Thursday, November 24, 2016

Leg One: Reciprocal Kindness

Many photos will document our trip to Pakistan, but the first and possibly most important adventure has no photo to prove it happened--just the imprint it left in my memory.

Leaving the country was a little more emotional than I imagined it would be. Our final FaceTime call with the kids was rushed by an unusually early boarding call for the plane. Between Brad’s stress of getting us on the plane and my stress of leaving my babies, it was a perfect storm. I walked toward the plane with tears streaming down my face, unable to avoid the embarrassment as I took my seat. Brad purposely chose seats in front of each other so that we could both sleep against windows during the thirteen-hour flight, but sitting next to a stranger at that vulnerable moment made the tears stream even faster.

The man next to me asked if was okay, and I tried to hide my mumbled yes as I unpacked my necessities from my bag—red pen and huge stack of papers to grade. Still strangers, we both buckled our seatbelts as we listened to the announcements, first in English then in Arabic. Why would those stupid tears not stop? I knew the kids would be fine, but the reality of missing Thanksgiving finally hit me. And I wished with everything I had at that moment that I could stop the plane and find a quick flight back to the familiarity of Arizona. A quiet “Excuse me” forced me to turn to the left and make eye contact with this stranger. “My name is Go-tem. Please. Take this.” In his extended hand was his handkerchief. I thought of politely refusing so I could retreat back into my comfortable and private bubble, but something inside me changed my mind. I took the handkerchief and wiped my wet face. Over the next few minutes, we exchanged stories. He was flying to Bangalore for the first time in three years to surprise his mother and father. I could see the joy in his face as he predicted the surprise. Suddenly, I wanted a quick detour to see their reunion. I returned his handkerchief with a heartfelt thank you for this stranger placed in my path that night.

Red-eye flights are singular experiences—first a meal and then all the cabin lights go out and you sleep in a room of strangers. I tucked my pillow between the wall and the seat, inserted my earplugs and placed my eye mask, and snuggled under the skimpy blanket and my jacket, hoping to sleep. An hour later (which felt like minutes, as sleep on a red-eye flight can only feel), a weird, jerky motion entered my consciousness. I don’t know how long I hovered in that hazy, questioning “Where am I and what is going on state?” but when I was fully conscious, panic set in. Something was wrong with Gothem.

What do I do?

Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of the night in a silent, dark, sleeping airplane, and the kind almost stranger who had shared his handkerchief with me was obviously having a seizure. I quickly wrapped my arms around him and tried to calm him, but this was my first experience with a seizure, and I didn’t know what to do. For a few seconds I sat there with my arms wrapped around a stranger, praying he would stop shaking. When that didn’t happen, I pushed the call button then called out, “Help! This man is having a seizure!” Most of the plane was sleeping with earplugs and couldn’t hear me, but Brad awoke quickly and jumped from his window seat across his sleeping seat mate to help me.

The rest from that moment is a blur—flight attendants materializing, the plane still unconscious of the crisis, checking a wristband with the word “epilepsy” emblazoned across the top, and me holding a shaking man, hoping no further emergency would develop. Soon enough, Gothem stopped shaking and he slowly returned to consciousness. Flight attendants took reports and assessed his condition, then disappeared. My heartbeat slowed back to normal and the adrenaline stopped pumping. What a weird experience.

A few minutes later, Gothem tapped me on the shoulder. “So sorry to bother you. Thank you for that. So sorry. Thank you.”

Moments later, both of us tucked ourselves back into our travel cocoons to resume sleeping for the rest of our journey. Within a few hours, our paths parted forever at the Abu Dhabi airport, Gothem headed to the familiarity of his hometown and me at the beginning of a great adventure in Pakistan. I wish I had a photo to remember Gothem’s face; instead his story will take its place among the hundreds of lessons I’ve learned in my life. This lesson was simple:

Life is full of small moments. Fill them with as much kindness as we can.

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