Kara Zajac is a freelance writer, chiropractor, mother of a daughter, wife, entrepreneur, musician, and die hard romantic. She keeps people laughing with her blog, The Significance of Having Curly Hair which has recently gone into Google syndication. Kara’s work has been published in Imperfect Life Magazine, Ripped Jeans and Bifocals, and Just BE Parenting. Recently an excerpt from The Significance of Curly Hair was published in Stigma Fighters, a magazine supporting people battling mental illness. Kara has also been interviewed as part of Christine Waltermyer’s Clean Living Series. She is a member of the Creative-Writing-Workshop as well as the National Writers Union and resides in the North Georgia Mountains with her wife, Kim, and daughter, Senia Mae. Kara can usually be found at home in the kitchen and enjoys sipping wine while hanging her feet off the dock. Personal blog: www.thesignificanceofhavingcurlyhair.karazajac.com Google+: Kara Zajac, Author Twitter: @DrKaraZajac Facebook: @KaraZajacAuthor
Memoir excerpt It Takes a Second to Say Goodbye
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
“Gram, this is Kara. There’s something I need to tell you. Remember that time you asked me if I would ever write a story about your life? It was a long time ago, but I heard you, I heard you loud and clear, and I never stopped thinking about it. I just wanted to tell you that I have been writing a book about you and how you molded all of us into the women we have become. It is all because of you and the love you established within us. I love and appreciate who you are and I am writing your story, the one you always wanted.” I leaned my head against the plane’s bathroom door and wept, cradling the phone to my ear, unable to formulate any other clear words.
The reality that I was not going to make it home in time to see my grandmother alive stung like a thousand bees trying to escape the cavity of my chest. My fear was that I was disappointing her, once again, and this was my last chance… there wouldn’t be another opportunity to make it up to her. I had done all that I could, but there was just not enough time. I swallowed hard, feeling the lump growing in my throat as my lower eyelids held back the dam of regret. I felt the pool rising, higher and higher as I fought to keep the tears back. You are missing her… she’s going… she’s going… the voice in my head was screaming at me. It was like having a nightmare, one where she’s floating away down the river and I’m so close, right behind her, I can almost touch her, but I am not close enough to catch her. Suddenly she slips away, with that exuberant smile as she waves goodbye, and then she’s gone forever. My body vibrated as the jet engines started. Suddenly the noise in the cabin was so obnoxiously loud, roaring thunder ringing through my ears. I felt like my brain was going to explode as I tried not to become completely hysterical in front of a plane full of strangers. “Gram,” I yelled into the phone, “I love you and I’m on my way. I am trying to get to you as fast as I can.” My shallow panting was about to turn into hyperventilating. Tears flowed readily now, the dam had crumbled and there was no stopping them. I wiped my eyes on my sleeve as I looked up and saw the handwritten sign taped on the door that said this lavatory was out of order. My face was all puffy, red, and swollen. I couldn’t even get a tissue to blow my nose. Feeling the hysteria rising in me, I took a deep breath before my own bottom fell out. My mother came back on the line. “Do you need any more time?” she asked. “No,” I said, “Just make sure that Gram knows that I am writing the book about her like she always wanted. She has to know that.” I could hear the tears as my mother broke down on the other end of the line and we cried together for a moment, there was little left to say. It was not if Gram was going to die, but when, and we both knew it. The intercom announced that all passengers must be in their seats with their seat belts securely fastened. Noticing all of the eyes that had been watching me speak my last words to my grandmother, I forced my way through the packed aisle of butts and bags looking for my seat. It was like a dramatic scene from a movie, except that it was really happening to me. I had hoped that I would make it in time to see her but knew that she wouldn’t be able to hold on that long. At least she got my message. I knew she could hear me; I could feel it. In my mind I made myself out to be somewhere else, on a sunny beach somewhere drinking a minty mojito on ice, instead of trudging back to my seat on that stifling plane with a nose full of snot and a pounding headache. Just as I was imagining my first refreshing sip, a woman on the left touched my arm and stopped me. She was broad-shouldered with smooth, dark skin, probably in her mid-sixties. Her hair was picked out into a short, beautiful Afro. “I heard you crying and wanted to let you know that I understand how you feel.” Her face was soft and compassionate, the tone of her voice cradling, like she was scooping