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?”
The sound of turbine engines hummed beneath us and we both tried to sleep. But failed.
She said, “So what do you do?”
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 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.