I still wonder if he was real. Over the years, I’ve mostly kept silent about seeing him. In a way, it doesn’t matter. It was the gift he gave me, his face—with that soft, barely–smiling gaze, though he never looked at me directly, and the kindness—close enough to fill my swiftly draining heart as it convulsed with tears.
It was the early 90s and he and I were only two of three passengers on one of those small puddle–jumper flights from Meridian, Mississippi to Memphis. He was already on the plane when I and another passenger boarded. The other passenger sat up front and I sat across from the man. Our puddle–jumper was just one of many lined up that day ready to take travelers to larger cities.
Just moments before I’d been in the hanger waiting for my flight to be called. I was there with my mother and step–father. My mother had had a stroke a few years before and was in a wheel chair. It was there, in the middle of that cramped, dingy, noisy room filled with strangers that she looked at me with that look, the one I’d seen a lot, especially since the stroke. The one that seemed to eagerly hone upward as if searching for something—a something that always eluded, something just out of sight, beyond reach, a something that could, just maybe, somehow dispel, resolve, mend what couldn’t quite be named. And, as so many times before, it was just the two of us there, locked in a vortex of memory.
A vortex that held how my father had left before I was born—not a good scenario for a woman in small–town Mississippi in 1950. And how she’d never regained her footing. How I remained an only child and would spend my days playing hide–in–seek with myself trying hard not to be seen or cause trouble as mom could be very mean when she got mad and she was mad a lot. We lived in one of those small look–alike row apartments in an almost rundown neighborhood and I learned early on how to step lightly as I scanned for what felt like hidden mines. I got to know my mom long before, and much better, than I got to know myself. Mostly, I just kept trying to be perfect enough so she’d love me, be proud of me, or maybe, just once in a while, be glad to see me.
So, I knew that look. Only lately, it had made me feel oddly squeamish and unarmed. Now, it was bulldozing right through my strongest yeh-buts, right through years of snipping the stiches from my heart’s still recovering wounds, right through my best lines and rightful defense. Now it just me made me anxious and always in a hurry to leave. Little did I know that my heart was about to undergo a final ripping away of all the stiches that had long held it together. And that it would all start when I least expected it—during that final it’s–time–to–go hug. Unexpected because a hug like that was the one thing I’d always had some control over growing up. Each night I got to decide when I’d go into mom’s room for the good–night hug and kiss.
“Okay, mom. Gotta go. Take care of yourself. I love you,” I said bending down to hug her. But it was in the middle of that hug that I felt the first rising of the tsunami swelling in my belly. Like being suddenly poked and jarred awake from a deep sleep, I suddenly knew, without any doubt, that I was never going to get what I needed—not because she was bad or cruel but— because she didn’t have it. She hadn’t gotten it either. She was still looking for it just like I was. It all happened in a second—a second that would change everything.
And as I walked out to the plane, I could feel the tsunami building. When I finally settled into my seat across from the man, it broke through. Now throttled sounds were surging out of me like a torrent I couldn’t control. After years of therapies and healing, it felt like the final, most deeply rooted, vestiges of moldy sorrow and rage were now scouring against my insides, pushing up and out, unabated, toward freedom. Finally, it was all coming undone.
“I’ll wave to them for you,” he said as he gently tapped the arm of my seat.
I couldn’t answer and barely noticed the gesture but at one point I did manage to glance at him. He was looking straight ahead though it seemed his soft gaze was looking at nothing in particular. Much later, I would wonder that with so many people outside to send off a row of puddle–jumpers and, because he was already on the plane, he couldn’t have seen me with my mom and step–dad inside . . . how could he have known who “them” was?
The flight was short, maybe twenty minutes, and by the time we landed in Memphis I was just beginning to gain some composure. When we’d come to a stop, the passenger in the front was first to deplane down the stairs. Then the man next to me got up. As I watched him walk the few steps toward the front, I suddenly felt compelled to catch up to him and say, “Thank you,” or something to just acknowledge the kindness he’d offered from just across the aisle. As he turned to make his way down the stairs, I quickly put my compact back in my purse and got up to follow. The flight attendant and pilot were standing at the exit looking at me with polite sympathy—the kind you offer strangers when you want them to know you care but don’t want to get too close. I paused at the top of the exit and glanced out across the long walkway leading to the terminal. The first passenger was still in sight, about half way there. But the man who’d been seated across from me was nowhere in sight.
Jilted with a bit of sudden anxiety, I asked the flight attendant and pilot, “Do you know where the man is who just got off . . . the one who was sitting right across from me?” But my voice was already trailing off as I could see that now there was a new sense of growing concern in their eyes mixed in with that polite sympathy. “There was only you and the man way ahead there on the plane, Miss.”
For a long time, I was caught up in the mystery of it all. It seemed pretty special to maybe have had an encounter with what I could only imagine had been an angel or some ethereal being. But as the years wore on, I noticed something different happening—even more special to me—when I was with my mom. No, it wasn’t like there was some new, deep, sense of by–gone love that had suddenly returned. And it didn’t feel like some measure of forgiveness had wiped away the layers of crusty wounded residue. But what did seem different was that now my old wounds seemed more like fading scars. And, even more importantly, it seemed to have more to do with how my own daughters were now grown and how I could, even before I knew it, find myself looking at them with that same look.
Something my mom could do that always amazed me was that she could play the piano though she’d never been taught. She was one of those who could hear a song once and play it full chords and all. One day, shortly before she died, she was playing some of the old hymns and I did something I’d never done. I gently nudged her over a little so I could sit close on the piano bench and I started singing the words to some of the hymns. And it was somewhere in the middle of In the Sweet By and By that I knew the look had relaxed and the search had ended, if only for a short while, for both of us.
I’m still grateful for the mystery man on the plane, for his kindness and for his tender accompaniment that day when the tsunami had its way with me. But I’m no longer enamored with the notion of visiting angels or ethereal beings. Rather, sometimes I close my eyes and imagine me and my daughters squeezed in close on an old piano bench singing out full–bore some ole catchy tunes and just smiling like crazy . . . and, well . . .
that’s quite enough heaven for me.