Dear Woman on the Plane,
As you so graciously switched seats with another gentleman so he could sit closer to his family, you became our neighbor across the aisle. Your long brown tresses neatly arranged over your shoulder, you took out a book. You ordered a coffee from the flight attendant. You folded down the tiny tray table and propped your items in the most organized way that would have made an airline commercial jealous.
You did not realize in the instant you agreed to change seats, you would be so near a 15-month-old who loves to explore, see the world, and watch people busy themselves but who also dislikes being told to stay put for an hour-and-a-half in a position where she cannot do these things. You did not realize you would be subjected to two conscientious 30-something parents who desperately armed themselves with a bag full of snacks, toys, books (although not nearly enough) and madly rotated through all three while passing the toddler back and forth, trying to keep our frenzied chatter hushed. You did not realize you would witness ten minute spurts of peaceful play interspersed by one or two minutes of tears, whimpering–and at times–downright wailing; some of her shrieks were so loud they rivaled those reserved for the doctor’s office after vaccinations are given. You did not realize how deep an impact you would have that day.
You could have scowled in our direction with each of her cries. You could have glared at us passive aggressively trying to convey your discontent with our less-than-peaceful situation. You could have shot us a small consolation smile all while screaming in your head “why on Earth would these people travel with such a small child?” even though you would have no way to know that this small child lives far from her grandparents and this is the way we connect her to her family. You could have asked the flight attendant to switch seats. Worse yet, you could have complained about us and asked the flight staff to do something about us.
Instead, what you did brought my nerves down just a notch. Your words “I know what it’s like, I have two small boys” bridged the empathic bridge across the aisle. Suddenly, you were our lifeline. And when you could have stopped there, you went on to decorate the bridge into a beautiful connection between parents: “She’s doing great.” Those three words almost brought tears to my eyes. Those three words allowed me to understand that not everyone is easily annoyed, that not everyone has a cold heart, that not everyone hates us. Those three words brought a realization that maybe we are not doing so badly, that maybe we are handling this better than I feared. Those three words made me recognize that we do not have to be perfect, our child does not have to be perfect. Those three words, while they caught me off-guard, made the remainder of the trip more tolerable.
As our plane landed, and more cries escaped our confused and tired child’s mouth, you continued to look over and smile. It was genuine–brimmed full of compassion and understanding. At times you talked directly to her, fulfilling her wish to interact with something other than the gray seat back staring her in the face. You made her find her wonderfully goofy four-toothed grin and bought us precious moments of respite. As I focused on your kindness and admired your willingness to put yourself out there for the sake of two struggling parents, we finally exited the plane with our heads held a little higher. We felt less shame as others tried to sneak a peak of which child was causing such a fuss.
My “thank you” in response to your gentle benevolence was not nearly enough to convey the gratitude I felt. Those two words were not enough to make you aware of the impact you had on our child, and on us. Walking down the jetway toting our daughter, three bags hanging haphazardly off our shoulders, and doing a hurried walk-by grab of her stroller left for us to the side, I told my husband, “Let’s never forget how kind she was. The next time either of us flies and we see a parent working tirelessly the entire flight to entertain and comfort their child, let’s remember to say ‘I understand. I have a little girl. Your child is doing great.'”
A Forever Grateful Mother