Coming home .. .. The writing life takes me away from home often. I write this the day after returning from 2 weeks of travel, home to Kodiak Island, to my husband and sons and daughter and Yorkshire terrier who badly needs a groom. I walk through my door and want everyone to kiss me as if I have just been born, as indeed I have.
I am home, but I cannot stop thinking about her, the woman I met on the plane. It was the fourth and last plane of the trip. I was almost there. I edged down the aisle and saw her—crying. Sobbing on her phone. My eyes went dark, my heart tightened. As I stepped past her, I heard her say, “They just told me. I have pancreatic cancer. He gave me 3 – 6 months to live. I don’t want to die!” and she dissolved again into weeping, running her hands through her hair.
She was beautiful, dark-skinned, dressed in expensive jeans, a leather jacket. Her phone was pink. She gripped it so hard, hanging on to whoever was at the other end. My seat was one row back and one row over. I could see her profile, hear every word. I looked around desperately. A woman was dying! And we were calmly sitting in our seats, buckling our seat belts against death—and would soon follow all the safety requirements, while she was no longer safe. What do I do?
Men sat in front of her, and in back, each one with the bland face we wear when we pretend we don’t hear because we too are afraid. I wanted to do this too, but there was an empty seat beside her. She would be alone this entire flight with no one .. .. And how could I forget what I had prayed that morning? In the hotel room, on my face, wanting this day, this one day, to have a pure heart, to serve someone . . . “May your kingdom come, Your will be done .. May I hear you and serve you this day . . ..” and off I went into another day of terminals and planes—and there she is near me, still crying, the seat beside her empty. I have work to do—a chapter is due, edits for an article are due, but the seat beside her is empty.
Shaking, I unbuckle my seatbelt, lift my bag and stand beside her. “Is it okay if I sit beside you?” I smile. She looks up at me, surprised, with her ruined face and nods, trusting, like a child, her eyes again filling with tears. I sit, she watches me settle. “What has happened?” I ask her and it pours out, but there are hands now to catch what falls, our shoulders touch, I stroke her arm, and we mourn and grieve and sit together in the shock of it. She is young. She knows Jesus, but she doesn’t want to die she cries again and again through a twisted mouth. I silently scream to Jesus to give me the words. I need them when I am writing, but I need them even more now … .and they come. At one point she grasps my hands and says, “God sent you to me.” Mostly I am there to cry with her, to drink chardonnay with her. I know the chardonnay will wreck me, but had she offered me whiskey, I would have drunk that too.
It wasn’t much. I write all this not for anyone to say, “Oh, what a great servant you are!” Because I am not. How many people have I not seen and walked past? How many have I seen and still walked past? But this is instead about this wondrous, terrifying God we serve, who has asked one of his daughters to die a hard, early death, and who asked another selfish frightened daughter to sit with her in her fear and aloneness for a short time. It was so little. And she staggered off the plane to walk into the end of her life—and I staggered into a car taking me to stages and microphones.
Here is what I remember : “They also serve who only stand and wait.” John Milton wrote in his sonnet “On His Blindness.” I was going to speak on podiums, in many places, before many people for two weeks, but none of that mattered then. Of all I did on that trip, perhaps this mattered most: “They also serve who only sit and weep.”
Can tears really be enough? For that day, for that hour, yes. God will provide another servant, and another for every empty seat beside her.
Do we dare ask this each morning? “May I hear you and serve you this day.” Yes, dare. Then watch for the empty seat. Bring tissues. Drink wine if you must. Become a child. Give whatever you’ve been given. Sometimes it will be words. More, it will be your presence and your tears.
And the kingdom of God will come near.