A couple weeks ago, I flew Southwest to San Diego for a training conference. I forgot to check in exactly 24 hours before the flight and when I finally did check in, my boarding number was C46 – clearly one of the last to board. That meant I’d definitely be stuck in a middle seat, probably in the back of the plane. Ugh! Brian kept telling me I should upgrade to A boarding. I didn’t have the same strong urge. Something told me it would be OK.
As I arrived at the gate and looked around at my fellow passengers, I saw a woman in a high-tech wheelchair. Once you have a wheelchair as part of your life, you start to notice the differences in them, and I could tell from this one that the woman was fairly disabled. It was a power chair, blue and I remember thinking that I hoped the airline would take good care of it. I also wondered if she were able to transfer or if they’d have to put her in the airline seat somehow. I know how we do it with Catherine. I was curious how it would work with a fully-grown adult woman.
I’m also always mindful that looking at a wheelchair can be viewed as “staring” and we’re taught in this county, “It’s not nice to stare.” I always hear myself in my mind justifying my staring in case I get caught with something like this: “No, it’s OK. I have a kid with disabilities. I can look. I’m just looking at your wheelchair, comparing it to the one we have.” I realize that makes absolutely no sense. It’s what I think though. It’s like I get a pass. I’m a card-carrying member of the club.
Naturally, she boarded early, and I waited my turn, resolved that I’d be sitting in a middle seat, hoping I wouldn’t be too far in the back. The middle AND the back would really bum me out because it would mean it would take a long time to deplane on the back end of the trip. And that drives me crazy.
It finally got to be my turn to board. I couldn’t believe it! Right there in row 2 was an empty middle seat with luggage space above it. I recognized the woman from the wheelchair sitting on the aisle. “May I sit there?” I asked, acknowledging the empty seat beside her. “Oh I’d love it. I’m paralyzed though, so you’ll have to climb over me. Is that OK?”
I didn’t miss a beat, threw my bag in the middle and said, “My daughter is paralyzed too. I climb over her all the time, so this won’t be a problem at all!” She smiled and said, “Oh good! I was beginning to feel like a leper. No one wanted to sit next to me.”
“Well, I do. I’m thrilled to be sitting in this seat beside you!”
We spent the rest of the flight in our little cocoon of happiness. Her husband, sitting on the opposite aisle, tried to chime in at times. I was knowingly able to help her with her bags and iPad and she gladly let me. She was happy not to be the person no one wanted to sit beside, and I was happy to be up front. She was flying to San Diego for a surgery that would attempt to give her better use of her hands. I learned her story of paralysis and the life she was learning to leave behind. We talked about possible ways she could re-engage that life, even in her different state. She had been an art teacher and couldn’t hold brushes to be able to show the kids how to paint. I suggested some alternative perspectives that she said she appreciated. I could tell she hadn’t accepted it wholly yet, and I understood. I’m not sure I’ve accepted Catherine’s situation wholly yet either. I gave her my card and asked her to email me and let me know how the surgery went. I’ve still not heard from her, though I hope I do.
Even in our short 5-hour flight, she made a difference in my life, too.