Saturday, February 6, 2010
Freedom of Flight and Sunflowers
For quite a while I've been meaning to tell a story, a true story, about a little girl who loved sunflowers best of all. I need to tell the story so that I am not the only person who knows it. I think you'll understand that a bit more when I tell the rest of the tale.
Airplanes are funny things. When we are on one, it is best not to think too much about the act of flight. Even if you understand the physics and engineering behind an aircraft, there is something rather magical about a metal tube, moving through the air, carrying us as cargo from one point to another. From the moment we leave the ground, until we touch down again, we have primarily placed our fate in the hands of others, and may they be capable of delivering us safely. There is little we can do to impact the outcome, we are free from responsibility to the determination of whether things will be all right, in the end. It's oddly freeing, our lives are full of responsibilities, our choices have weight. In flight, we are rather weightless, awaiting the outcome.
Fifteen years ago, on a flight to Orlando, with a change over in Dallas, I sat next to a very elderly couple. Like most travelers, I was armed with a book, something to do, something with which to ward off conversations we don't wish to have, if need be. Although I often tell stories of what a flake I can be, the fact of the matter is I'm a rather coolly capable sort of person. Good head in an emergency, and hard to shock. I'm also willing to converse with strangers, because people interest me. Truly, and without pretense, I'm often very interested in the lives of others. I'm not good at surface conversations, but I do love a good long, revealing talk.
I exchanged pleasantries with the couple, and did the polite thing, asked where they were bound, etc. These weren't outwardly happy, outgoing people, but neither were they ill-tempered. The man was farther away, at the window, and seemed absorbed in his own world. His face was dotted with bandaids, it looked as if he'd likely had some patches of skin cancer removed. I don't remember what led up to the moment, not really. I was doing the courteous, interested thing, but I like to hear people's stories, so my interest was real.
"Do you have any children?" I asked, and was told that yes, there was a son. A forty-year-old accountant, in Philly. I've no idea why that sticks in my head, but it does. There was a quality to the silence that followed, something else was there. A feeling of disappointment hung in the air.
I've never been gifted with a poker face. I'm positive that I must have done something at that moment, glanced pointedly, with an air of inquiry; something. Nothing followed though, and I was about to let the conversation drop, about to open my book and insulate us both from the need to continue when the woman next to me cleared her throat slightly:
"I had a daughter," she said tentatively. "I had a daughter too, but she died when she was eight."
I closed the book, half-turned in my seat towards the woman and nodded, "Oh, I'm sorry." I'm sure that in my tone was the expression of empathy. I put the book down on my lap and continued, "What was she like?"
There is something about the freedom of flight. The rules are different in the air. Sometimes we confide in strangers, sometimes was are confided in. For the next hour, this woman, this woman with an odd, wary quality about her at first, but only at first, told me about Sandy. An eight-year-old little girl who died long before I was even born.
She loved Sunflowers and on her last birthday party, her mother sewed her a dress with Sunflowers on the material. Baked her a cake with buttercream icing, and lemonade was made, and enjoyed on a sunny day. Sandy had a kitten she loved tremendously, too and she was a bright spirit. Liked to sing, all the time, her mother told me. She would hear her voice as she did housework, and that was hardest of all after Sandy was gone. The silence where there had once been a voice.
Every now and then, when someone tells you about someone they love, you will see that love so clearly, it is as if you are sharing in it. This woman, who had seemed so guarded at first, a little wary of the much younger woman beside her, dropped all barriers, and the love she felt for her long dead daughter was right there, in the plane with us.
It was a wonderful conversation, full of stories about children's books and favorite dolls. Treasured memories, shared with a stranger. Swing sets, and a garden.
Eventually the plane landed in Dallas, a bit delayed. Over the loud speaker the captain's voice asked that all passengers remain seated, and that people who needed to catch a connecting flight be allowed disembark first. I was one of those passengers. I rose to my feet, and grabbed my bag from the overhead bin, preparing to go. My hand was resting on the back of the seat, and my seat mate stood, and place her hand over mine giving it a squeeze.
"I haven't talked to anyone about my daughter in thirty years," She began, and I was slightly alarmed to see that she had tears in her eyes. "Thank you so much."
I was almost stunned into silence for a moment, because I was absolutely sure she was being literal. I'm positive she had told people in the years prior to that, that she had lost a daughter, but it was very clear, I was the first person she had talked to about her at any length in all that time.
"It was my pleasure, thank you for telling me about her," passengers were beginning to file out, it was time for me to go, "I won't forget her."
I never have. Every time I see a Sunflower, I think of that woman, and I think of Sandy, in her dress, drinking lemonade at the last birthday party she would ever have. Every time I see a Sunflower, Sandy lives in my memory.
As I rushed to catch my plane, I wondered why, why would this woman have told me so fully about her daughter? There is nothing particularly remarkable about me, I possess no secrets to the souls of others. I wield no magic. So why? Why did she tell me? I was honored, please don't get me wrong, I am to this day honored that someone would give me their most precious memory in such a manner, trust me so with something so delicate and fragile for them.
I don't remember who I sat next to on the plane to Orlando. I was still busy wondering but by the time the plane touched down in Florida, I knew.
Ask me how Sandy died, and I will not be able to tell you. I have suspicions, mind you. Her mother talked about Sandy being inside a great deal, not being able to play outside towards the end. If I've got my timelines right, Polio is a very likely suspect.
You see, I never asked how she had died. Or what had happened to her. I asked what she was like. That's what unlocked the memory for that woman, why she took out her most protected memories. By the time I met that woman, her daughter's death was something she had been asked about countless times. She didn't want to talk about how Sandy had died; she wanted to talk about how Sandy had lived.
The rules of flight are different, and perhaps best left unquestioned. I love a little girl named Sandy every time I think of Sunflowers. A stranger, probably no longer with us, shared her with me on a plane, long ago. Not because there is anything special about me, but because she loved her daughter so, and I asked what she was like.
I've always loved Sunflowers since, because they bring a little girl back to life, simply by remembering her.