I boarded my flight from Norfolk, Virginia to Dulles (DC) with a level of anxiety – not so much about the flight, more so flying into my “home” airport for 5 years, being so close to my friends who turned to family, and being back in an airport of immense familiarity.
Walk on. Found my seat. Window seat. YAS. A place to rest my head for a quick power nap or enjoy the clouds for a few.
My seat mate joins me. A somewhat scatter brained, tanned by the beach, bra lines showing, her hair in a messy bun, woman who appears panicked by the current situation. She plops down next to me quickly and asks with an edge of urgency, “wanna share a drink?”
She’s endearing. We will call her Leslie. She has this way of captivating your attention without eye contact, but keeping you at a distance if your ears can’t listen fast enough to keep up with her banter. She talks candidly about the Bloody Mary she just spent $40 on, the urgency of her flight purchase, the anxiety that is building as this is her first time flying, and the funeral she didn’t plan on attending this week. I met her with a smile, assurance, and immediately hit a place of 15 second prayer to myself – “God, help me show her Jesus on earth”
In a matter of minutes, we shared our basics. She’s flying into her hometown to attend a funeral – her daughter’s ex-boyfriend’s mother’s funeral. She quickly discloses that she is “an alcoholic” – I hesitate to say “struggles” because she doesn’t use the terminology once. She has been married for 30 years and left her hometown 8 years ago after multiple jail stints, of her and her husband’s. His drug of choice: crack. He is a very successful body worker on vehicles near the beach. She was a hustling mom of 5 daughters. (Please understand, I got this story in fragments and enjoyed every second of this encounter). I shyly put my book away and immediately settled into her stories.
As we start to take off, Leslie asks me multiples times to walk her through the process. I’d start, she’d interrupt, I’d giggle and start again. After walking her through airplane mode “that’s what that is?!”, we start to roll to the runway. She says “I’m entertaining, are you ready?” multiple times, as if her energy has scared others off (been there).
We have hit the air and she is talking quickly. She has relaxed her posture and settled into her seat. I hear stories of trauma – abuse from 8 men before 8 years old, losing her grandkids to foster care, watching her mother in law be hit by a car at her home and dying, her husband’s 3 years in jail. I hear stories of hope – 5 beautiful daughters and countless pictures of adorable grandchildren, a functioning business, a happy soul at the beach, lovely relationships in tact including her sister in law. I also hear ounces of resilience and built walls – she didn’t focus on remorse, she didn’t focus on the broken bits, she focused on walking forward, continuing to reach forward, and loving on whoever was in front of her.
Her dream is to have land and a yard full of trailers for those young girls “down and out” to inhabit and heal in. Not necessarily sober, just heal.
She clings to her alcohol as one clings to a cup of coffee in the morning, and she sheds her light wherever she goes that is commonly misunderstood for angst, crass, and anger.
To spare details, she answered all my questions about jail, using, prison. And let me tell you, those who use, they understand human and man-made plumbing better than any well seasoned surgeon or plumber (another thought for another day).
We have hit the landing phase and the turbulence has set in. Literally, the plane was small and we hit every bump “we not hitting anything, right?” And figuratively, as she begins to process the loss of a woman who stepped in and took care of her family while she herself was in jail.
The drunken and loving “thank yous” have begun, she has nicknamed me “Lee” and I told her that she is the only person to ever call me that. She reminds me to live, travel, “wait on kids” and listen to these women who are still using like her. She speaks highly of her daughters and husband, even those who are currently using and losing their children to foster care. She speaks highly of “most” of her foster families. She questions my cross tattoo and asks if I’m a ‘Bible Bumper’ like the rest of them. I share the intimate parts of my early understanding and knowing of Jesus and she listens longingly, providing encouragement for the trauma I’ve seen and lived through.
We land. She pushes me lovingly to the aisle because she senses my small bladder and treats me like a daughter. I guide her to her concourse and receive the deepest, alcohol-ridden, lovely hug. I may not see her again. She will likely never see this. But in 40 minutes, I learned 5 things.
1. Jesus is alive in me. And in anyone who accepts His love as their Savior.
2. Resilience is a common shade of using and addiction. It radiates in these encounters, traumas, and losses.
3. People are people, using or not. This woman does not desire sobriety.. yet. But she is not a lost cause, she is not a waste of space, she has just as much value to the Kingdom as I, as you.
4. Love extends beyond the chaos of the broken. It extends, outlives, out reaches, and outlasts the trauma.
5. Sometimes, we have to choose to suffer well. We have to walk through things we have never envisioned for our lives, but God is with us.
No, I didn’t introduce her to Jesus. No, she was not miraculously saved. But, she made one more flight. She had one more hour. She inspired one more person. She survived one more drink. She is living one more day. And that is what matters. I strongly desire for her to meet Jesus. She survived “her first flight” to hopefully see that end. And I can only pray that the Holy Spirit in me helped to plant that seed.
Now. Walk on, Lee & Leslie, walk on.