Red Eye Gravy

It was a redeye flight. Pre-pandemic. My wife and I flew out of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport at an ungodly hour of night.

We had been in Arizona to visit my cousins. July in Phoenix was hotter than playing tag in the attic. Earlier that day in Glendale I’d seen a college kid at our hotel frying an egg on the hood of his car as a joke.

Our nine-o’clock flight had been cancelled, so we took a flight departing from PHX while the rest of the sane world was sleeping. We sat in the rear of the plane; livestock class.

I watched the pinprick lights of the Copper State twinkle from 30,000 feet as my wife slept with her head on my shoulder.

The aircraft was mostly empty except for a few sleep-deprived flight attendants and us masochists.

On my other side was a woman wearing pink medical scrubs. She was drifting in and out of consciousness. Her head kept falling onto my other shoulder, whereupon she’d catch herself and apologize.

“Oh, jeez. I’m sorry, sir.”

I smiled. “Don’t be.”

She had cropped salt-and-pepper hair and wore a hospital lanyard nametag that read LPN. She seemed restless.

I started the conversation. “You’re a nurse.”

“Yeah,” she replied groggily. Then she closed her eyes again, signaling we were done talking.

I glanced at the flight attendants, half-sleeping, buckled in their jumpseats. I was jealous. I tried to fall asleep, too, but it wasn’t happening. My wife was snoring like a GM 6.6 liter diesel.

I pointed to the nurse’s hospital nametag. “Originally from Phoenix?”

She shook her head, eyes still closed. “Nobody’s originally from Phoenix. I’m from Georgia. You?”

“Sunshine State.”

The sound of turbine engines hummed beneath us and we both tried to sleep. But failed.

She said, “So what do you do?”

“Very little.”

Her turn to smile. It was a great smile, but there was sadness in it.

I said, “I’m a writer. Sort of.”

“What do you write?”

“Mostly misspelled words with incorrect punctuation.”

“Are all writers as smart alecky as you?”

“Just the mediocre ones.”

The woman re-closed her eyes. She looked exhausted. But she was hanging in there. “So what brought you to the Silicon Desert?”

“Visiting cousins. What about you? Where’re you heading?”

There was the forlorn voice again. She sighed. “I go to Atlanta every weekend to see my mom. She’s, ah…” She opened her eyes to look out her window. “My mom’s dying.”

I studied my boots because I never know what to say in these moments. The last thing I wanted to offer was the prototypical “I’m sorry.” After my father’s end, everyone told me they were sorry. Believe me, these people meant well, but they sounded like kindhearted robots.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

She closed her eyes, but casually opened one. “Don’t be.”

We were silent while the Sangre de Cristo Mountains passed somewhere beneath our seats, the southernmost portion of the Rockies. The mountains were named by explorer Antonio Valverde y Cosio in 1719. The Spaniard saw these reddish rocks at sunrise and was so touched by the view that he gasped and uttered, “The blood of Christ.” And the name stuck.

“Strange thing is,” she went on, “I’ve seen lots of people die. Daily sometimes. But when it’s your family, all bets are off.”

I said nothing.

“Hardest part is watching them decline. I think it’s harder than anything else.

“You watch’em lose a little more of who they were. Another memory evaporates. Then suddenly you’re helping them hold a glass of water so they don’t drop it, you’re combing their hair… They become like your child.”

“I can’t imagine.”

She yawned. I yawned. This set off a chain reaction of yawns spreading all the way to the cockpit. My wife was now drooling on my shirt.

“But it’s not all bad,” she said, eyes remaining shut. “That’s the part I can’t really explain. It’s some kinda miracle, a supernatural thing.

“There’s a special bond you develop when you care for a dying parent. Something powerful, you’d never expect it to happen, but it does.

“Been flying home each week and these have been the craziest days of my life. But the intimacy Mom and I share now… God. It’s a gift, a real gift. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

The world.

The world itself was getting less dark outside our three-layered acrylic windows. The sun would later rise somewhere over Fort Worth.

