On Sunday, September 28, I arrived at Charlottetown airport at 4:45 a.m. to catch my 6:00 a.m. flight to Montreal. I had probably slept for no more than fifteen minutes total the previous night: a combination of flying anxiety, worry about oversleeping through my alarm, and sadness had contributed to my sleeplessness.
I had said goodbye to my mom just a short time before. Dad and I sat by her bed for a few minutes, and then I had to wake her and tell her I was leaving. She tried to speak to me, but couldn't articulate any words. It didn't matter. I will never forget those moments. I knew this was the last time I would see her on this side of eternity, though I didn't know that she would die only 18 hours later.
My brother drove me to the airport. I had naively thought there would be only a few passengers on such an early flight -- but instead the airport was hopping with activity (at least as hopping as Charlottetown Airport can be). A flight for Toronto left just before ours, and then we boarded. The plane was full; there were quite a few families with small children chatting about their destination in Guadalajara, Mexico.
We took off, the cabin lights were dimmed so people could snooze, and quiet descended. It was a clear, calm, starry morning. Even at our maximum flying altitude I could see the lights on the ground below. I stared down at the sparkling patterns, letting my mind wander -- and wonder: was I was the only person on the plane who had just parted from a loved one for the last time on this earth?
We touched down in Montreal after a perfectly smooth flight -- a welcome contrast to my flight to Charlottetown a week earlier, which had had a rough descent. We deplaned, disembarked, or got off, depending on what terminology you prefer, and started the long hike from our gate, following the "Connections" and "Baggage" signs. I avoided the moving sidewalk and chose the aisle between the two sidewalks, just for the sake of a little exercise. People flooded past me on both sides.
We all converged at the bottom of a staircase and when we climbed to the top, a "Baggage" sign directed us straight ahead, and "Connections" went off to the left. I had one suitcase to pick up, so I walked through the automatic doors toward the Baggage area.
Suddenly I was alone.
Yes, it was 7:00 a.m. on a Sunday -- but still. Everyone else was gone. Was I the only person on my flight not making a connection or heading straight to the exit?
I walked over to the luggage carousel corresponding to my flight. The screen said bags would be out in 15 minutes. So I did what any good Canadian would do at 7:00 in the morning: I went to Tim Hortons and bought myself a coffee. After drinking it, I wandered back to the baggage area. A woman sat on a bench some distance away, texting on her phone; a couple of businessman types stood chatting by a counter. I hoped I hadn't made some mistake about where I was supposed to pick up my bag.
Then the carousel belt started moving, and out came ...
Was I the only person who had checked a suitcase through for that flight?
I had decorated my suitcase with two yellow ribbons to make sure it wouldn't get mixed up with all of the other black luggage -- but apparently I needn't have worried. I grabbed it (looking around a little self-consciously) and headed back to the main airport concourse, where the bustle and activity of the day had already begun. I was going home, and the sorrow of what I was leaving behind was already becoming mixed with anticipation for seeing Richard and the kids again.
****In the last eight weeks, three people I know have died. Of course, my dear mom died on the 28th of September, having been diagnosed with cancer just six weeks earlier. Then a close friend of Mom and Dad's, whose family I've known all my life, had a massive stroke in late October and died a few days later. A week ago my sister-in-law's mom, a wonderful woman, died after a three-year battle against cancer. So I've been thinking a lot lately about the mystery that death is, yet I don't feel I understand it any better than before I was brought so close to it. No one escapes death, but everyone's path is different: some people have time to prepare themselves and their loved ones, while for others it is so sudden and unforeseen.
Yet right now I'm imagining that death is a bit like that experience I had in the airport. We're moving along through life, surrounded by other people -- family, friends, strangers -- and then all at once we're redirected. As if a voice says, "Everyone else is going that way ... but actually, you're coming this way." We look around, watching the crowd disappear in a different direction, and we feel so alone. The voice speaking to us is a gentle one, though, accompanied by a guiding hand on the elbow to let us know that it's going to be OK -- and that we won't be going on alone. I find it comforting to think that God is with us every moment of the journey and at our destination.
For all three of those women, God was the destination. Now they know what the rest of us who remain on earth can only imagine with our finite minds. I Corinthians 2:9 says that “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” So I know my imagined picture of the process is a poor substitute for the unimaginable reality. But for now I'll draw hope and reassurance from these mundane sketches.