me up and rocking me in her arms. “I felt that way about my own grandmother; we were very close, like yours.” I stood frozen in the aisle, stunned and thankful, gazing through my own tears at this big-hearted woman. “Even after she is gone she will always be with you, child, because she lives in your heart. You remember that when you feel sad.” “Yes’m,” was all I could get out of my mouth, staring in amazement as I touched her on the shoulder, nodding my head in gratitude, thankful for her. She then said that she would keep me in her prayers. Back in my seat, the feeling of heavy weights on my lids drove my eyes closed and it felt good to just sit still and rest. Visions of my life with Gram circled around in my head, like the Carousel of Progress ride at Disney World. I remembered riding the school bus home from kindergarten as it swayed along the narrow curves of Brown Street. The afternoon sun felt warm on my face as I daydreamed with my forehead pressed against the paned glass window. I suddenly noticed someone running through the woods wearing ankle high brown boots and a knee length, dark green wool cape. “Stop the bus! Stop the bus!” I shouted as I stood up in my seat and hurried towards the bus driver. “My grandmother is running through the woods!” I said as I stood firmly with my legs in a V, my finger pointing at the folding glass door. He stopped the bus and gave Gram a lift, dropping us both off a mile down the street at the end of California Road. “Why were you running through the woods?” I asked, proudly escorting my grandmother off the bus, like it was my own personal show and tell. “I went shopping at Stuarts and lost track of time. I thought if I took a shortcut through the woods I could beat your bus and be there waiting when you got home,” Gram said with a shrug and a smile. Her cheeks were still rosy from running and she put her arm around my shoulders as we walked home together. I remembered the time our peculiar neighbor, Mary, wanted us neighborhood kids to stop playing soccer on the perfectly flat, rectangular field that happened to be her yard. Gram knew we loved playing there but at the same time was not going to allow us to be disobedient. Instead of having to remind us over and over again “don’t play in Ms. Mary’s yard,” she came up with a reward system, a bribe of five cents a day to stay out of the neighbor’s yard. After a few days we were so excited about our collections that we forgot how fun it was to play in Ms. Mary’s yard. At the end of the week we all walked down to Stuarts to spend our earnings. I pictured Gram’s ill-fated fall off of Aunt Betty’s front steps blurred together with our four hour drive home from Charlotte last October, when I found out that her cousin Nancy had starred in the original Broadway production of “Showboat.” When Gram went to visit her in New York City, she thought the fame had made her cousin a little “loose” and a tad pretentious. Gram never visited again. Mini clips of the last thirty years came flooding to me, bringing a certain amount of joy as some lost memories began to resurface. It was the first time all day that I had actually been able to gather my thoughts. I opened up my backpack and pulled out my journal. Although I could have written for hours, something diverted my attention and my eyes became fixated on the sign at the front of the plane that read “EXIT” with a green illuminated arrow to the left. I could not stop staring at it. I could not blink and for a moment could not breathe. A question appeared in my mind: “What do you want me to do?” I was unsure if I was asking or being asked the question; the lines were very unclear, but the message itself was intact. Someone was trying to get my attention, either Gram or God, or both. Closing my eyes and bowing my head, I brought my hands together like all of those times in catechism and prayed that if she was suffering and waiting on my arrival, to just let her go. This was her time, not mine. I did not want to hold her back from that place she so deserved to be. “Go in peace and love, you’ll be with me forever. We are twin souls and I will never forget you.” I said the words and made the sign of the cross with my first two fingers: forehead, chest, shoulders left to right. An immediate sense of calm overcame my body, like the feeling of warm water being poured down your back as you are being bathed. I had let her go. At that moment I knew she had passed on, I could feel it. As soon as we were able to use our portable electronic devices I phoned my mother. She informed me that at 6:55, almost the exact time as my fixation on the exit sign, Gram had taken her last breath. Her passing had been peaceful and easy, completely surrounded by people she loved, without fear. Hearing those words made my heart happy. “But you know,” my mother said, “when you spoke to her, her heart rate jumped from sixty four to seventy eight. She heard you.” And with that I smiled for the first time since I got the call. What I had said to Gram really mattered. In that one moment it was well with my soul.
