It’s a funny thing when our selfish hopes get turned upside down and the multi-faceted glimmer of renewed perspective is revealed.
We settled into row 27 on the Boeing 737 headed from Seattle to Washington D.C. I gambled with seat selection and the hopes that no one would willingly choose to sit in the middle seat next to a messy, talkative and squirmy toddler on this five hour flight. Since the flight attendants continuously briefed oncoming passengers the plane was completely full, I placed two-year-old, Gracie, in the middle, made sure our million snacks were reachable, stuffed our bags underneath, and I rested in the aisle seat. As the final passengers were boarding, the window seat remained open.
“Maybe we got lucky,” I whispered to my husband, Matt, across the aisle.
The overhead compartments closed. All passengers seated. The flight crew passed to check our seat belts.
“Yes!” I smiled to Matt. “Gracie can stretch out and maybe take a really long nap.”
It was a mother’s silent desire.
I peered my neck over the seat in front of me to see a man with a large gray bag making his way down the aisle. I immediately knew he’d be occupying the window seat, and I sighed.
Bummer. There goes my peaceful flight.
He made his way to me, looked at Gracie in the middle, and I asked if it would be okay if he took the window instead of his assigned middle seat. Of course, he obliged, throwing his bag overhead and settling next to Gracie.
“Hi, what’s your name?” he kindly asked my pig-tailed daughter.
No response from her. No eye contact. She wasn’t sure about this man. I told her it’s okay to greet him, and she whispered, “Gracie.”
“My name’s Richard,” he told her.
“How old are you?” he continued.
“I’m two,” she answered, holding up three pudgy fingers.
“Are you leaving home or going home?” I asked.
“I’m going home. I haven’t been in a year, and I’m ready to see my wife and daughters,” he answered. “I just arrived from Japan and had to run to catch this flight. My daughters don’t know I’m coming, so I’ll surprise them in the morning when they wake up. Thanks for holding the plane.”
Thanks for holding the plane?! He said it as if I had something to do with it. One minute before I was silently telling the pilot to close it up and roll out so no one else could board. And now he’s thanking me?!
All the ensuing disappointment for the loss of a silly, empty seat dissipated as my perspective shifted to the reality and sheer joy of this moment.
For the next five hours, this heroic Marine graciously welcomed Gracie’s questions, shared Japanese candy with my kids, and told Matt and I pieces of his time in Japan and previous deployment in Afghanistan. When the plane touched down, we were richer and better than before we left Seattle.
And then it happened. The moment I’ve watched plenty of times on TV with tears rolling down my cheeks. A soldier’s reunion.
It took us longer than Richard to get to the baggage carousel with all the gear needed for a two-year-old, but when we arrived I looked up.
People everywhere. Gracie was pulling on my arms. I lost Matt in the madness of baggage claim. Our ten-year-old daughter had to use the facilities, and our teenage son was trying to locate Matt. But it was as if the whole chaotic scene encompassing me went silent and time paused as I distantly watched Richard tenderly reunite with his sweet wife.
They embraced for a moment. Looked at each other. Kissed. Embraced again. Swung her around. His grin reached the heavens. Her hands wiped the liquid falling from her eyes. He sprinted to get his army fatigue bag and returned to her waiting arms. Special.
“What are you looking at and why are you crying?” one of my kids asked, jolting me from my fly-on-the-wall experience.
Because of this, my Child: Sometimes when we get what we think we want, like that empty seat on the plane, it means we’re missing out on so much more. I’m so glad the seat was filled. I would have missed the significance of this moment. Leave your hands open to receive the good that is coming when you least expect it and soak in the wonder of today.
And somewhere in Virginia two little girls woke up to their daddy’s warm embrace.