another (not so) random in-flight encounter

The drill was the same as it was a few months ago… I had just completed 2 days of meetings and was returning home, tired and thankfully not as dispirited as I was last time. I was still battling the tail end of the ‘flu and a tad worse for the wear having closed the bar a few hours earlier. Leave it to a real Rum Head like myself to spot the lone bottle of Wray and Nephew whites hidden on the second shelf to the back, pushed disrespectfully to the corner behind several other bottles of pretenders… I was literally standing on the lower rung of the bar stool directing the bartender and insisting that I needed “that bottle right there…yes…no…go more to the left…pull out those 2 bottles…no those….THERE YOU GO!” But I digress.

So I boarded the plane and made my way down the aisle looking for 11C. We were told that the flight was full (what’s new) and given specific instructions as to our hand luggage management. I thankfully had gotten an aisle seat and waited to see who my seat mates would be. Despite the ‘flu and the hangover (which had abated somewhat due to the Excedrin that I had snacked on earlier) I was in reasonably good spirits and had decided to play nice and smile.

You see, I have what people refer to as a “resting bitchy face”, which simply means that if I’m not smiling, I look as if I’m angry. I’ve been told that I’m intimidating and appear unfriendly and unapproachable. I’m not as bothered today by those judgments of others as I used to be, but I accept that a smile and a friendly word or two can lubricate deliberate and chance encounters making the experience more enjoyable for all. So, enter Rose. Rose came down the aisle, a woman about my age, short, round, wearing a sweat shirt, jeans and sneakers, hoodie draped over her handbag, pulling her carry-on down the aisle.  She smiled at me and said “this is me right here, but lemme find somewhere to put my bag”. I wished her good luck and she found a space way down in the plane.  When she came back and I extricated myself to allow her in, I remarked to her that she’s going to have hell retrieving it and disembarking once we had landed.  She agreed and said lemme go move it den. Ah boi. That decision resulted in me and Miss Rose playing musical seats, up, out, in, down over the next 5 minutes as she co-opted a flight attendant in her quest to optimally place her hand-luggage. I would normally be very irritated, but remember, I had decided to play nice and smile, come what may.  Miss Rose apologized as she squeezed in for, praise Jah, the last time and thanked me for understanding. We both laughed as I told her that I really was not about to stand up again and that she had better climb over me.  So she did and we laughed as she settled into her window seat.  And on that full flight, the only empty seat was the one between Miss Rose and me. My donuts (yes…7 Dunkin’ Donuts  for my favourite people back at home…it’s a thing I have with them…) and her bag and hoodie shared that middle seat.

“I like you” grinned Miss Rose at me.

“Well ok then!” I grinned back at her.  We exchanged names. Ever fass, I asked her if she was returning home, or going to JA for a visit. She explained that she was off to Jamaica to look for her mom and relax for 8 days. I told her that I was returning home after attending meetings in Florida for 2 days.

“Is yuh man that?” she asked as she pointed to my colleague who I was travelling with, sitting across the aisle from us.  Before I could answer, he said “yes…this is my wife.” She saw the look of horror on my face and realised that Steven was messing around.  I made the introductions, clarified the nature of our relationship and we settled back.  She complimented Steven and told him that he was a very handsome “half chiney man”.  Steven, good natured idiot that he is, remarked to Miss Rose that she too looked half Chinese…

I then took a good look Miss Rose.  I asked her if she was really half Chinese.  She was dark skinned, had in braids so I couldn’t assess her hair type and texture, had tiny, almost squinty eyes, high cheekbones and full lips on that broad smile of hers.

“Yes!”  I said to her…”you really look like you have some Asian somewhere there. What’s the dealio?”

Miss Rose explained that she was half Japanese (wait…what?!) and that she is this close to doing plastic surgery to shave down her cheekbones and widen her eyes.  I turned my body towards her and settled in for what I felt was going to be an interesting story.

“Tell me why” I invited.

Miss Rose’s mother is a black Jamaican woman who was married to an abusive man. He was working in England when Miss Rose mother went to work as a domestic helper for a Japanese family living in Jamaica. Mother ended up getting pregnant for the Japanese son. Miss Rose was born. She recounted this starting off very matter of factly, but growing hesitant as she revealed the truth of her origins.

“I guess you could say my momma was a ho” Miss Rose apologised.

“Oh hell no she wasn’t!” I countered. “She was lonely, abused and simply received affection where she found it…and look at the result of that..You!”

She smiled and wiped at her eyes, and said softly: “I guess.”

