The smell of coffee beans and cinnamon rolls wafted through the crowded terminal. Passengers congregated like impatient sardines near the gate waiting for the airline employee to announce their boarding group. The flight was assigned seating so I was happy to wait till the last minute to start breathing recycled air. I was thrilled to be heading to the (in)courage retreat, but airplanes are not my favorite. At best, I feel squeezed and queasy; at worst, clear the aisle ‘cause I’m sprinting for the lavatory.
I was already starting to feel anticipatory nausea (it’s a thing), and the loud shrieking nearby wasn’t helping. I looked over and saw a mom and toddler in front of a vending machine. The little boy stomped his feet until his mom handed him a blue bag of Chips Ahoy. Cookies at 9 am aren’t going to help anyone! I thought.
Immediately, a pang of conviction trumped my judgment. Surely, I have not been above dolling out sugary snacks to buy myself a couple minutes of peace and quiet.
Lord, forgive me for being quick to judge. Please bless this mama with someone kind and loving to sit next to on the plane. Help her to see You in her day. Amen.
The traveling sardines eventually filed down the jetbridge. I followed to 17E. It was a full flight so I was surprised to find my entire row empty. As I shoved my backpack under the seat, I had a glorious vision: three hours of uninterrupted rest and productivity. With extra space, I’d be able to concentrate on finalizing my notes for the retreat and then catch a little snooze. I’d land ready and refreshed for all God had planned!
I adjusted the air vent and closed the shutter. Deep breath. This might actually be a great flight.
Then there they were. The little boy with chocolate chip crumbs on his chin crawling into the seat next to me. The mom settled in and took off her son’s shoes. He wiggled and shrieked and wedged himself on the floor between the seats.
“I just want to apologize in advance,” she said.
And I knew. I knew God was answering my prayer. Be the blessing.
“Don’t even worry about it,” I said. “I have three boys. I know contained spaces can be tough.” She smiled weakly.
The flight attendant walked by checking that seatbelts and tray tables were secure. “Ma’am, his seatbelt needs to be fastened.”
“Come on, Jack. Time to buckle.” She hoisted him off the floor and held up the blue strap. He arched his back and yelped loud enough to make heads turn. “You’re okay. You’re okay,” she said in soothing tones and let the seatbelt fall back in place, far from her son’s waist. The rule follower in me cringed.
The next three hours were punctuated by screams and squirming. When Jack’s mom tried to get the toddler to rest in her lap, his feet kicked against my thigh. When the cartoon on her phone ended, when she offered the wrong snack, when he dropped his toy for the fourteenth time, Jack wailed. She stayed calm.
“You’re okay,” she said.
“You’re okay,” he repeated.
Somewhere between the complimentary peanuts and the woman in front of us glaring back again, I struck up a conversation. Typical questions: How old is your son? Do you have other kids? Are you headed home or going on a trip? Jack just turned three and had two older step-siblings. They were on their way home.
“It’s not easy flying with a little one,” I said. “You’re doing a really great job.”
“Thanks. This is way better than last time.”
I saw a wince of remembrance flash over her face.
“Jack got diagnosed with autism a couple months ago. He’s not very verbal and gets easily frustrated. But he started therapy and it’s really helping.”
I had hoped for a quiet space to work and rest. That didn’t happen. I didn’t prepare for my meetings or take a nap, but I did catch a glimpse of Jesus.
When the seatbelt sign dinged on, the flight attendant was quick to check my seatmate’s status. Again, she tried to comply. Again, Jack refused. But never once did this mama get mad. Never once did she shame her child or try to justify his behavior. She just loved him.
Before we landed I leaned over and said, “I just have to tell you, you’re a really wonderful mom. You’ve been incredibly patient and kind in a situation that I’m sure isn’t easy to handle. He’s lucky to have you.”
“Thanks. I wasn’t always like this. But I learned quickly that I can make it worse or help him as best I can. He’s a good boy even when it’s hard.”
The engines hummed louder as we made our final descent. Jack nuzzled closer to his mama. With a stranger’s tiny toes pressed against me, all I could think was:
What if we’re supposed to be the answer to our prayer? What if we changed the way we prayed?
Instead of, Lord, bless them – Lord, prepare me to be a blessing.
Instead of, Lord, show them kindness – Lord, empower me to be kind.
Instead of, Lord, provide – Lord, give me eyes to see and a willingness to give.
Appearances never tell the whole story. May we be quick to extend grace and kindness to our fellow travelers. There is so much we do not understand. As we pray, may we be ready to be part of God’s answer. The greatest blessing will likely be ours.
To the woman I didn’t want to sit next to: I’m thankful for the gift of time with you — and Jack. What a great flight.