A Rough Flight & The Kindness of Strangers

When we last met, I was (rather unhappily) preparing to wing my way to Hawai’i with my family. Oh, how I hate to travel. I like going to new places, having new experiences, and making great memories. But I hate the mechanics of getting there. I hate it with a passion. I keep telling myself to roll with the flow, or whatever, but I am not sure I will ever learn to do that. The whole act of traveling from Point A to Point B is stressful and overwhelming, especially when going by plane. We are three days into our trip now (well, 2.5, technically), and I am far enough removed from our airport experience to say it was worth it. It has been a fun and relaxed trip so far. In fact, I have thought of so many things I want to blog. But I have been too busy living and enjoying my family to take the time for it! Now, that’s a good vacation!

This afternoon, my husband and daughter are at the beach, enjoying sand and sun and ocean waves. I begged off, since I have little to no interest in going into the water. And I am just about the whitest person I know — literally. I am so fair-skinned I could almost be invisible. Hours in the sun are not a great idea for me, even if I slather on the extra-heavy sunblock. And so, it seemed like the perfect time to sit down and blog a little.

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So … Let’s start where any good adventure story must: in the beginning, with planes, trains, and automobiles. Remember how I said life would be grand if I could figure out a way to drive to Hawai’i? If that underwater car or a personal submarine ever becomes a thing, sign me up! Because our trip might have been a lot smoother if we had used some other mode of transportation. Sadly, Hawai’i is surrounded by water. Islands tend to be that way, after all. Right? So our travel choice was by plane. The first leg of our trip left at o’dark-thirty. We got up around 3 AM so we could leave home by 3:45 and get to the airport two hours ahead of our 6:30 AM flight. My husband thinks I’m insane because I have to be at the airport 2 hours ahead of my flight. It’s not just a suggestion with me. It’s a compulsion. I have so much anxiety and dread over going through airport security and getting scanned and talking to strangers that I need to have the mental luxury of knowing I have lots of time in which to accomplish this entire process.

We did the trip in two legs: Dulles to Chicago O’Hare. And then Chicago to Maui, which was our final destination. The first part was a little under 2 hours. The second part was a little over 8 hours. And all ten hours was pure, hellish torture.

Remember how I mentioned my daughter has strep? We got the diagnosis and her antibiotics on Thursday afternoon. We left home on Friday morning — way, way, way early on Friday morning. Even so, she had two doses of medication, and we knew she wasn’t contagious. I was worried about her flying with a lot of congestion, but her doctor told me it was okay for us to go on the plane. Keep in mind her doctor didn’t diagnose her with a sinus infection or anything like that. Initially, they told us to do the saline rinse and antihistamines for congestion. After the strep test came back positive, they prescribed the antibiotics. Which is fine. I’m not complaining about this at all. I am happy for my daughter to have as few doses of antibiotic as possible and only when absolutely necessary.

The problem is that, while the antibiotics went to work on any bacterial infection in her system and her throat calmed down, her congestion just got worse. And worse. And then, we added in a pressurized airplane cabin and all the air pressure changes from going up and down and maintaining cruising altitude. It was horrible. There’s no easier way to say it. It was just horrible. Things started out okay, but once our Chicago flight reached cruising altitude, the pressure built up and up in my daughter’s sinuses and ears, until it felt like her head was going to explode. She was in so much pain. She was in tears because it hurt so badly. I haven’t seen her in this much pain on a flight since she was a little baby. It tore me up, especially since there was very little I could do. When we landed at Chicago, we had a 2-hour layover. We were able to eat and get her some decongestant, and she felt a lot better. I breathed a silent sigh of relief that, maybe, the worst was over.

It wasn’t. Because the same thing happened on the Chicago to Maui leg of the trip. Only this time, she was in unrelenting pain for 8 hours. The pain was so bad that she ended up throwing up, which has never happened for her on a plane before. We weren’t fast enough with the airsickness bag, and barf got all over her and me. Luckily, we didn’t get any on the seats or the floor around where we were sitting. There are few feelings that are worse, as a parent, than having to sit and watch your child suffer. She spent nearly the entire 8 hour flight leaning on my shoulder for comfort, although I felt completely inadequate to truly comfort her. I did my best, and maybe just being close and knowing someone loved her in that moment helped. A little.

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And this is when an amazing, beautiful thing happened. After she threw up, my daughter went into the bathroom at the front of the plane to try and clean herself up a little bit. I followed her up there to see what I needed to do to dispose of the “yuck” bag and to get some supplies so I could clean our area of the plane, to the extent it needed it. I explained to one of the flight attendants that my daughter was having a hard time with sinus pain and pressure, that it was so severe she was sick to her stomach and threw up, and that I needed some supplies to make sure our area was clear. And then I kind of hovered outside the bathroom door, waiting for my daughter.

As I was anxiously hovering and, I’m sure, looking as socially awkward as a person can possibly look, a lady sitting on the front row came up to me. She told me she had overheard what I told the flight attendant. She asked if my daughter had motion sickness. She said, if that was the case, her family had Dramamine and would be happy to give some to us. I told her it wasn’t normal motion sickness, but caused by too much sinus pain and pressure. I explained that my daughter was on antibiotics and had taken decongestant a couple of hours earlier, so I wasn’t sure about giving her additional medication. This lovely woman nodded and said, “Don’t worry. I have just the thing.”

She went back to her family and dug through her bag, coming up with a pair of Sea Bands. These were brand new, in their little plastic case. They had never been opened. She said they were traveling with her grandson for the first time, and they had bought these for him. But he was fine and didn’t need them. She said we could take them and use them, to see if this might help settle my daughter’s upset stomach.

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So, picture this: I am standing there next to the bathroom door, trying to be inconspicuous and out of the way and failing miserably. I am disheveled and grungy. My hair is in a quick and messy bun, but it is flying all around my face. I have on no makeup. I have been up since way before 3 AM because I wasn’t able to sleep the night before we left. There are dark circles under my eyes, and I am about a split second away from crying. And I have barf all over my shirt. And this lovely woman … this absolute stranger … is standing there, holding out a thing that gives me the hope I will be able to help my child. When I told her I was worried about giving the bands back to her, she pressed the little box into my hand and hugged me. “Don’t even think about it, Mama,” she said. “We’ve all been there.”

“Don’t even think about it, Mama. We’ve all been there.” Could any one person say anything wiser than that to another person? I mean, think about it. We are living in pretty crappy times. Sometimes, it seems like we all hate each other. Sometimes, it seems like we are all so caught up in being angry and miserable that we can’t even see the beauty of life around us. I swear there are a lot of times when I think people are just looking for a reason to be angry and hateful and miserable. But there are good people out there. There are beautiful, caring, and loving people out there. Even now. When you are bogged down in the accusations and the hate and the vitriol spewing forth from every direction, close your eyes and remember that there are people out there who are capable of loving you, even if they don’t know who you are.

And I think that is what this post is really about. Because the pain and dread and awfulness of that flight will fade in time. One day, probably in the not-so-distant future, the story of my daughter’s flight from hell will become one more family memory that we trot out during Christmas or when we are all comparing the war stories of life. But I will always remember the stunning kindness of that stranger on our flight. I will always remember her hugging me tight, telling me without words that I can do this … that I am strong, and that I can do what’s right for my child … that I am not alone. I don’t know her name. I don’t know where she is from. I don’t know anything about her. But I will always remember the kindness on her face and in her heart. She will always live in my own heart. And I hope that, one day, I can pass her heroic kindness along the way.

“Don’t worry, Mama. We’ve all been there.”

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