The gate agent took his ticket and scanned it, so he thanked her and stowed it in his coat pocket, along with the other twelve. He dragged his bag bumping down the jetway, and he found himself wondering what his wife Molly was doing at home. Was she home? Maybe she’d gone out. He hoped so. She hadn’t answered his calls or his texts since he left, over 36 hours ago. Not in LAX, ORD, JFK, LHR or FRA, where he now stood, listening to her voicemail. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t home.
On the plane, he stowed his bag in the overhead compartment and settled quietly into his seat, the window seat. All twelve were window-seats. He usually never bought window-seats because the light bothered him as he worked on his computer, but this was different. He gazed out the window at the baggage trucks, fuel trucks, meal trucks, all bustling like a perfectly honed system. Perfect in every way.
“Excuse me young man, is this seat 27…B?”
He looked up to see an old lady who was almost bald, wearing a floral dress from the 80s (or maybe even the 60s), carrying a teddy bear.
“Yes…I think so. Yes, it is," he said.
“That’s me then.” She started to lift her small bag over her head but began coughing uncontrollably.
He looked around but the flight attendants were at the doors, so he undid his seatbelt and stood up. “Here, let me get that for you.”
“Oh, goodness. Thank you,” she said between coughs.
“No problem,” he said, lifting the light bag into the compartment. He forced a smile and then sat down. Several minutes passed before the plane doors closed and they pushed off and began the taxi to the runway. Every moment seemed like torture. He had re-buckled his seat-belt, slumped back in the seat, and was holding himself with crossed arms, silent and unmoving, glaring at the window. Every now and then he’d grit his teeth and close his eyes.
“What do you have there?” she asked.
He looked down at his hands. He was fingering the picture. “Oh, this…nothing.” He put the photo in his other jacket pocket and turned and looked out the window. The perfect system still churning.
“Ok…” she said, tentatively. He wasn’t looking.
Finally, the plane accelerated and he felt the familiar pressure, forcing him back deeper into his seat. He had seven hours until they landed and lots to do. He leaned over and stuck his head right next to the window, the cool air conditioning blowing down on his neck, and he looked out at the green ground, watching as it faded to white, thinking.
For the first couple hours the man stayed there, stuck to the window, even when the seatbelt sign was turned off and the built-in entertainment began playing. The movie screen was a few rows ahead and the old lady would laugh out loud and look at the boy in the aisle seat and poke him until finally he agreed to play along and watch it with her.
The man sat next to the noise, clenching and unclenching his teeth, closing his eyes and then again, boring holes through the window. He was working harder than he’d ever worked in his life, but he didn’t know what he was doing. He had no tools to even try to solve this problem.
The movie ended and the lights dimmed even further so that the cabin was in a shadow. The boy had fallen asleep, and the old lady looked over at the man and whispered, “Young man, are you going to tell me who that is or not?”
He looked down and realized he was again fingering the photo. He looked down, sighed, looked at her, cleared his through, and said, “She’s my daughter. Or was. She…was my daughter.”
The woman leaned closer, “May I see her?”
He slowly handed it over to her. His eyes finally made contact with hers and he was caught off guard with their presence.
“Oh my, she is precious,” she said with a deep and profound pronunciation.
“I’m so sorry. If I may ask, what was her name?”
He looked at her.
“My name is Greta, Greta Hastings,” she said, as if legitimizing her request. “I lost my own grand-baby not two weeks ago.” She held out the teddy bear which she had been clutching the entire flight. “This was hers. She gave it to me the night she passed and I’ve kept it with me ever since. Poor little angel. She named him Lyle after the boy she shared a room with in the children’s cancer hospital.”
He looked at the bear and clenched his teeth again, blinking, swallowing.
She touched his arm. “Honey, are you ok? Is she not long gone?”
“How do you do it?” he asked. “How do you not, just, hate yourself?” His voice shook and eyes misted.
She gave him the photo back, put her hand on his arm, and said, “Honey, I don’t do anything. I know she’s in a better place, and I know it won’t be long until I join her there. The doctors gave me 3 months to live 6 months ago. I got cancer too—we were cancer buddies, she and I. But I thought sure as the world I’d be the first to go.”
“Yes,” he said, “but how do you live knowing she…how can you smile and laugh and do normal things again when she…” He began crying, softly at first.
“Shhh…I know,” she said, patting his arm. “I know.”
After a few minutes he began breathing normally again and looked over at her. She was crying, not making a sound.
“You want to know where I’m going?” he whispered. “I’m flying around the world. I’m getting into a steel and carbon-fiber and God-knows-what-else cylinder and hurdling through the air at just below the speed of sound because I don’t know where else to go”—He took the twelve tickets from his coat pocket and threw them in her lap—“and now I’m over halfway through and I still don’t know what in the world I’m going to do.” He was crying through clenched teeth now.
She carefully set the tickets in order on her lap, next to Lyle the teddy bear, put her hand on his arm, and cried with him.
“Honey,” she finally said, whispering through the tears, “It’s OK. I understand. You need to stop being so hard on yourself. You don’t know what to do because you just lost the one you love. Your love is now out there bouncing around the atmosphere like you are—you’re supposed to be confused. You’re broken, baby. What did you expect?” She paused. “But where is your wife?”
“Home,” he said, “or at least I think she is, she won’t return my calls.”
“I wonder why,” she said, slowly. “Your wife needs you Mister, she needs you to love. You are broken, but you have each other. That’s the way of life, honey. What love you thought you had before this wasn’t all there was, it wasn’t the end of the story. No sir baby, there’s a Love that lies on the other side, that isn’t restricted to this atmosphere, or even this Universe. It’s a Love that love is just preparing you for.”
After a moment of silence, she continued, “This is what you are doing up here in the clouds, isn’t it? Trying to find the love you lost?”
He looked at her and saw her deep eyes staring back at him, tears streaming down her cheeks, and he realized the game was up. There he was, 6 miles high, going 600mph, holding her picture, crying with a dying woman who was holding a teddy bear called Lyle, and he understood that he hadn’t understood life before today. The pain had caught up with him in his carbon-fiber tube but had brought with it a Love he hadn’t known to even look for. And as he looked back out the window at the darkened sky, he embraced the pain. He could never let go of his girl, his beautiful daughter, but as he looked at Greta and Lyle, he realized that wasn’t the point anyway. He thought of Molly and their beautiful life together, and wished he were with her now.
He turned and touched the old, bald lady on the arm and said, “Greta, her name was Ellie, and I know what I need to do.”