While working with To Write Love on Her Arms I’ve heard some amazing stories. I’ve listened, I’ve shared, and I’ve grown. We say it all the time, “your story is important,” because it is. Your story is one that was written with purpose. It’s still being written. Sometimes we suffer. Sometimes we stumble, we fall, and we can’t see how we can possibly get up. Our hearts break, our world seems to get darker, we feel alone. But through those struggles you learn and you grow. You figure out who you are. Two weeks ago I met an amazing woman on a plane to Cincinnati that helped me see that again.
I woke up at 5am. My alarm went off and I began to slowly get dressed, mumbling under my breath about staying up late and needing more sleep. Whitney, Narika and I were heading to a festival in Pennsylvania and were in for a long day. Airport security lines stretched out into the atrium, children were crying, a whole family even jumped ahead of a line of people who had been waiting for awhile (us included). A crowded tram ride, a long walk to the terminal, and a quick breakfast later I was situated in my seat on the plane.
Because my ticket had been booked after Whitney’s and Narika’s my seat was a few rows ahead of them. I settled into seat 19E, a center seat between a mother of two spunky girls across the aisle and a woman about my mother’s age with a warm smile and a People magazine beside the window, seat 19F.
“You’ve got to let me know if that’s a good read,” I said with a smile, pointing at the front cover of the magazine. “I couldn’t decide if I wanted it or not.” She laughed and offered to let me have it once the flight was over. She wouldn’t need it for her connecting flight because she was certain she’d finish before this flight was through. We chatted for a moment and I learned she was on her way to Montreal to see her mother, though she was living in Florida just down the coast from my sleepy little town of Cocoa.
The plane began to rumble down the runway and I popped in my headphones and attempted to catch a few moments of rest before the long day ahead of me officially began.
The chime signaling that it was time to turn off portable electronic devices pulled me from my drowsy daze. The lady beside me was tapping her arm to the beat of the music in her own headphones as she flipped through her magazine. As I began to put away my iPod she began to do the same.
“So,” she said, almost hesitantly, looking for a conversation, but unsure of my willingness to participate, “why are you going to Cincinnati?” I began to explain to her about To Write Love on Her Arms and our participation in the festival. Her eyes got wide as I talked about the need for conversations to start and for people to know they are not alone, that their stories are important. She told me that she works in education and feels like so many of her students struggle with the same issues I had just mentioned.
“It’s so important,” she said. “I’m glad to have grown up in the 60’s! It was a lot less stressful, though my husband may not agree.” Seeing my confusion she began to tell me about how her husband and his five best friends enlisted in the army together straight out of high school and were deployed to Vietnam. She didn’t say how long it took, but within weeks of each other, each of her husband’s best friends were killed in the war. He was even shot down in a helicopter. “He lives with so much guilt and sadness. He doesn’t understand why he lived and they didn’t!” You could see how much she loved her husband as she spoke about him. Her eyes hurt for him, yet she smiled.
“He’s had a good life! He lived! We got married young. We had three children.” My frustrations from the morning seemed to disappear as I listened to this woman weave her story for me. “I know we’re meant for so much, especially after 9/11. I was in the first tower, you know.”
She went on to tell me about her morning on September 11, 2001, a morning where she decided to leave her desk on the 91st floor because she was hungry. She chatted with co-workers as she made her way to the elevator and ultimately ended up in the concourse below the streets of New York buying breakfast. It was then that the first plane hit, shaking the walls of the tower and causing a great commotion. The plane crashed into the building killing everyone on board as well as many of this woman’s co-workers, the co-workers she had just wished a good morning to. The fear and panic consumed the building and she quickly escaped and watched from six blocks away as the tower fell.
2,995 people died in the attacks on America on September 11, 2001.
2,995 people were lost, their families left behind, their stories ended too soon.
She looked at me with a concrete assurance, “I’m not afraid of anything anymore. I don’t care about death. I faced death. My husband faced death. We’re alive and now it’s about living life and being happy.” Her words seemed to be like cold water rushing through my body. Goosebumps filled my arms and tears came to my eyes. This woman. This beautiful stranger sat beside me with a rare confidence about life. She shouldn’t be alive, but she is. She is! Her heart is beating and her lungs are breathing fresh air and she is alive! She began to describe how she doesn’t take for granted the little things anymore, “a small child’s giggle, a sunrise on the beach, spending time driving around and experiencing new things. Those are the moments you cherish no matter how small.”
I didn’t know that getting onto that plane would change me. I didn’t know that the smiling woman reading a magazine would create a new sense of hope in my life. She revealed truths to me that I had forgotten, truths that rejuvenated me and gave me peace. She had lived, struggled, felt pain and fear. But through those struggles, through that pain, she was given hope. Switchfoot says that every breath is a second chance. This woman embraced that truth. She ran with it. As I got off the plane with her I thanked her for sharing her story with me. I let her know how much it touched me. She just smiled and told me to have a good trip to Pennsylvania and then she was gone, lost in a sea of travelers looking for their connecting flights.To the lady in 19F – thank you so much for sharing your life with me. Thank you for reminding me to embrace life and live. Your story is so important and meaningful.
By: Holly Hallum
A special note about Holly:
Holly was an intern here with us this past fall. After her internship, she stayed on with us part-time, helping Denny run the UChapters program, working as the Intern RA and investing herself as a member of our community here in Cocoa. We’re excited to share that as of yesterday, Holly joined our team full-time.
Let her know how much her words mean to you, and join us in celebrating her today!