I wanted to hug this woman. I wanted her to know I cared. But civilized people don’t hug strangers. We just apologize.

“My mom was a great lady.” The woman was now drifting off. “I mean is—she is a great lady.” Then she fell asleep.

After several hours, we touched down in Atlanta. Cabin lights illuminated. People stretched sore muscles. Zombies awakened.

I gently nudged my new nurse friend awake. Her eyes snapped open and she was immediately embarrassed.

“Oh my God.” She covered her face. “Was my head resting on your shoulder for the whole flight? Oh, jeez. I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be,” I said.


  1. johnnie943 - May 15, 2021 9:49 am

    Thank you for sharing this experience. It was very meaningful. We have !ived in Glendale, Arizona since retiring from the military several years ago, a transplanted Texan. You could not have been far from us when you were here. You are right about the weather. Still May and we have officially reached 100 degrees now. God Bless You. And thank you for helping so many people with your writings. I hope you are writing another book.
    Johnnie Skaggs

    • Bobby - May 15, 2021 2:43 pm

      I understand and empathize with the nurse. Our dad passed away three weeks ago. We watched his health slowly decliine. He was a resident in a nursing. home for the past 2 1/2 years COVID prevented direct contact for the last year but interacted as best we could. He lived a productive life for his 95 mortal years.

  2. Laura - May 15, 2021 9:52 am

    I sat with my mom for the entire last month before she passed. That nurse was right. It was a miracle and a bond.

  3. Cheryl - May 15, 2021 12:34 pm

    I love that you touch on the goodness and lessons of life.
    You add some joy and laughs to my world.
    These elements are in short supply these days.

  4. Maggie Priestaf - May 15, 2021 1:08 pm

    Yes, with my mom…

  5. Iris Hamlin - May 15, 2021 1:19 pm

    I call it The Long Goodbye. I sat with my mother almost 24/7 for the last two years of her life and watched her vibrancy slowly drift away and the sparkle in her eyes fade. As hard as it was, I’m thankful I was able to spend that time with her. I’m sorry you never had that special time with your dad, Sean.

  6. Nancy Crews - May 15, 2021 1:44 pm

    ❤your writing. I went through the same process with my mother after a heart attack in June and death the following January. Even though it was a difficult time, it was a very intimate time we had together. Conversation were much richer and certainly memorable. She really knew I loved her.

  7. Betty - May 15, 2021 1:49 pm

    Once again, thanks for the emotional wreckage your column has brought! You often leave me in happy tears because you write about something so familiar to me. I lived with my parents their last few years and I was their sole caretaker. My siblings came to visit and they were good enough to bring food, but they missed out on the gift I received by living there day to day. Returning home to live with my very elderly parents turned out to be the happiest and most fulfilling part of my life in many ways. It was a simple time spent reconnecting with two of my best friends but in a new way.

  8. Jonathan Machen - May 15, 2021 2:05 pm

    There you Go

    There you go again mixing pathos with humor, as you do so well..liked this one a lot.

  9. Sandra Nelsen - May 15, 2021 2:42 pm

    Love Glendale. Have lived here since 1981. Came from Virginia and before that, Idaho. We came here for the job At Palo Verde, the nuclear generating plant west of Phoenix, before it even had fuel. I had to give up my part time career as a nurse, as no one to watch three small children with two people with wacky schedules. I’ve seen quite a few people die, been there in their last days….minutes, and it is true, there is something deeply spiritual about being there when someone crosses from this life to the next. I always wonder at the multitudes waiting beside me: Me watching them leave, and them, the welcoming committee. I’ve felt them. One day, it will be my turn. Hoping for a bit more grandchildren and quilting time, and a few more Phoenix winters….and even our flower incinerating summers. Pansies literally burned up yesterday. So sad. Was great planting them in January, though. Love your daily reads.

  10. mevely317 - May 15, 2021 3:46 pm

    Bittersweet! I moved here (Alabama) from Phoenix 3 years ago and haven’t once regretted it. People look at me funny when I tell them I relocated here to get away from the heat — but it’s true!

