Thinking about Helen…

This week while out for an afternoon walk with one of my co-workers we talked about my first trip to Hawaii.  I promised her I would track down the blog post about my adventure and the flight with Helen to share with her.  It’s almost been 3 years since that first trip.  I was definitely in transition to the next stage of my life.  Those of you who were with me during the changes and the struggles more than likely remember this story.  After reading it tonight, I decided it was worth sharing again.  Let’s call this the “Best of Ann” series.  I long since had to close that blog down because of some narrow minded people that I worked with. Enjoy!

The Incredible Flight
June 21, 2007

When I was a kid growing up one of my favorite stories was The Incredible Journey. To this day the story can still bring tears to my eyes. I guess there are some lessons to be learned from that story about old dogs teaching young dogs a few tricks.

My Hawaiian adventure started with a 3 a.m. wake up call. I didn’t get much sleep the night before. I was like a kid on Christmas Eve too wound up and excited to sleep. I had been looking forward to this time with my daughters to reconnect and to mend some hurts from the past six months.

The flight to Chicago was uneventful. I had a four hour layover until my flight headed to Honolulu. What was I thinking when I scheduled this flight? I struggled to stay awake at the airport, doing a little sock knitting to pass the time. A few times I found myself dozing off and awaking with a start and looking around trying to figure out where I was. I kept telling myself, “Just a little longer and you can sleep all the way to Hawaii.”

I couldn’t even find a seat in the waiting area; it was going to be a full plane. I looked around at some of my fellow passengers and wondered who would be my traveling companion for the next eight hours. I had an aisle seat, but it was a pretty safe bet that I wouldn’t be sitting alone.
I made my way on board the plane as part of the thundering herd. Wow, there were all sorts of people on this flight. I crossed my fingers hoping that there would not be any screaming babies sitting next to me during the flight. All I wanted to do was sleep and wake up ready to go when the plane touched down in Hawaii.

The steward directed me across the full length of the plane and I counted up the rows trying to find my seat. Sitting in the window seat was a white haired woman, her hands a bit tangled with arthritis. In her hand she had a typed sheet of paper that she was looking at intently. I smiled, and shoved my backpack under the seat in front of me.

I buckled myself in, arranged the blanket around my legs and pulled out my small bright pink knitting bag and pulled out the sock I was working on. My seat mate asked what I was working on.

“It’s a sock.” My reply was a bit short. I smiled after realizing how that must have sounded.

The plane was slowly filling up. I figured knitting a little would pass the time and then I planned to pass out and sleep for several hours.

“I am a knitter too; I have made a few pair of socks.”

Knitters seem to have an immediate kinship even when exhausted. I asked about her knitting, she was amazed by the fact that I was knitting with 5 tiny pointed sticks. I explained to her how knitting with so many needles creates a complete sock as you go along and don’t require any seaming. That exchange seemed to open up the floodgates and the conversation that would last most of the next eight hours began.

“I am flying to Hawaii to baby sit my grandchildren while my son and his wife go to a conference. I haven’t seen my grandchildren in two years.”

My needles kept moving and the sock continued to grow.

“I asked my husband to come along on this trip and he said no, but I decided to go anyway, how often does one get a chance to go to Hawaii and to see their grandchildren?”

I smiled, “good for you!” I had heard myself making that same statement when traveling by myself in the past. I thought this lady has a lot more spunk than I initially gave her credit for.

“My husband Manuel has Parkinson’s. The trip would not have been an easy one for him. My daughter and the neighbors are there to take care of him.” She leaned over and in a soft voice said, “I really needed to get away to have some time for myself, it’s not easy to deal with at times.”

Wow, that was quite a confession, but maybe the type of confession that is easier to do with a total stranger on a long plane flight. She pulled the paper from her purse again. I could see a typed up list as well as lots of handwritten notes that I was sure she had made on the paper.

“I’m from South Bend, Indiana my daughter Charlotte and my grand-daughter drove me to Chicago yesterday and we stayed the night so I would not have to get up so early for the flight. Charlotte decided we needed to see the museum and we were there for six hours, she completely wore me out!”

“Six hours in a museum would wear me out too!” I told her about the two trips I had made to Chicago last fall, one with my daughters.

“You are rally coming along on that sock, look how much you have done already, nearly two inches. I’ll stop bothering you and let you knit.”

Another smile from me, “I can actually listen to you and knit at the same time.”

“It’s great to have an audience that hasn’t heard my stories before” she seemed to come alive when she realized that I really was interested in what she had to say.

“Manuel and I have been married for 47 years.” She toyed a little with the ring on her hand, not some big flashy diamond, a simple band.

“How did you meet Manuel? I was beginning to become more curious about this woman sitting next to me.

“I met him in a recovery room. I was a nurse and he was an intern. He was from Iran and was 33 at the time. He told me that his plan was to marry a tall skinny sophisticated woman who liked to give cocktail parties, and instead he got me.” Her grin was contagious.

