Flying the Friendly Skies

One of my earliest memories of O’Hare Airport is going there at age 3 with my entire family to see my brother off to Vietnam. I don’t know that I knew he was going to Vietnam, but I knew he was going “at the war.” What does a 3 year old know about that?

I remember the smell of jet fuel. I remember it was night time and already dark. We were all dressed up. People used to dress up to fly, seems strange now when you see people in pajamas, yoga pants, sweats, jeans. And, you could go all the way to the gate even if you weren’t getting on a plane. I remember we stayed at the gate, watched my brother walk down the jet bridge and watched the plane until it took off.

That’s the thing. Every day, people get on and off planes. Going to work. Coming home. Going “at the war.” Truth is, we have no idea what the hundreds or thousands of people we pass on the way to our own flight are facing or dealing with on their journey. Sure, many people are taking fun trips, Disney with the kids, some Caribbean island or European jaunt for a honeymoon. But there are others whose journeys aren’t all sunshine and roses.

On my last trip, for example, I met a guy who was making his every-three-week flight between Chicago and his tiny Arkansas home town to get treatment for cancer. He was traveling alone. He said his wife came with him sometimes, but insurance wouldn’t pay for her to accompany him, and they had to pay for it themselves, and it got expensive. So he came alone. To have his body filled with chemicals that would kill the invaders inside him so he could go home for three more good weeks.

I loved talking to this guy. He was in good spirits. He was reading Grisham. We bonded over that, talking about our mutual love of his fine writing. We compared notes on which book we liked the best, and then about the movies that had been made, and which actors did justice to the characters in the books. We both agreed that Denzel and Julia did a pretty damn fine job in The Pelican Brief.

Then, the talk turned serious. We talked about his cancer. How he’d been going for these treatments for several months, and he had a few more to go. And we talked about how blessed he felt to have found a place to treat him and give him hope, after his first doctor had told him there was “nothing that could be done.” He was grateful to have found a place where they treated him like a human being, with compassion and grace, instead of as a set of symptoms to treat (or not). He got teary when he shared this part of his story. I got teary right along side him.

I don’t remember his name. But as I’m traveling through airports today, I’m thinking of him, and hoping his journey is going well.

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