  11. Jan - May 15, 2021 3:47 pm

    Beauty and truth – you present them both so well. Thank you, Sean!

  12. Connie - May 15, 2021 6:05 pm

    Another wonderful heart wrenching story. You are the new Lewis Grizzard!!! Thank you.

  13. Linda Moon - May 15, 2021 9:52 pm

    I’ve had a couple of red eye flights. One was for visiting my cousins and one was for a visit to kin in Ft. Worth. What a kind listener you were…for the nurse. And what an observer and teller of LIFE stories you are. You care and cause us to care. My God, what a gift you are. But one question: if smart aleck writers are mediocre does that mean that ALL mediocrities are smart aleck? If so, I am one. Your last two words in this column were not mediocre, Writer. SO THERE ….from a smart aleck whatever the heck I am these days!

  14. elizabethroosje - May 16, 2021 1:55 am

    Sean! Such wonderful posts as always! I love how you can capture a scene so well. I love your writing and can’t wait for your next book!

  15. Lurline Donelson - May 16, 2021 2:11 am

    🙏🏼 thank you

  16. Christina - May 16, 2021 2:34 am

    I love this red eye connection

  17. Beverly Wynn Bua - May 16, 2021 4:46 pm

    s. Former Flight Attendant, I assure you the F:a’s were not half asleep on duty. We are only allowed to work a certain amount of hours in a 24 hr period. Our job is First safety in case of emergency & second in-flight service, which I realize has become meager on some flights , so no jokes about peanuts.., heard them all. Just wanted you to be aware of our purpose.

  18. Chasity Davis Ritter - May 16, 2021 9:57 pm

    When my dad was battling his cancer I was the one taking him to his appointments in okc each month each week. I drove and my mom and aunt (who was his medical power of attorney) came with us. His wife did not go. I spent time sitting by my dad as I drove. We listened to the radio. Talked some. Held hands. It was a relationship building time like the nurse mentioned. The two hours there and back as well as time in the waiting rooms together. We also went to church together I sat beside him and held his hand or rubbed his back and neck or arm. What ever was hurting. His wife also did not attend church with us. When the time finally came to an end he had been plugged in to the ventilator and machines. He had a DNR. He was unplugged. His wife left and went home basically with a call me when it’s over…. my mom stayed a while. His sisters and a few others. They slowly each drifted away and went back home (2 hours away) throughout the day and evening until it was just us kids. His children. We stayed by his side talking, some confessing, making amends. Saying goodbye. Praying and playing music for him. We stayed all through the night until 4:20 am when he finally found release. Yes it was intimacy. Thats a way to put it. I resented his wife a great deal during those last few months. I resented her attitude and that she couldn’t be there for him. But now 2 1/2 years later I’m kinda glad. I had that time with my Dad without her around. Without that added stress. To just be alone with him being a caregiver too (to a certain extent). It’s time I wouldn’t trade. At least I have those moments and those memories. I don’t know why I shared all this. Well I do actually because like all those other fortunate souls you sit beside sometimes I tell you things too. I get them off my heart and outta my head. I’d tell you I’m sorry I talk about my dad so much in my comments on all your blogs but I also know what you’d say….. thanks Sean.

    • Bill Harris - May 18, 2021 1:03 am

      Thank you for sharing. ❤️

  19. Sonya Tuttle - May 16, 2021 10:01 pm

    Wondering if your own mom is still here? You comment on Mother Mary, your MIL, but not your mom.🧐🧐🧐🧐🧐🧐

  20. Connie - May 18, 2021 12:35 am

    You are Lewis Grizzard incarnate and welcome back!!! I’ve missed you!

  21. Bill Harris - May 18, 2021 1:00 am

    Another ordinary occurrence that touched my heart. Thank you Sean.

  22. squidmcfinnigan - May 26, 2021 11:00 pm

    A lovely tale


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