While I peered out of the little square window as the plane climbed towards the dark February sky, Philadelphia became a mere cluster of little yellow twinkling lights. After a 10 hour day, three connecting flights and a couple of delays, I was on the last stretch of my journey from Granada, Nicaragua to Toronto, Ontario. Home at last, I thought. I sank into the stiff seat and tried to get comfortable. But for no rhyme or reason, in that particular moment, I began to feel it all. The exhaustion, frustration, the change in climate and more specifically, the bitterly cold North American winter, it all caught up with me even though I desperately hoped I could avoid those feelings all together. But the one I was the most acutely aware of was the immense pain.
As the tears pooled up and overflowed down my cheeks, I couldn’t stop thinking about how different my life had been one week prior. I looked down at my phone and the time read 9:49 p.m. Last week today, in this very moment, I was enjoying my evening swim in the pool at the hostel I had spent the last few weeks at. The air in Nicaragua was almost always heavy and humid, so the water was refreshing and kept my body cool long enough to hop into bed, get comfortable and fall asleep. While the other travelers would drink beers at the hostel bar late into the hot, tropical night, I would float quietly under the stars. Sometimes I would stay in for two minutes, and other times after immersing myself in the crisp waters, I’d feel so comfortable and chilled that I’d swim around for an hour. But after every time I took my nightly swim, the evening ended the exact same way. I would go back into the private room, dry off and slip into bed next to him.
Have you ever looked back on a particular moment in your life and wished you had known in the actual moment how incredible it was? That way, you could have the opportunity to absorb every detail around you and truly savor it. With him, I was always aware that every exciting adventure or mundane thing we did together was something to not only remember, but to be grateful for. He was the first person I had ever known to make me want to strive to be the best version of myself. He was self-aware and unabashedly himself, but strange and stubborn as all hell. Flaws and all, it took just four months to fall fiercely and stupidly in love with him. Six months to decide that I would work two jobs, save my money, then quit both and travel through Central America with him. And later, two months of doing long distance and nurturing our relationship via Skype while he waited for me nearly 4,000 miles away. And when I finally arrived, it took three months of backpacking through Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua to realize that we had both lost ourselves somewhere along the way. Although I knew deep inside of my soul that what we had spent a year and a half building had disintegrated, I loved him all the same. The decision to separate was equally mutual, but it didn’t make the blow any easier to deal with. And even though I knew that I needed to somehow find myself again, I couldn’t help but feel empty and terrified of the emotions I was facing. A couple days later, I boarded the first of three airplanes and headed home to Canada. I left him, our future together and the beautiful country of Nicaragua behind me. I didn’t know if we would somehow find each other some day, but for today and the near future, we were apart. And on the last flight before being reunited with my family and homeland, it all hit me at once.
I was thankful that once all passengers were comfortably seated with refreshments, the flight attendants turned the cabin lights off. The tears had become uncontrollable, but at least I could hide my face in the darkness. For the first time in my life, I was grateful for the crying baby a few rows ahead of me. Her sobs managed to muffle the sounds of mine. I was seated next to a tall, blond woman who was probably around the same age as me. She was quietly chatting with the man sitting beside her on the next row, and judging from the gorgeous diamond on her left ring finger, that man was her fiancé. She opened up her carry-on bag and produced two plastic containers filled with roasted chicken and what appeared to be a quinoa salad. The attractive and health-conscious couple shared their late-night snacks and skimmed the wrinkled airline magazine from the chair pocket. I was feeling parched, so when the flight attendant made her way through the aisle again, I mustered up the strength to create a poker face for five seconds to request a glass of water. She said of course, but after ten minutes, she had not returned with the beverage. The blond beside me must have remembered because she opened up her bag again and pulled out two small Minute Maid juice boxes.
“I have an extra one, if you like apple,” she offered with a sweet, genuine smile.
I prayed she couldn’t see my red, swollen eyes.
“Thank you,” I said, accepting the juice. I wished I could have expressed more gratitude than that, but I was afraid I would crumble.
I sipped on the drink and stared vacantly out the window and into the black, frigid sky. I couldn’t help but wonder if there were other people on the aircraft who felt as empty and unhappy as I did in that moment. It was then that I realized you never really know how people around you are feeling or what they’re going through. Someone could be fighting a treacherous battle with internal demons and maybe they too put on a poker face in public just so they can make it through the day without strange looks and judgment.
When the plane finally began descending into Toronto, the declaration forms were handed out to passengers. After searching my little backpack for my pen, I realized I had forgotten mine on my last flight and asked the flight attendant for an extra.
“Sure, I’ll be right back with one,” she said.
Ten minutes later, she had forgotten about me yet again.
“She’s not really on her A-game tonight, is she?” the blond said as she handed me her pen after finishing her form. She came to my rescue once again.
This time, though, the lights were on and my eyes were not veiled behind the darkness. But she didn’t give me a strange look or even an ounce of judgment. Instead, she caught my eye for a moment and smiled. It was the kind of smile that was full of heart, and I knew that it was her way of saying “I hope you feel better soon.”
And in that moment, just knowing that there was a truly decent person beside me, I did feel a little better. I was having one of the most brutally emotional days of my life, but with her simple acts of kindness, I could feel a little bit of her light.
I’ll probably never see the blond woman again, but in those two hours that I sat next to her on the flight from Philadelphia to Toronto, I learned about the magnitude of being kind to those around you. Sometimes people are struggling with such a hard battle that it’s a challenge to even get up in the morning. No one wants to admit when they’re feeling vulnerable, so by being kind to those you meet during the day, you could be the light that someone needs. A simple smile really can change everything.