The flight was late. And the connection was tight.
We were flying out of Fort McMurray, a plane packed mostly with shift workers heading home after many days away. In front of me was a group of men from eastern Canada; the flight delay meant they had already missed their connection, so in making the best of it they were drowning their sorrows with selections from the airplane bar.
I was in my seat, anxiously eying the time and trying to figure out the chance I would make the connecting flight; it was the last one of the day to my destination, and even worse I had been listed as stand-by on the oversold flight so I would need to plead my case to the passenger service agent when we arrived.
Every second counted.
When we finally pulled into the gate after what seemed to be an endless time on the tarmac, the group in front of me was slow in collecting their belongings; after all, they had missed their flight and so there was no need to rush.
On airplanes, the usual approach to disembarking is to go row by row, waiting patiently for those in front of you to move along.
I am normally a patient person; I am not a line jumper. But this time I did not have the time to spare, and so I grabbed my things and brushed past the group of slightly older and now slightly intoxicated men.
“I guess she must be special to be in such a rush” sang out a voice from behind me.
“Must have some place very important to be,” said another, and a chorus of laughter arose.
The words were like arrows in my back. Despite my hurry, despite my need to move quickly, I paused for a moment. I considered saying something to them, something to answer their derisive comments; and then I straightened my back and hurried off the plane, where I pled with the gate attendant to put me on the flight, to give me the last standby seat.
So I could get there before my mother died.
That is what I would have said to them.
“I am in a hurry,” I would have shouted. “My mother is dying, and I am trying to get home before she does. So I can say goodbye.”
I suspect it would have shamed them; in my experience folks from the east coast of our country are some of the very kindest I have ever met. I imagine it would have changed their attitude, perhaps even provoking an apology; but I did not say those words as while I had thought them I wasn’t ready to say them yet, because it would make the entire surreal experience, which had begun just twelve hours before, real.
In retrospect, I think that experience – a few casual words on an airplane – changed me forever as it proved a lesson I already had known to be true but had failed to yet come to know first hand: you never know what is going on in the life of another person.
My rush to get off that plane undoubtedly seemed rude; it went against the norms and protocol of airplane travel. And yet I am almost certain that not a single person would have resented it had they understood the reason for my hurry, or the nature of my travel.
That I have never forgotten this incident, despite it occurring several years ago, is evidence of how deeply both those words and that experience impacted me.
It is perhaps the moment when I first really understood the need to reserve judgment, to assume goodness, to believe that there are reasons why people do things we may not always understand.
The truth is we may not always know the entire story.
Kindness and compassion cost nothing; and in the absence of the entire story, they should almost certainly always be our default setting. They were something I had always practiced, but after that experience on a plane as I flew to be with my mother before she died they became my guiding principles.
I never wanted to be the person who hurt someone else simply because I didn’t know their story. And we all have a story.
I tell this tale not to shame the men who said those words; and not for some sense of retribution or revenge. I share this tale as we head into a new year as a gentle reminder (both to myself and to any who wish to hear it) that we have the power to show kindness and compassion even when it challenges us to do so; even when the situation does not seem to warrant it.
There was one person in my life who embodied the kind of compassion and kindness that allows us to practice it when we don’t know the entire story; and that person was my mother.
In the end, I boarded that last flight to my final destination, and I had the opportunity to not only say goodbye but to hold my mother’s hand as she left this earth. I learned so many lessons through her death: the tremendous gift of life, even when it is fragile and fleeting; the need to live – and love – every day as if it is your last; and that kindness and compassion are two of the few things we can give freely and without reservation.
And now when I think back to that day on the plane I don’t even hear those voices anymore, the ones that felt like arrows in my back; instead I hear my mother’s gentle voice, filled with the kindness and compassion I now work every day to instill in my own voice – and my heart.