2. Earlier that day
For some reason I took my phone into the bistro. I rarely take it - I think it’s rude and annoying - but today it was lying quietly on the table next to my keys alongside the salt and pepper shakers. We were there to discuss the details of an office benefit for the local women’s shelter. Buffy and Cindy, the only staff in my chiropractic practice, were helping me decide on the catered menu. The small table felt cluttered with my belongings all shoved to the left side of the vinyl red-and-white checkered tablecloth. The scene was very much Lady and the Tramp, the one with the slurping spaghetti kiss. The table was quiet as the waitress picked up our menus and slowly walked away. I found myself tracing shapes in the condensation of my glass of tea, enjoying the cool distraction as I tried to ignore the rumbling sound of my stomach. What caught my attention was my phone buzzing next to the glass. I picked up to hear my mother’s voice, stern and direct. But this time there was an unusual protective tone, aware that what she had to say would be the arrow that split open my heart. Mothers have an instinctual way of knowing these things. “Kara, it’s Gram,” Mom said. “She’s fallen. We’re at the Lahey Clinic.” Her Boston accent was thick and saucy, with exasperated sighs indicating she was either scared or nervous or both. The worrisome news, the “I’m sorry to have to tell you this” message had to come in the form of a call because I didn’t live close by. It couldn’t be delivered in person. My decision to leave Massachusetts was one that nagged at me every day for the last fifteen years. The move was not a mistake, but feeling the guilt of leaving my grandmother and facing her disappointment as she prepared to “lose” another child was the hard part, almost more than I could handle. To this day leaving Gram was the toughest choice I have ever made. She never said, “Don’t go.” Her smile was bright, always so happy to see me as she wrapped her arms around me, but when she asked, “Don’t ya’ just miss Tewksbury?” the underlying tone in her shifted smirk was, “How could you do this to me, leaving me here all alone? After all I’ve done for you.” That pang of guilt stung deep because it hit in a place that was primal and raw. Her heart was my home and by leaving I was breaking it. I dreaded “the call” although I knew it was inevitable. The move to Georgia, one I thought would only last five years, tripled as my life progressed. Every time the calendar flipped its pages the door that led me back to Massachusetts, the one that led me back to her, closed a little bit more. We were all growing older and I tried to prepare myself for the truth: From now on, any time I spent with Gram could be the last. She was aging; the stroke the previous year had definitely left a mark. Although she looked the same, something inside of her had changed and a large portion of her personality had somehow gone missing. Her sense of balance was not the same; going up and down stairs had become a major issue. She still seemed like she’d be around forever. All of her vital organs worked fine; we could just catch her when she fell. The short-term memory loss seemed cute rather than a sign of life slipping away. All of our recent history got shifted to a lobe that could no longer be accessed. It’s not that it wasn’t there; it was just no longer available, which was fine, because we got to know the part of Gram that was her without us, before us, not a wife, not a mother, not a grandmother, just Senia. These stories introduced us to the gangly, blonde haired tom-boy who ran up and down Granite Street in Quincy, pulling up her dress to expose her bloomers as she jumped fire hydrants. These tales became part of a monumental record, except that at times the record would play three times in five minutes. “You know my brother Ardie didn’t think he liked turnips… until he tried them that seventh time and then they became his favorite!” And although she was aging both physically and mentally, at ninety-four she still looked young and seemed like she would easily outlive the rest of us. “She lost her balance going up the steps to Betty’s house and hit her head,” Mom said, her voice fluctuating a little. I could tell that she was trying to keep herself contained, holding back that suffocating meltdown of gasping air that shoves your heart into your throat. Shoving my chair back, I abruptly rose from the table and headed outside, away from any noise. Gripping the phone, I felt my breathing becoming shallow as