I came here to Yuma, AZ, to be with my parents as they deal with health problems. On a Southwest flight heading to Phoenix from Minneapolis, I’m one of the last to board the plane and find a seat. Middle seats are sure to be all that remain open and I know the odds of being near the front of the plane are near zero so I prepare myself to carry my little dog to the back of the plane and find a seat. To my surprise the second row from the front has an open middle seat next to a VERY odd shaped woman with long wavy gray hair, glasses and sporting a new pair of Keds on her very small feet that dangle next to where my knees will be. She fills half of the seat with her head resting just above where my waist will be should I choose the seat next to her which I do.
As Elsa and I had been waiting at the gate, Kathy’s wheelchair had come up right beside us. She greets us with a big smile, as just about everyone does when they see Elsa’s little face and experience her wagging tail as they make eye contact with her. She gave Elsa the reward of a head scratch and we both smiled. As she wasn’t sure how she was going to board with the wheelchair she said she would need to see the agent and told us goodbye. Off she flew in the slick little electric wheelchair that has become commonplace at airports to get her place in the line.
My arrival on the plane was a real boost for me because there was a front seat open and Elsa and I wouldn’t have to navigate to the back with her kennel and my backpack in tow but equally because I thought I would enjoy visiting with Kathy. I knew instantly why the seat was open and I’ll bet you did too. Kathy was different. Her spirit encased in an odd little body meant that the average person would want to avoid her. The man who had taken the window seat certainly had no interest in even looking at her, let alone talking to her. Yet she smiled.
After getting Elsa relatively settled on the floor in her kennel, Kathy and I began to talk to each other. The man on my right talked to me too. Not once did he acknowledge Kathy in our conversation though she had many interesting things to add to it. I feel sorry for him because he missed SO MUCH. Kathy was 65 years old and was born with spina bifida. Her and gainfully employed doing HR work for a company from her house. She was a life-long south Minneapolis resident with a lot to say. She was going to Phoenix to visit a good friend who had found out that she had terminal cancer and had decided to rent a place there for one of her last winters. She was checking things off her bucket list and wintering in AZ was one of those things so every week or two a new friend from up north would join her. This was Kathy’s week. As our plane landed, we wished each other well and departed both lives having been made richer by sitting next to each other on a 3 hour flight.
I share this with you because you may be like the man on my right and all of those other passengers who left her seat open for me. I don’t think anyone purposed to be mean to Kathy. I simply think that even as far as we have come in accepting people with disabilities and empowering them to live their own best lives, for the most part we generally have no idea how to acknowledge their existence with ease.
The fact that Kathy chooses to thrive living in her body shatters the perfect life we see portrayed in the magazine in the seat pocket in front of us. Grandparents with their kids at Disneyland, young beautiful couples taking exotic honeymoon vacations, ads for artificial hair replacement and the nations best dermatologists must be damned if we open our hearts to her, so we just don’t.
The beautiful thing is that life, real honest to God life, breathes more of itself into each one of us if we find the courage to enter into the odd, the unusual and different from ourselves. Kathy enriched my life yesterday. I enriched hers. Please think about us the next time you see someone like Kathy. If all you can do is establish eye contact and say hello , you will be well on your way to finding the water of life that truly quenches your thirst.