I always notice the patterns on the floor tiles while I’m in an airport—a confetti style filled with many happy colors.
Something about them feels soft and exciting. I imagine those heading off on vacations don’t even notice them.
I notice them. They signal the beginning and end of the visits with my sister.
I’m not sure why I take such notice of the floor, but I do.
Maybe it’s because I start each airport rotation with my head down, sometimes crying, sometimes deep in thought—always considering cancer.
At the airport once, I found myself people watching. The beginning scene from “Love Actually” was playing in my head.
I imagine why people are traveling and where they may be going. Sometimes I wonder if anyone is watching me and doing the same.
Could they ever—in their wildest dreams—imagine my destination, my story, or my pain?
I am confident there are others out there like me; others floating around the airport waiting to land in their own personal hell.
I really wonder why it is that we don’t share our stories more often.
Why do we isolate ourselves so much?
Then this amazing thing happens. I find an airport angel.
I have created this term as the perfect way of describing these special people.
I haven’t found them on every trip, but they seem to find me when I am in need of them.
There was the man with his young family.
This handsome and well-spoken man apologized to me for his daughter crawling across our seats and into my lap. The returning flights to Massachusetts are particularly hard. Little did he know that her sweet face and inquisitive self were the only things keeping me from falling completely apart on him. What are the odds that his mother-in-law was receiving treatment at the same cancer center as my sister, and that he was a hospital administrator who could answer some of my questions about managed care? Airport angel.
There was the man who sat beside me as I was crying.
I turned my head to face the window, unable to hold my grief inside. He asked what he could do and tried to comfort me. I asked him politely for some space. He obliged and then gently rubbed my arm throughout the trip, not saying a word. As he departed the plane, he leaned down and asked, “May I hug you?” He held me as I cried such tears. I asked for his forgiveness and he said, “I wish you would have let me do more. You are clearly suffering.”
The man, Matt, who worked in professional fundraising, who gave me tips on how to raise money to take my sister, Heather, to Key West.
He told me he had raised a lot of money and that he would help me should I need it. “We only need to get her on a fishing boat,” I said. “You can do that, you can totally do that!” he says. “You don’t need my advice because I can see you are going to make it happen no matter what.”
Maybe not your financial advice, Matt, I thought.
But my God, the encouragement was beautiful. The excitement in purpose sustained me and made me feel that I could do it (we did, by the way). Angel.
The man who sat beside me on my trip back home from Key West.
A sweet soul who had shared with me that his friend had pancreatic cancer and had beaten all the odds. He was sure my sister could beat it too. He was also a cancer survivor and told me of his struggles with appetite and shared ideas on what to eat, how to put on weight during treatment, and how to be open to indulging in all things “bad” for you because with chemotherapy, anything that makes you feel good, you should eat. He was so positive and encouraging.
“Take care of yourself. Never give up. Whatever happens, it will be alright.”
The older woman who told me of her friend’s cancer and who seemed to feel my pain as I shared thoughts of my sister.
The acknowledging nods, direct eye contact, and clear expression of connection to this wretched beast called cancer. “It is so unforgiving.” Angel.
The little girl in the wheelchair going to see Tim McGraw as part of her make-a-wish.
I was sitting off by myself when I noticed her. I gravitate toward special needs kids, so I bent down to ask her if she’d flown before and she said she had, but that this trip was special. She was going to go see Tim McGraw as part of her make-a-wish request.
My throat tightened as I tried to be completely engrossed in her joy; trying not to think about the fact that her wish was being granted due to a terrible illness.
Is it cancer? I thought to myself. Instead, I managed to say, “That is the coolest thing ever.” I feel myself sending her light, healing, and hope—that this trip will be the most awe-inspiring thing for her, and that somehow her doctors are just wrong about her diagnosis.
That look on her face. I find myself falling in love with Tim McGraw because he would do this for her; bringing joy and distraction in the midst of pain. Such a hard thing to do. Good on Tim McGraw.
The military man, the U.S. Marine who tells me that he works on LAR‘s. My son, a marine, works in a LAR unit. This man then tells me that he is one of the men who develop the parts on vehicles that keep marines safe during use.
This man was keeping my boy safe. We spoke of why we were flying, and I tell him about my sister, Heather.
He insists on buying me a soda between flights, and as we wait to go our separate ways he tells me: how brave I am, how I will never regret this time, and how my sister draws in so much strength from me.
As I melt into tears, he gives me a sincere and warm embrace. “You can do this. How lucky that you have so much love between you, what a thing to have. I will think of you and send you my best thoughts.”
I believe he did just that, and I willed myself to feel his blessings. Angel.
The airport security person who had the task of checking me through the security line—I had just said goodbye to my sister, and we both knew things were getting worse.
This would probably be the last time that she would have the strength to bring me to the airport. This was something she had done for years; not just through this treatment phase. She would either pick me up or drop me at the airport for each visit home. We sang, talked, and laughed the entire drive.
Sister time—where we kvetched, gossiped, cackled, and complained.
This would be the last airport goodbye.
I could hardly bring myself to separate from her, but I had to get back to my husband and kids.
We hugged. I pressed my hand to hers and lingered in that touch until our hands pulled apart. As I walked away, I managed a smile and a confident wave.
I pressed into the line and felt my whole body give in. I stood casually, as not to worry my sister, as I knew she was watching and waiting for me to turn and wave to her. I was weeping fiercely.
I hand over my driver’s license to the ticket agent and she takes it along with my hand.
The line was full of people at this insanely busy point. While boarding the plane, I could feel the hurried tension flowing from the souls waiting behind me.
She looks while keeping my hand in hers and slowly breathes with me. “It will be alright, honey. Whatever it is, it will be alright.” A hard squeeze and checks my ticket.
She reaches and gently touches my face, “It will be alright.”
Angel. Angel. Angel.
Never ever underestimate the power of kindness; the kindness that comes from angels.
Angels help us survive when are sure we won’t.
Mine did. Mine absolutely did. I bless each of them—the unknown messengers who walked me through cancer.