The Airport Lady
This is one of those times when I hear something and don't really think about it while it's happening. Then I tell the story a few times and start thinking about how it all sounds weirder each time I tell it. When there's no way I can deny the curiosity for another moment, I'm forced to peel through 5 or 10 minutes of research from the websites of newsrooms (such research would have taken weeks and many phone calls a few years back, thank goodness for the internet) in remote areas of West Virginia. Only tonight, when I found the data I was searching for my feet rushed with a chill no less sharp than the chill I'm sure the dead brother of the woman in the airport died from in the mountains of West Virginia. Seriously, you've got to hear this. Last week I was in Vegas, for business. I'm not a Vegas kind of guy really, but I won't digress. This story happened the last night of my trip, when I was sitting in terminal A17 at the Vegas airport. Between the hours of 10 and midnight. I'm sitting after a nice jaunt through the terminal muttering to myself about how strangely intrusive it seemed when the elderly clerk in the airport general store looked at me and said "son, don't rush," when I simply wanted to leave her store and the people who had no concept of personal space to find a seat in which I could finally.sit.down. I hear the shaky voice of another lady next to me. Sir, are you getting on the flight to Charlotte? Yes, is there something I can do for you? I'm so sorry to ask. She giggles apologetically. I haven't slept in a few days. If I fall asleep would you wake me up before the plane leaves? Sure. I can't help it. I can't stop it. As much as I wish I could and that I didn't see her eyes asking me to ask, I hear myself. Ma'am? Would you mind if I asked why you haven't slept? Is everything ok? Imagine a forest here, ok? Think to yourself what it would look like to be standing in a forest and to look up and see a waterfall. Think of how loud, if you were the only thing around in a huge forest, a 200-foot waterfall would be. Obvious. Powerful. Pure. Something like that. The small shell in front of me held a woman who I'm guessing was in her sixties, yet who exhibited the curiosity of an infant, the wisdom of a 100-year-old monk, the pain of a child who has lost their first pet. Something about her was inexplicably un-ignorable. I had to listen to what I felt she had no choice but to say. [For the sake of privacy, I've omitted some of the details to spare the airport lady's family's privacy. If things seem a little vague, they are so by design, so just bear with me here for a moment.] She told me the story of how her brother had died, her adopted brother, and how she was traveling to the east coast to see him. Well, not him, but his body. How she would be with her mother soon, and how she had recently been with her brother who was in the process of driving to the Bay Area to live with her. Her brother had led a difficult life, was an artistic and musically-minded individual who loved being outdoors. How his body was found after some time in the middle of nowhere, and how he had apparently died of natural causes related to the mountainous terrain in that area. She told me about the trooper who had relayed the information of her brother's death and how it all seemed so strange. She told me of her mother, father, her own life. I know that this lady is a dancer, and that she teaches young people to dance. I also know that this lady was close to her family, and that her family - like many - has had a great deal of suffering, despite which she retains a lovely attitude and optimistic charm. That charm is what prevented me for about an hour from realizing that she was also trying to tell me that she needed me to say something to her. Something that I wished someone had said to me about 4 years ago when I lost my mother. [Damn. Has it really been four whole years?] With the charm came a sense of conflict. I could see her shaking, her hands trembling as she unzipped the duffel bag she'd carried from the Bay Area. In it were very few clothes, a modest CD collection, and something in the realm of 80 pounds of books. Taking these books out, one at a time, and describing them to me as books she'd been reading in an effort to gain some insight into what she needed to do to help her brother - well - "move on." She told me of the friends with whom she'd consulted, of the Buddhist philosophies to which she adhered, and of the prayer flags she was taking with her to the site of his passing. In her explanations of the contents of her luggage I heard the pain only those who have lost loved ones can recognize. I knew she'd told these stories so many times, that she'd needed so many friends to listen, to provide some sort of input. I was sure she had spent no less than one-half of her waking hours praying for some form of guidance on how to help her brother, how to help herself, her family. That, in these books she was finding no comfort and receiving no solace and that behind the eyes of those with whom she'd been speaking saw only helplessness. [When telling this story, this is the portion during which many have begun to express doubt. Either in the vertical motion of their eyebrows or in the questions that ensure around this point, it becomes obvious to me that this is the portion of the story that raises a wee bit of doubt for the audience. Please - bear with me, I'm getting to that.] In that moment, in that moment when those who do not know this pain feel awkward, a wave of conviction ran over me. I've described this part of the evening like this - imagine not really hearing anyone there, but somehow just knowing what to say and just feeling the words come out. Almost as if this lady's brother floated up to me and whispered to me. This is what I want you to say to her, okay? Ma'am, I'm not trying to be rude, or rash, or anything like that. I don't want you to take this the wrong way, but your brother is fine, and I think that you know it. I don't think that you honestly believe in your heart that your brother needs anything at all right now, and that you are seeking closure and comfort. And that these books that you're reading and people you're speaking with - none of them are giving you any comfort. Here's why - you aren't going to find the answer in any of these books. You aren't going to hear it when you listen to the guiding words of your friends. You know what you need, and you're not allowing it to come to the surface because you're so busy looking for it in other places. If you're a Buddhist, you know quite well that your happiness comes from within, as does your suffering. I'm a Christian, so you know what I think, but what I think isn't what you need to hear right now. You need to listen very carefully to yourself and you will realize quite well what it is that you need to do to feel better. I heard it, and I shook the way Keanu Reaves shakes off moments of realization in every one of his roles. I looked at her, blinked, and in the instant failed to assimilate any kind of expectation on what she might do. When my eyes opened again and I saw her smiling at me, I knew what I had said was dead on. She waited for a moment and through tears spoke to me again, in a very deliberate and careful tone. I have talked to all of my family, and all of my friends, and I've been reading these stupid books for a week. I've been meditating and asking the Buddha for assistance, and the whole time my brother has been sitting with the Buddha himself. He has whatever he wants! Laughing, she thanked me. You are the first person I have spoken with that has given me any comfort. Shortly thereafter we boarded the plane. This cathartic conversation evoked in me a feeling of comfort. Somehow, in saying precisely what I wished someone would have said to me in my grief period (not that I shouldn't do this or that, just that someone told me the unbridled truth as it felt to be true in that moment), I had achieved a calm. Yet, as I've told this story I've begun to hear the doubt in my audience, and I've listened to that doubt and realized that the audience had a pretty good reason for sounding that way. If you think about it, it's pretty weird. Lady. Airport. Vegas. Life story. Dead brother. Etcetera. Etcetera. Etcetera. This weirdness is what brings us together at this moment. Using the internet, I pieced together all of the pieces of her story tonight. I looked up the story from the mountainous area newspapers where she said he'd been found. I looked her up. I looked up some of the places I remembered that she spoke of. Not to sound like a b-movie detective, but her story - 100% of it - checks out. It all happened. That foot-chill feeling again. I'm glad it checked out. Not because I'm a sadist or anything, but because I wasn't getting snookered, I wasn't gullible. I trusted her, I opened up to her, she conveyed to me that I'd been helpful, and in that I can feel like I've done something good for the world. Those moments are pretty uplifting for me, and for most of us, and in a way I'm relishing in the fact that my faith in the human spirit's desire to be honest and to ask for help when in need is resident. Even in the Vegas airport.