perspiration formed in the creases of my furrowed forehead. “She’s bleeding inside her brain. At first we thought she would just need stitches, but the Coumadin has made the blood so thin that she won’t stop bleeding,” Mom went on. My mind was shifting from the lunch menu decision to trying to comprehend what my mother was indirectly saying. “How are they going to get the blood off of the brain?” I asked, feeling panic rise into my tightened chest as I realized where the conversation was headed. How could this be happening? This can’t be happening. This is happening. I closed my eyes, feeling faint and nauseous, listening to Mom on the other end of the line. Her voice suddenly seemed far away, like this whole conversation was happening to someone else and I was just watching it as a movie. I hated this movie. “They’re not. They could drill a hole in her skull and drain the fluid, but she would have permanent brain damage and would have to be on a ventilator from now on. She would have no quality of life, and at ninety-four the doctors say it is not advisable.” Well who ever listens to what the doctors say? I thought to myself as I was racing to find a more logical solution. The story was becoming more dismal the more details I heard. Her voice trailed off into a little quiver as a sob escaped. Hearing Mom’s painful struggle pulled me back to the present. “So you mean she’s going to die?” The words hardly came out; it was as if my voice was lost. Suddenly my mouth became dry, my mucous membranes sticking together like I had been running in the desert heat without water for hours. “Yes, she’s going to die.” That sentence was so final. Everything in the world seemed to stop and for a moment I couldn’t breathe. I looked around and nothing was moving, not the cars on the street, not the birds in the trees, and not the people in the restaurant. It was as if God reached down from the sky and pressed pause, holding time still until I could wrap my head around that sentence. The squeeze in my chest tightened as I realized the enormity of the moment. Racing thoughts spun around my mind, I found myself pleading, “God, don’t let this be… I am not ready… We are not ready… I can’t lose her…” then the truth came out, “I don’t know how to live my life without her in it.” I rubbed my eye with my fingers realizing that my subconscious had just unveiled my absolute fear: How would I be able to live without Gram’s constant presence? Even though we weren’t together every day, she was still my rock, my root, and my solid ground. She was the platform that supported the foundation on which every woman in our family stood. I leaned over the hood of the truck, feeling like I had been punched in the stomach. I rested my forehead in my hand, covering my eyes from the light I no longer wanted to see. “When… ” I couldn’t even say it. “How long can she stay like this?” The words hurt, every new realization more painful than the last one, but I knew the answer already. I just wanted it to be something else. Please, let me be wrong. Somehow I was hoping that Mom could erase the last few hours and make them go away. “I don’t know. They have her on morphine right now to control the pain, she’s not in pain,” she said, almost reading my mind. Morphine? A class three narcotic? She doesn’t even take aspirin for Christ’s sake. My emotional stability was starting to unravel as a flush of anger rapidly spiraled up. Instinctively I thought this must be a misdiagnosis, those idiots, certainly they could put a shunt in, drain the pressure, and stop the hemorrhage. It happened all of the time. Was I going to have to fly out there and tell them how to do it? Was there enough time? They couldn’t just let her bleed to death, could they? The thought of Gram suffering was enough to make me crazed with insanity. The thought of her being afraid was even worse; she was terrified of dying, absolutely petrified. I prayed that today her mind was at peace. “I’m sitting here with Betty, talking about these things totally rationally, but I can’t believe it,” Mom said. “It’s like it’s not really happening. I can’t grasp that it’s really happening, you know?” I shook my head, my mind too fuzzy and far gone to reply, feeling an imaginary hand trying to wake me out of my daze by gently slapping my face. When I came around I suddenly realized that this was my mother, a child watching her own mother die and having to make the selfless decision to let her go. This didn’t compute with her either. I tried to offer support, but didn’t really know what