She went on: “My mother’s husband came back and she left that job and went back pregnant to live with him and their other children.  I was an outcast from the moment I was born. I was never accepted by the Japanese family, and my siblings mocked me and physically abused me. My step father was also abusive towards me, and my mother wasn’t able to shield me. I was made to do the hardest manual work while the other children played outside.  I was teased about my Japanese origins at school and tried to just keep to myself. There was a neighbour, a big man, who used to keep me company in the kitchen round the back where I often left alone for hours to work. From the age of  8 that man would have sex with me. He was the only person I had interaction with and he violated me and hurt me.” By this time she was crying as she recounted her story.  “When he died, I remember being so afraid.”

She explained to me that she was happy he was dead, afraid that it wasn’t true and that he would reappear to harm her and that she was once more alone…a contradictory mix of fears and emotions, too much for a child to bear, let alone process.

She went on to claim that she had made a good life for herself. “I’ve been living in the states for 33 years now. I’ve visited my Japanese relatives in Japan several times, and they have welcomed me.  I wrote to my mother and siblings and asked them to forgive me for anything that I may have done to hurt them.  I have given so much money to my brothers and sisters, my mother and even my now dead step father.  I paid for medical care for him in the years before he died and before he passed he asked me to forgive him.”

“So have you been able to forgive him and them?” I asked with some hesitation… You see, I accept today that forgiveness of self and others is the fundamental prerequisite for inner peace and moving on in life.  But I also accept that it is a process that comes after a decision to do so, and that to glibly admonish someone to forgive their detractor or abuser without acknowledging the hurt and understanding that forgiveness is not pressing a button is both disrespectful and inhumane.

Miss Rose wiped her eyes and was quick to say: “Of course I have. But I have a pain right here that never goes away”.

A pain right here that never goes away….

“So you think that by changing your face you will somehow expunge the cause of your unhappiness and pain, Rose?” I challenged gently. “You were not a mistake. You have survived and continue to make your way forward, helping others in the process.  Please don’t try to erase what God has put together.  You are perfectly beautiful as you are.  And wider eyes, more slender cheekbones looking back at you in the mirror will do nothing to affect the pain that you still feel, and they cannot erase the awful things that you experienced.”

She looked back at me saying nothing. I inhaled deeply: “May the God that has brought you this far, finish His work by hugging you tight tight and taking away the pain you feel. God bless you, Rose.”

I have been thinking about that (not so) random encounter.  I don’t know what I am supposed to take away from that encounter. What I do know is that once again it has been demonstrated very clearly to me that we all have a story…a back story. H and I have a list that we’ve been maintaining: “Interesting People We’d Like to Have Dinner With.” A bunch of people have made it to that list, based on things that intrigue us about the selectees: ” Fareed Zakaria, Hilary Clinton, Bill can come too, Oprah (at my insistence), Malcolm Gladwell, Lady Saw…to name some. To qualify you have to have original thought and a fine mind. Simple. These are all people in the public domain, easily identifiable because of their public personas. But interesting people are sitting right beside us on the plane, or lying beside us on the beach, or drinking to our left in the village bar, or waiting with us in the doctor’s office.

It is our humanity, our weaknesses, our strengths, our experiences that are all woven together to make up the beautiful tapestry that we are. To hide an experience or a failing out of shame, in order to project what we think is a more acceptable image, is to compromise the beautiful original work of art that we are. Miss Rose was open enough to share where she was on her journey. I suspect that her story is not over. I pray for the day when Rose realises that she can’t gift or buy her way to inner peace…that she is uniquely beautiful, a gift to the world…when the pain that sits right there goes away… that nothing she has done or not done has caused her adversity. And in the mean time, Rose lives her life. She goes to therapy, she works hard, she raises her family, she takes chances.  She has two failed marriages under her belt and she presses on in hope of finding love.

Last week I tweeted one morning that I was determined to listen more. One wise person on my time line agreed and admonished me to add “observe” to “listen”. Wise, wise words.  I have a friend who comes over as closed off, saying very little, arms folded tightly across his chest almost always. In response to my pestering him, he admitted that he observes people and tries to understand them and the context at hand. I suspect that there’s more that he’s not saying and that he too has some issues surrounding his own humanity that he’s processing. Listening and observing without a willingness to share will limit the value and beauty that can result from an encounter with another human, whether this encounter is deliberate or (not so) random.

So I have no profound revelation to share from that (not so) random encounter with Miss Rose. No ah ha! moment transformed my life. What happened was a memorable, interesting 90 minute trip back home, getting to know another human being, logging her story into my consciousness for later retrieval perhaps when I need to share with someone else or remind myself what strength and grace looks like. So I share it with you.  Take from it what you will. Listen, observe and be open. Let us acknowledge and embrace our own humanity as we journey on and share this planet. And know for sure, that our story nuh done yet.