I was rushing to make my connecting flight at Charlotte, only to get to the gate and discover the flight would be delayed by 30 minutes. Passengers crowded around the gate area, reluctant to give up the spot they had staked out in anticipation of the boarding call.
In a line of red seats designated for handicapped, I found an open spot. I had done well, throughout the MedX conference, proud of myself for attending “cane-less” after working for the past several months to strengthen my legs despite MS trying to rob me of mobility. But after the first leg of my journey home caused my spasticity to flare up, I could barely move. My fold up cane came out of my carry on, propping my tired bones up as I hobbled to the handicapped chair.
The half hour went by and the sign had been updated. The flight had been delayed again. Now we weren’t boarding at 8:30 or 9:00 but at 10. The collective indignation and frustration over plans being ruined was palpable. Everyone sighed and moaned and complained in unison. I tried my best to count my blessings. Be happy where you are if you have no other choice. Anger helps nothing.
Then the sign changed again. The flight would now be boarding at 11PM. As the announcement was made that the flight crew for our plane was grounded in Orlando, waiting out terrible thunderstorms, the lady beside me started to shake uncontrollably. Until that moment I hadn’t given her any thought. She was just another warm, miserable body beside me, unhappily waiting out circumstances beyond our control.
But the shaking got worse. I began to think she was having a seizure. I turned to her and put my hand on her arm and asked if she was okay.
She shook her head. “I’m an alcoholic,” she said. “I can’t do this. I was supposed to be there by now.”
“Where are you going?,” I ask.
“Inpatient rehab in Jacksonville,” she confided, “they said they could save my life. I’m scared. I can’t do this. I can’t make it,” she sobbed, “I haven’t had a drink since this morning.”
Having lived through the loss of two ex-husbands — both due to complicated circumstances that began with addiction — I felt like I “knew” her. Like I knew this ravaged, haunted, struggling soul. I felt like I had to help.
“Are you traveling alone?”, I ask. She nods while wiping away tears with trembling hands.
“Do you want me to keep you company?”
Her eyes light up as if I just threw her a lifeline. I go up to the counter and asked if they could switch my window seat farther back with whoever is in the middle seat beside hers. The ticket agent asks if I knew her. I said I didn’t but she was going through DTs and didn’t need to be so alone.
He checks out the seating chart and tells me, “you’re in luck! That seat is empty and you can just move there.”
I tell her I’m going to be riding in the seat beside her and we start to make small talk. I knew the drill from going through this before in my life. Distract them and calm them. Try to help them focus on something that matters most to them.
“Do you have any family?”
“No, but I’ve got two dogs and I really miss them a lot.”
“Who is taking care of them?,” I ask.
Then she grabs my hand and says “I’m so happy you’re going with me. I can’t do this alone. My name is Roberta, but people call me Candy”.
Just as the flight crew arrived at our gate and boarded the plane, Candy told me she thought she might throw up. She was getting clammy and still trembling. “I haven’t had anything to eat all day.”
“Do you want me to get the paramedics?” I ask.
“No,” she whimpers, “I’ll never get there if I get stuck here. Those people in Jacksonville are going to save my life. They’re waiting and I just have to make it…” her voice trails off.
I ask the ticket agent if he can sneak onto the plane which had been waiting at the gate all along, and get Candy an airsick bag.
“I’m not allowed to do that,” he stated flatly.
“I just thought it would be easier to clean up than having her vomit all over the carpet, but whatever.”
He disappeared and was back in a moment with a big trash bag, a bottle of water, some ice and a can of Gingerale–all for Candy. I thanked him and he said “Don’t thank me, thank the flight attendant. She’s the one who sent all this up.”
Then a few minutes later they began pre-boarding the people who needed a little extra time. I got up with my cane and hobbled over to the jetway. I looked back at Candy and waved. “I’ll see you on the plane,” I said, “this nice gentleman is going to bring you down in a wheelchair so you don’t have to try to walk.”
I found our row and settled in, but I didn’t bother with the belt, since Candy would be here in a moment and she loves to sit by the window.
But everyone boarded and Candy never came. I worried about her the whole way home. Wondering what happened in the 200 feet between the handicapped chair and her spot on the plane.
When we landed in Jacksonville it was so late the ground crew decided to clock out before fully unloading our luggage. What should have been a matter of grabbing my bag and heading out the door turned into another hour-long wait in the lost luggage line to fill out paperwork that might eventually reunite all the weary travelers with their bags.
I struck up a conversation with the lady ahead of me, commiserating about the whole frustrating ordeal.
“I guess neither of us had it as bad as that one lady,” she said.
“Who are you talking about?” I asked as the hairs on my arms stood up.
“That one poor lady they took out on a stretcher. The one who was shaking so bad.”
I know my path will never cross with Candy’s again, but my heart aches for her, and I only wish her well.
It’s so hard not knowing there is a happy ending.