October 10, 2015
I was flying from Los Angeles to Austin. It had been a great and strange week. Moments of enlightened, unbridled joy and moments of despair and quiet contemplation. All very necessary, and I appreciated the juxtaposition.
I noticed her when we boarded. We smiled at each other, and I said hello. She was very fidgety. Constantly moving. Frequently looking out the window, even though we were just sitting there on the tarmac. She said to me, “I guess at SOME point we will actually get going.” She said it with a pleasant demeanor, and I replied, “Oh, you know, it always take a little while before we start moving.” I also was friendly, but thought to myself, “She doesn’t seem like an experienced flyer. I hope she doesn’t have to get up and go to the bathroom five times during the flight.”
In the air, I wrangled out my bag from under the seat in front of me and pulled out the flimsy purple spiral notebook that has unfortunately been cast as my journal…something I’m trying to make a daily habit, journaling. I was in my own world thinking about my own unfulfilled desires and starting to feel sorry for myself, so I dug out the pen. Writing about it felt good, though I had to take a break for ten minutes due to heavy turbulence. When I finished the entry a bit later, I did feel better. Just writing out my negative thoughts exorcised them to some degree. I started to remember the path of purpose I’ve been creating for myself, and why I am certain I must keep moving forward, no matter how hard it feels to want to keep going. I started to remember the enlightened state I was in during the recent good moments hiking and swimming on the coast, and I tried to keep myself in that mental space. I looked down at my open journal. The last two sentences read, “I feel like I’m still not getting it…there’s still this big blockage. What am I missing??”
I looked around me, and saw the frail old woman sitting next to me.
“Are you visiting Austin or do you live in Los Angeles?”
“Oh, I live in Texas.”
“What were you doing in L.A.?”
“I was actually visiting my son up in Seattle.”
“Was it a good visit?”
“Yes, it was. He brought me out there to meet my grandchildren.”
“That’s awesome! How old are they?”
“Five and six, I think.”
“It must have been wonderful to meet them. Was it easy to be comfortable with them?”
“The girl was hesitant at first. But i just went right up to her and said, ‘I look kind of scary, don’t I?’ She looked at me and said, ‘Uh-huh.’ Then everything was okay.”
We both laughed at that.
“May I ask why you are just meeting your grandchildren now?”
“When you have this kind of cancer, your life starts to change.”
“I see. How long had it been since you had last seen your son?”
“Oh, I don’t know…eight years? We didn’t get along very well. I never really fit well with my family. I’ve always been kind of a loner.”
“Well, I think it’s great that you made the trip. Was it time well spent for you?”
“Oh, yes, definitely. Spending time with the children was wonderful. And seeing my son was wonderful, too. We spent a lot of time at the ocean. I love the ocean and the woods and nature. The children were really special. I hope one day they see a picture of me and think, 'Oh yeah, I remember her!’”
I was tearing up at this point.
“I’m sure they will. May I ask what kind of cancer you have?”
“I have melanoma. And then they looked at my liver.”
“What is the prognosis.”
“It’s nothing good.”
A moment of silence.
“Do you have any other children or is it just your son?”
“I have a daughter that I gave up when I was 17.”
“Wow…have you been able to see her since?”
“I met her for the first time in July. She lives in Oklahoma and came down with her family to Austin for the fourth.”
“What was it like talking to her?”
“Like talking to myself 30 years ago! She’s just like me. My friend Connie, my partner in crime, talked to her on the phone and said it was just like talking to a young me. Connie came to visit me for ten days from Alaska last month.”
“How was it seeing her? Was it as if no time had passed?”
“That’s it. It was just like that. You don’t get many friendships like those.”
“That’s wonderful. I’m glad Connie came to visit you.”
“I figure I’m old enough. I’m 72! I used to be so timid. I’m not timid anymore.”
“Are you scared? Where do you think we go when we leave this planet?”
“Wherever we want to, I hope! I’m not scared now. I did this to myself. I didn’t take care of myself. I was a rotten child, and I apologized for that. I may change my mind here pretty soon…I know it’s going to hit me like a bowling ball.”
“How long do you have?”
“They said 3 to 6 months about 3 months ago. Not long.”
“Can I ask you what happiness means to you?”
“Smiling at other people. I was a cashier. People love it when you smile at them. Just helping people. It doesn’t have to be anything big. It can be just a smile. That’s what makes me happy.”
“You are making me happy right now.”
“Oh, good!” She laughs, and coughs, and reaches down to her bag for her breathing supplies.
“Who is picking you up at the airport?”
“How long have you been married?”
“Thirty years. But we don’t live together anymore. I don’t want him to live with me.”
“He broke a promise to me. I don’t need much…I’m not a woman of many means, but I take promises very seriously.”
“As you should! May I ask what was the promise?”
“He promised to take me to see Pavarotti sing, and he never did it! Are you married?"
"No. I'm gay. Though I guess I can get married now if I want to."
"Yes, I guess you can! My first husband was gay. My son's father."
"That must have been tough."
"It is what it is. I loved him."
"You know what, I bet he loved you back."
She shrugged. "Maybe. Do you have a special someone?"
"No. I never have."
"I don't know what to tell you about that."
“Do you like music?”
“I love Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd, and I went to an Alice Cooper concert once. Did you know Pink Floyd put out a new record? And once when I was a teenager, I was experimenting with some speed and listened to Beethoven’s Fifth. It was incredible!”
“Do you still like your husband? I’m being presumptuous, but it doesn’t sound like you’re in love anymore.”
“No. But we talk every day and he comes to see me.”
“Do you like him?”
“I used to. Now I mainly just need him.”
“Do you have anyone that comes to visit you?”
“No. My family never thought I was worth the effort. I can understand it now and it’s all fine. I’m signed up with hospice, and I don’t want to be resuscitated, so they should be able to take care of my body and everything else. I’m just ready to get back to my home and my bed and rest until it happens.”
“Would it be okay if I came to visit you?”
“Well! I don’t see why not. You’re not going to hurt me are you?!”
“Of course not!” We laughed. “But I would be happy to come and visit you if that’s something you’d like.”
“Yes, I think I would.”
“As a 72 year old loner talking to a young 35 year old loner…what advice do you have for me?”
“Learn to really like yourself."
She gave me her phone number. She lives in Pflugerville. Her name is Genie Barnett. And I have a date.
What am I missing? Not a Goddamn thing.