66: Carry On

66: Carry On

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Touched by an Angel

Carry On

Oh, my friend, it’s not what they take away from you that counts. It’s what you do with what you have left.

~Hubert Humphrey

I trudged through the Maui airport weighed down by despair and an overstuffed carry-on. A man who had played a central role in my life for the last two decades had died. He was my teacher and my mentor. He had opened my mind to a view of life that offered extraordinary possibilities. Through his teaching I had been able to make sense of the world, to understand my place in it. I had a goal and he kept me on course with gentle nudges and occasional hard shoves.

With this man’s help, I had changed. No longer the heavy-hearted lost soul, I had become more content, focused and sure. But now his death left me devastated, and worse than the grief was the terror. I was afraid that without his support, reminders and re-directions, I would not maintain my new perspective or fulfill my highest potential.

I made my way to the departure gate and queued up with the rest of the passengers waiting to board. The line was long, and I stood far from the door that opened to the tarmac. A woman shuffled in my direction. She was gaunt and birdlike, all jutting bones and sharp edges.

“Can I cut in front of you?” she said. “I can’t stand for very long. I’d like to board as soon as possible.”

I stepped back to open a space in front of me and wondered why she hadn’t gone right to the head of the line. Anyone could see she wasn’t well. There were dark circles under her eyes and her skin had a greenish tinge. She dragged her carpetbag along the floor as the line inched forward. I offered to carry it for her and she handed me the strap.

There were no seat assignments on the short hop to Oahu. As we boarded the plane, I suggested we sit together so I could stow and later retrieve her bag for her. She slid into a window seat. I hoisted our carry-on bags into the overhead and then sat down next to her. She stared out at the tarmac and I fixed my attention on the flight attendant who was pantomiming safety instructions. When the seatbelt light went out I fumbled in my handbag for my paperback, but before I could open it my newfound travel companion launched into a lengthy monologue. She unraveled the tale of her ten-year struggle with breast cancer, which had metastasized to her bones causing numerous hairline fractures and a broken clavicle. This, she explained, was why she had been dragging the carpetbag.

“Still,” she said, “I feel even more well now then I did before the cancer.”

The statement puzzled me, but before I could question her she continued. She had heard a doctor speak at a conference. He said that one day, while making his rounds, he had a spiritual awakening. It gave him insight into what it meant to heal on a deeper level. The experience was life changing. He gave up his cure-focused medical practice to engage patients in a process that would help them heal body, mind and spirit. This doctor became her spiritual teacher and guide.

“He didn’t cure me,” she said. “But he did help me to heal myself.”

I was stunned. Why had she told me this story? It was so personal and I was a stranger. And how odd that she too had a teacher with insight into a deeper reality. I knew how very rare and special it was to have a teacher of that kind.

She had grown still, but continued to hold me in her gaze. I sensed a steady calm and steely strength beneath her fractured frame, yet I began to tremble.

“You’re grieving and you’re despairing,” she said at last.

How could she know? I had told her nothing about myself. My skin prickled.

I looked into the dark wells that were her eyes, and seeing compassion there I let myself fall into them. I told her all about my teacher, his death, and my dread that, without his guidance, I would lose my way. The words poured out of me in a torrent until there were no more. I felt like I was drowning.

She studied me in no rush to respond. I concentrated on restoring an even rhythm to my breath.

“It’s time for you to listen to your own voice,” she said at last. “Your teacher’s death freed you so you could continue to grow.” She assured me that his teaching was part of me and with it I could find my own way.

Her words were like a life preserver, and grabbing hold I remembered something very important my teacher had told me. “When in doubt,” he had said, “ask yourself what I would tell you to do and why.” With this technique, he explained, I could always reach inside myself and access the teaching. The memory of his words came as a confirmation of hers. I did have the means to find my own way. I could move forward even now with him gone.

Salty rivulets of relief ran down my cheeks. My heart expanded, grateful for the unexpected encounter with this bearer of healing words.

She closed her eyes and turned her head back toward the window. There was no more talk as the plane continued northwest to Honolulu.

After deplaning, she and I walked together to her connecting gate. She was headed back home to Australia.

“I want to give you this,” she said, handing me a cassette tape. “It’s a talk my teacher gave.”

Thanking her, I bent down to tuck the tape into my carry-on. When I straightened back up I was alone. I searched for her throughout the gate area but she was gone. How was that possible? She moved so slowly dragging her bag, and I had only looked down for a moment. It was so odd the way she had appeared out of nowhere and then disappeared in the same way. And what was her name, had she even told me? I couldn’t remember, but it didn’t matter. It was her words I would never forget.

~Lorri Danzig

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