The woman on the plane

“My husband died in March,” she said.

It tumbled out of her mouth, gently but quickly, like a glass of water overflowing.

I paused, holding my seatbelt, about to buckle it.

I was in the middle seat, she was near the window. Jordan had just left to go to the bathroom.

We had all gotten up to go to the bathroom, taking our headphones off, coming out of our various internal worlds. Remembering the humming of the airplane around us.

“That’s why I’m afraid to go home,” she said, nodding. “It will be hard to be there without him.”

I clicked my seatbelt together. I had just taken my computer out, about to get some work done in the last two hours of our flight.

Instead I put it back in my bag.

“That sounds really hard,” I said, turning to face her.

She changed the subject, telling me all about her 4-month trip to visit her daughter in Alaska.

Going through the photos on her phone, showing me the ones she had taken.

She had stayed 4 months because she didn’t want to come back. Not without him there. It just felt too strange.

The first time she slept at her house after he died, she rolled over in the morning and said, “Should I start getting breakfast ready?”

But he wasn’t there. So she said aloud, “I guess I’ll get it ready for myself, then.”

I asked her what he was like.

“The best sense of humor,” she said with tears filling her eyes, recounting different moments from their life together.

Every time she laughed she exclaimed “Oh, darlin’,” and “Oh honey!” in her Alabama accent.

Almost 40 years. The love of her life.

I asked her how he died.

The questions you are not supposed to ask people, the ones we don’t think are polite.

But really the only ones that matter.

She told me.

Their last words to one another. How she didn’t know he was going to die that day.

How he had dementia for 3 years and she took care of him full-time even though it was hard on her health.

How he was doing well and then he had a stroke.

How she was not there.

I know what that is like, the sudden, unexpected death; what being a caregiver means for someone.

But I did not tell her that. This was her story.

She showed me his photo before dementia and before he died. Worlds of difference. To watch someone you love change so completely.

I know this too, in a different way.

I asked her how they met. She said she was probably boring me. I said I am the opposite of bored.

Every time she mentioned him she teared up, and then I teared up, both of us crying for hours on the plane.

To lose your husband, the one closest to you.

To wake up and say, let me get breakfast and then remember that will never happen again.

I think maybe for some people this kind of interaction with the world and others stopped a long time ago, maybe they never had it, but for me it shut down a lot during Covid. Like suddenly we were all afraid of one another.

Scared to be next to each other, to touch strangers, to be intimate.

Every time she laughed she put her hand on my thigh.

We brought our heads close together over her phone, breathing the same air. When she couldn’t figure out how to use it I took it from her hand, without asking.

An automatic closeness, that sometimes only grief can bring, if we allow it.

I touched her arm when she cried, let her see how impacted I was by her story.

When the plane landed she told me she thought us meeting was a gift from God, and gave me a hug.

I had things to do, right. Right before she told me her husband died, I was about to put my headphones back in, about to write an email and do some work. That was my plan.

And then she said, he died in March, so I closed up all my things and put them away. Because when grief is present nothing else is important.

Being strangers is not important. Our personal insecurities and discomforts are not important.

To me, at least.

“People say I should get over it now,” she said, “Or to start looking for someone else.”

“I know I should stop grieving, but I will always be sad.”

I said, “I don’t think we ever stop grieving. I don’t think we ever get over it.”

She nodded with tears running down her face. Her mascara waterproof, eyeliner staying put, but her blue-green eyes pink and watery.

“I miss him very much,” she said.

The flight attendant announced we were preparing for our descent.

“God says we merge together when we marry, we become one,” she continued.

“And that is what we did. We merged. And now he is not here.”

“Be grateful for every moment. Become one together,” she said, more urgently, gesturing to Jordan.

46 years older than me, 46 more years of life.

I think sometimes about the vulnerability of growing older.

How the older we get the more we lose.

The more things there are to happen. Our friends die, we have health problems, the people we love struggle. They get dementia and we take care of them.

Our bodies no longer work how they once did. We have children and we cannot totally protect them.

Life happens in ways we cannot control.

It is the most achingly beautiful part of life, the way we love and lose.

And I think the only thing that matters in grief are the moments when we still have each other.

When you meet a woman on the plane and hear her story.

When you meet someone who fully listens to your story.

When you meet one another in the place of grief and say yes it hurts and will never go away and I am here with you.

I sometimes think really that is all we have, each other.

To walk through the world together, to love together.

To me that is the most real part of life.

I hope we can bring that more to each other.

Our presence and our understanding and giving each other room to tell our stories.