I woke up this morning in a Dublin hotel.
As I uncurled my limbs from a nest of sheets and happily thought, “Another day, another flight and another adventure.”
After a quick shower and packing session, I headed off to the airport, breezed through security and waited at the gate. I boarded and held my breath hoping that the seat next to me would remain empty so I could stretch out, relax and have the deliciously squishy armrest all to myself.
My normally extroverted desire to talk to a stranger was inexplicably absent.
Unintentionally, I sized up everyone that boarded after me.
There was a family with three kids. I narrowed my eyes at them and held my breath. My crossed fingers and silent prayers saved me and they mercifully passed by my row.
Then there was a cute Irish man who held my attention captive until he barked out a string of expletives at the British flight attendant. I sighed happily when he climbed into a seat two rows in front of me.
For 10 minutes people filed past me. And then the aisle was clear. The seat next to me was still open. I put in my headphones, closed my eyes and felt tremendously satisfied. I was certain I had single-handedly convinced the universe to let me sit alone.
I was wrong.
I had just started to settle in when I felt a tentative tap on my shoulder. I opened my eyes to a teeny-tiny, elderly, Portuguese woman peering down at me. Her daughter plopped her into the seat next to me and scurried off.
She stared at me. I stared back. She smiled. I sighed. So much for that armrest.
The plane hatch was closed and simultaneously, she looked over at me and started muttering at light speed.
She spoke no English.
I know only one word in Portuguese—saudades. It is a beautifully emotive word, meaning to miss, but is not helpful in general conversation. I wished with every piece of my soul that I had retained some of the Portuguese vocabulary I had learned in high school.
Bottom line, I had no idea what she was saying. But I could hear the fear pouring out of her. Every syllable dripped with absolute terror. The idea of flying was clearly unhinging her sweet little soul.
My heart broke for her.
After watching her fumble for almost a minute, I reached over and buckled her seat belt. And she looked up at me with sincere gratitude.
As the plane galloped down the runway, she clung to her rosary, prayed furiously, and cried big, fat, alligator-tears.
I wanted to give her words of comfort. But I knew none.
So, I just leaned over and picked up her hand.
I wrapped my hands around hers and winked. Her whole body quaked and she took a deep, slow breath. Without missing a beat, she snuggled over and rested her head on my shoulder, stopped shaking and her tears slowed to a gentle sprinkle. The prayers continued but the cadence slowed.
We sat like this for two hours. She had buried her face in the crook of my shoulder and I could feel her cool tears drip down my bicep. I declined a drink because I feared how she might react to losing grip on one of my hands.
When the captain announced that we were beginning our descent into Lisbon, she began to shake again. And I learned that her tiny, elderly hands were capable of a herculean grip.
But, we landed safely and she eventually released hold of me. In one swift and impossibly graceful move, she settled back into her seat, straightened her sweater and looked longingly at the hatch. Her visceral desire for it to open was tangible.
Minutes later, her daughter made her way to our row and helped her up from the seat. I remained silent and completely still. My mind was racing through all the ways I knew how to say goodbye. None seemed right.
I had no words.
She had walked two or three paces down the aisle away from me before turning around and returning to our row. And then she hugged me with all of her might.
This time I shook.
My soul quaked at her touch. And a few tears of love fell from my eyes. I realized I had spent too much time searching for the words to say when none were necessary.
Communication is interesting sometimes.
In this situation, the only thing we had going for us was that I could sense her fear and she could sense my calm. And somehow, we were able to meet in the middle.
It reminded me just how important it is to offer a hand to a stranger in need. And also reminded me how good it can feel to help someone without any hope of a return on the favor.
We are really here to care for one another.
I’ll remember her forever but I’ll never know her name.
Author: Jessica Chardoulias
Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock