Image by Toa Heftiba via Unsplash

For the Stranger I Met in the Phoenix Airport

“Is that good?” a gray-haired woman asks me, pointing to my book.

“Oh, it’s okay,” I say.

I don’t tell her that I can’t really concentrate, that my eyes are just grazing the shapes of ink across the page, and not absorbing any of it. That I’m too tired and worried to tune in to whatever story awaits. That as we sit in these uncomfortable airport seats waiting to hear if our already delayed flight will be delayed longer, the base of my scalp is tingling, the harbinger of a migraine.

How very much we don’t say.

I notice the woman is reading, too. “How’s your book?” I ask, trying to be polite.

“I’m just getting started,” she says. “It’s too soon to tell.” She smiles, and I notice the glimmer in her slate-blue eyes. I know what she means — that feeling when you’re just beginning to wade into a story, when you’re still ambivalent and distant, when the plot could carry you any which way.

A current passes between us, a familiarity. Later, I will wonder if this was a gentle knowing, an invitation.

We talk about books, and she tells me she volunteers at her local library. I nod. I’m a compulsive reader, fanatic about libraries too.

Airports are strange places. Despite my fear of flying, despite the reason for my trip, I’ve always loved the in-betweenness of airports, the rush of thick-storied souls who roam them, excited, stressed, exhausted, grief-stricken.

“Are you going to Palm Springs?” she asks me.

“Just outside of it. You?” I ask.

“Same.” She names a small town that’s part of the greater Palm Springs area.

“Where are you from?” I decide to ask her. It feels safer than asking why she’s traveling. Like me, she doesn’t seem to be on a fun vacation.

“Atlanta,” she says. She pauses for a moment. “My brother just died,” she adds.

The connection between us buzzes. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” I say to her. My face folds in empathy.

“I have to settle his estate,” she says. “And take care of his dog.”

“I’m so sorry,” I repeat. I pause, an attempt to make space for her enormous loss, for the universe of a brother, gone. “It’s so hard, losing a brother. I lost mine, too.”

Her face opens. She feels it too, this hum of connection. “I’m sorry,” she says.

“Thank you. It was a long time ago,” I say.

“How did he die?” she asks.

For some reason, her question doesn’t feel intrusive the way the inquiry sometimes does. It doesn’t feel like she’s asking because she wants to tuck it away for gossip. It feels like a genuine request, a small intimacy.

“Um, he died of drugs and alcohol,” I say.

She nods, holding my gaze. “I lost my son and my husband, too. They died just a few months apart.”

“Oh, I’m so incredibly sorry. That’s more than anyone should have to bear,” I say. I think of my own husband and kids, back in Maine. How even headed into whatever I’m treading towards, I remain fortunate.

She nods. We sit in silence for a moment, all these losses heavy in the air.

“How about your brother?” I ask.

“Cancer,” she says. “We thought we had more time. But I guess we didn’t.”

We sit in silence again. “Do you have family in Palm Springs?” she asks finally.

“Yeah,” I say. “My parents. My dad — my dad is sick,” I say.

“I’m very sorry,” she says. “Do you — do you have any other siblings?” she asks.

“No,” I say. “It was just the two of us.”

She nods. “Same for me.”

We sit in another wave of quiet. Two sisters, unbrothered. Two women, brimming with grief. Who know loneliness, but for just this moment, are not alone.

Soon, our flight will be cancelled until the next morning. We’ll go our separate ways. She’ll walk through the doorway of her brother’s home, both empty and full of him. I’ll cross the threshold of my parents’ home, of everything that’s to come.

Later, I will think back on those moments in the airport, when I didn’t know, though I suspected it, how very sick my dad was. I didn’t know that the next day, he’d go to the emergency room at his local hospital. That early the morning after — my 45th birthday — he’d be diagnosed with advanced, aggressive lung cancer. I didn’t know that sometimes, at my dad’s bedside, I’d imagine my brother there with us.

I didn’t know that ten days after being diagnosed, as I took a quick break from my vigil, my dad would die.

I’ll think of the woman in the airport sometimes in the years to come. I’ll wonder how she’s bearing all of her losses. We would, I imagine, have been friends, given the gift of time and geography. We’d talk about books and brothers, words and wishes.

I’ll wonder if our moments together mean as much to her as they do to me. If she glances back on them and considers them sacred. If she believes that even in the deepest grief, we are sometimes cared for by strangers. That small, gleaming connections reach across the lonely landscape of loss. That among us walk strangers who are kindreds, angels, sisters.

Writer on sibling loss, grief, parenting, wellness and mental health. Voracious reader.

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