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Finding Comfort in the Friendly Skies

There was one seat left on the plane, and it was meant just for me.

An airplane passenger smiles at her phone.

“Hurry!” the Southwest Airlines flight attendant said, waving me down the Jetway. “There’s just one seat left.”

I didn’t know if this was a blessing or not. I clutched my purse and hustled down the aisle of the coach cabin. Passengers glared at me for holding up departure. I tried to avoid eye contact while scanning the rows for the empty seat.

This trip would be bad enough without the added stress of nearly missing this last-minute flight. I was headed down to Florida from Kansas City to see my brother Dana. He was in an accident at his job as a commercial roofing estimator. A spilled vat of hot tar had left him with second- and third-degree burns over almost half his body.

He was lucky to be alive. He was stable now, undergoing treatment in a Miami burn unit. I booked a flight to see him right away, but I wasn’t sure if I was ready to. The tar, I was told, would scar him terribly, but his emotional scars could be far more devastating. Would I be able to keep my composure in front of him? How difficult would his recovery be? How was this going to change his life? But most important, how could I possibly be a comfort to him?

“This must be your seat,” a friendly voice beside me said. I was so distracted I’d almost walked right past the last empty seat.

I practically threw myself into it. I turned to thank the man, but my voice caught in my throat.

His face, neck and arms were covered in burn scars.

“Off to vacation in Miami?” he asked casually, as if to put me at ease.

“I’m just going to visit my brother,” I said. All of my fears about what I would say and do when I saw Dana surged to the surface. I felt as though I was being forced to confront my brother’s injuries before I even got there. Lord, I thought, this isn’t what I need right now. Not this.

“Sounds like a good reason for a trip!” the man said. My eyes lingered on his scars. I don’t know why, but all at once I was overpowered by the desire to tell him the truth about my journey. I wanted to pour everything out to this stranger…my fears, my doubts.

“Actually, my brother was in an accident and was burned really badly,” I said. Would the man be offended by my outburst? He didn’t seem to be.

“My name is Doug,” he said, and he told me the story of how he had suffered severe burns when he was just a teenager. I shared the details of Dana’s accident and injuries.

“Don’t underestimate the strength of his spirit,” he said. “He may carry scars from his wounds, but he’ll heal.” Doug went on to describe his own path of healing, how despite the hardship of his injuries, he endured and emerged stronger than before. I didn’t notice when the plane took off, barely noticed the beverage service or anything else around us. Doug’s words lifted from me my fear and worry. Of all the people I could have been seated next to…

My new friend gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze before we parted ways at the airport gate. “It isn’t going to be easy,” he said, “but your brother will make it through this. And so will you.”

All my trepidation vanished. Someone had known exactly what I needed. And so had Doug.

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