane feeling pleased with myself and thankful for the conversation I had had with this stranger. I was enlightened and even proud of myself. I thought of how that conversation was a blessing, a lesson, and how wonderful sitting with that family had actually been. It’s not everyday you have a connection with a stranger you meet on a plane… especially when said stranger is holding onto a very loud and misbehaving child.
Fast forward to 6 days later. My boss and I are sitting in the boarding area, about to return home. After 5 days of stress, chaos, hard work, little sleep, a lot of walking, and non-stop human activity and being ‘on,’ I just wanted to sink into my window seat, sleep, not speak to anyone, and get home. I was too tired to think about the plane. Too emotionally spent to be wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. Too physically stiff to even move. There was nothing I was looking forward to more than sleeping on the plane. Enter: Family on outbound flight.
I couldn’t believe it. I was ready for the trip on the way out. But now? I could never hold up a conversation, and I certainly was not in the mood to have heart-to-heart talks with strangers. I wished as hard as I could that they would not be seated near me. I was so desperate. What are the odds? Again, this family sat in the row in front of me on the plane. The father was on the aisle seat in my row. As I said a slew of frustrated and selfish thoughts in my mind, my attention turned to the flight attendant who approached the mother.
He insisted the son could not be on her lap due to his size, for takeoff. I could hear the worry in her stern response – “But 6 months ago, he could sit on my lap. Now he can’t? He will scream if he is in his own seat buckled. Can’t he just stay here?” She argued, but not in a rude way. Her tone spoke to me more than her words. It was as if it said, “Please, for my sake, just please let me hold him. I can’t take much more.” The two argued back and forth for a few minutes. As she forced her son into the seat across the aisle from her, the entire family tried whatever they could think of to calm him. He screamed as loud as he possibly could. He shrieked. The man behind me muttered curse words under his breath. The boy’s father, who I hadn’t heard speak during either flight, tapped his wife on the shoulder and said, “Never again.” After, he slouched down in his seat with embarrassment and lowered his baseball cap over his eyes. I looked at his wife, who looked as if she had lost a battle. As I watched this scene unfold, I realized this could be everyday life for them. My eyes welled up with shame. Suddenly I recalled the conversation I had with the woman’s soft-spoken father just a week before – his daughter used to love soccer, she and her husband bought a house but couldn’t make the mortgage payment, he watches the children during the week. I wondered who they were before life’s little (and big) stresses. I wondered about their life now.
I wish I could say I was changed in that moment, but I continued to complain to anyone who listened about how awful my flight had been. For 2 hours, I listened to the boy scream, but when I got home, I had the luxury of going into my bedroom and sleeping soundly for hours in peace.
As a month has passed since the trip, I’ve thought about this family dozens of time. I realized that I had an opportunity to have a loving, patient heart, to pray for them, to comfort them, even. I’ve reflected: How much of my life was seriously inconvenienced by this young boy with behavioral problems?
The real lesson was not on the trip out, when I opened my heart to a stranger when it was easy to do. No – the true opportunity for grace was presented on the way home, when I had little of myself to give. How can I be a blessing to anyone else in this world if I only give when it is convenient? I pray almost daily for a loving, patient heart and for opportunities to glorify God and be a blessing to His people. More often, I pray for forgiveness for the times I fall short. I know the members of this family by their first names, the city they live in, and minuscule details of their past and their present. I may never see them again, but the eye-opening lesson I learned from them will stay with me for many days to come.