“I had signed up to join the navy but because of my eyesight they turned me down so I was working in a hospital in Galveston, Texas. I left home and went to nursing school for three years and was trained by the nuns. Manual looked at me across that mask and I just knew he was the one for me. We were married three months later.” She later told me that she got pregnant with their first child on their honeymoon.

“Are you sure these stories aren’t boring you dear?”

“Nope continue, please.”

I heard about her son Robert and his wife and kids—that is who she was going to meet. She told me several funny stories about her PhD daughter Charlotte and her attempts at becoming a farmer and raising a menagerie of assorted critters. She told me about Charlotte’s calm and patient husband that put up with her exploits and animal husbandry adventures. At times I was crying she had me laughing so hard.

I asked about her other son, his name was Philip. “Oh, Philip has had a lot of girlfriends, he’s 40 and unemployed. It took forever for him to complete his degree in social work.”

You could still hear the mother’s love in her voice, that unconditional love that a mother has for his child. She just shook her head when talking about him.

She told me about an operation that might help relieve or slow down her husband’s Parkinson’s. She was concerned that the amount of medication that he was taking every day was turning him into a zombie. She told me about his heart attack a while back. She said even with the Parkinson’s I had to do everything I could to keep him alive. “It just wouldn’t have been right to not try and keep him alive.”

We then had a very intense conversation about aging and disease. I told her that I thought at times we worked so hard to keep people alive, and not really considering the quality of that life. I related that to my stepfather and his Alzheimer’s. His father had died in his 60’s of a heart attack well before the Alzheimer’s could set in and take his mind.

The pilot announced the current Hawaiian time; I helped her adjust her watch to the correct time. She pulled out the paper again and made a few more notes. She pointed out some of the names on the paper, “can you pronounce this?” I had no more of a clue than she had.

She reached down to feel the weight of the sock yarn in her hand, then touched the sock I was working on, “wow, you are really moving along on those socks.”

“I made a hat for my son-in-law once. Charlotte washed it in the washer and dried it and it felted. Then Charlotte had a new hat.”

During the course of our conversation she mentioned her love of horses. She had been riding horses in since the age of five in Texas. What I was not prepared to hear was the fact that at age 68 she decided to take dressage riding lessons. I know that my eyes got as big as saucers when she told me that she had been taking riding lessons for three years.

“I had the darnedest time supporting myself in the saddle. My 66 year old riding instructor suggested that I get some riding britches. I sit up tall in the saddle now and don’t have to worry about falling off.”

I am thinking to myself FALLING OFF!?!?!?!

“I actually fell off once. My instructor told me that I needed to leap off the horse to dismount.” She then began to show me how you lean over the side of the horse, pull your feet out of the stirrups and leap off of the horse.

“I fell, landed on my head and hurt my butt. It’s a good think I had that helmet on. You should have seen the bruise on my butt though.” I nearly fell out of my seat laughing at the story and picturing this 71 year old woman leaping off of a horse.

“They don’t let me leap off unattended since that happened.”

Gee, imagine that?

“I don’t think I have even introduced myself, I’m Helen.”

I extended a hand, “Ann”.

“I’ve talked quite a bit about myself Ann, what about you? What’s your story?”

I told Helen about my daughters and the trip. I also knew that she was waiting to hear about my husband. That story came out as well. The decisions that I had made in the past 6 months and the ripple effect from those decisions and how I was working through dealing with the aftermath.

“You need to do what is best for you, not for anyone else in your life.”

I talked about going to college so late in life, returning to the work force and the changes in me in the past ten years. I told her that 40 had been a near fatal birthday for me, but that I had embraced 50 with both hands and had taken a serious look at my life. It was time to make a few serious life changes.

“Fifty, why your life is just beginning at 50! What I wouldn’t give to be 50 again.”

I guess it’s all relative. Here I was headed off to spend a few days with some twenty-something’s and I have a 71 year old woman telling me that life was just beginning.
I didn’t get much sleep on the flight. The stories that Helen related to me about the visits from her mother-in-law every summer—all summer long, her dulcimer class and her Middle Eastern dancing class kept me in stitches for the entire trip. Yep, Helen had taken one belly dancing class in her late 60’s.

“They just moved too fast for me, I couldn’t keep up. I did have fun while I was there though!”

I was amazed when the plane landed in Honolulu. I had told Helen about 5 hours into the flight that I would make sure she made the connection to the flight to the small island her family was staying on for the conference.

“Robert arranged for a wheel chair for me. I don’t want to use no stinking wheel chair!”

We stopped someone in the airport and found that Helen was going to need to take the Wiki Wiki shuttle to the next airport. She kept urging me to leave her, I just couldn’t. The Wiki Wiki driver dropped me off at baggage claim and promised me that he would take care of Helen and make sure she got to where she needed to be.

When I got off of the shuttle bus at baggage claim I hugged her and gave her a kiss on the cheek. The flight was an experience that I will never forget. Deep down inside I believe that Helen was put on that flight next to me to help me to understand and to realize that I am headed down the right path with my life. Life begins at 50 according to Helen.

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