to say or how to say it. Our family was notorious for having heavy discussions about only superficial topics like why men are more attracted to blonde hair than brown. An emotional conversation of this magnitude was very uncomfortable. Nothing I could say would make this any better. “It’s going to be okay,” I lied, knowing it wasn’t. “I’ll catch a flight and meet you at the hospital. Have you told Kristy?” I skirted around the heavier feelings, unsure how to effectively address them with Mom. My sister Kristy was five and a half years younger than me and had moved with her husband Matt to Huntersville, North Carolina the previous November. “No. I’m going to call her as soon as I get off the phone with you. You have to come home now. This is it.” I wished that I could have reached through the phone and held her. I wished a lot of things. “I’ll get there as soon as I can, I love you.” We hung up the phone. ***** Like a crazy woman, I had been pacing and staring at the pavement out in front of the restaurant while some of the diners watched my anguished antics through the window. After I got off the phone with Mom I quickly called my partner, Kim. She answered on the second ring. “Hello?” “It’s me. My mom just called,” I said. “Gram fell and is going to die. I need to get a flight right away.” I sounded like a monotone robot reading from a script. “Oh my God,” Kim said. “I will be home in five minutes. Get here as fast as you can.” “I will. Love you.” I hung up and headed back inside. My hopes of entering the restaurant unnoticed faded when the bells on the door loudly jingled, even though I thought I had pulled the vintage door open gently. Taking a deep breath and doing my best act of keeping it together, I tried to ignore that awkward feeling of everyone’s eyes on me. Having a specific task ahead helped redirect my focus from hysterical mess to contained control freak. There were a million things that needed to be done in the next hour. Buffy and Cindy looked concerned when I came up to the table. I had forgotten they were with me when the phone buzzed. I picked it up, pivoted, and quickly bolted out the door, leaving them dumbfounded at the table. “Is everything okay?” Buffy asked. The mild, yet savory aroma of garlic and melted cheese filled my nostrils as I pulled out my seat at the table. I noticed that both the spinach artichoke dip and the lobster bisque were all left untouched. On a regular day I would be the first in line to sample anything made of lobster, but my appetite had dissipated, knowing I had to find a flight to Massachusetts. “No, my grandmother is dying.” As the unbelievable words crossed my lips it felt as if I was listening to someone else’s conversation. “I’m going to have to catch a flight to Massachusetts right away. They don’t know how long she has left. It may be an hour, it may be several hours, but I have to get there as soon as possible.” I tried to maintain a level of calmed assurance. “We’re going to have to cancel all of the patients for the rest of the week. Oh, and I’m really sorry about the lunch.” I waved my hand over the top of the table acknowledging all of the food that sat there cold and untouched. “No,” Cindy said sympathetically. “Don’t be sorry. We don’t need to be sitting here wasting time. Let’s box up these lunches and get you on a flight.” She immediately motioned the waitress back to our table. The restaurant was out of boxes, would foil do? And about the salad… no room for the soup… one bill… the words swirled around in my head like Cybil’s sixteen personalities talking all at once. My emotions bordered on eruptive as we waited for the restaurant to tally up the bill. Impatience took over my rational thinking, and I seriously considered leaving the credit card on the table with a note to send it back to me. 3. Sitting in my private office, after having to type in my number, my pin, my intentions, and practically my blood type I was finally connected to a Delta representative. I explained the booking issue I was having online and she immediately put me on hold for the next support representative. “But wait,” I pleaded as I heard a click and delightful music in the background, “I don’t have time for this, my grandmother is dying right now.” Feeling deflated, I hung up and dialed back with more gusto this time. I didn’t care about paying the extra $25 to book it on the phone; I desperately needed to get that flight. An extremely pleasant man with a very foreign and hard to understand accent was asking if I had time to take a customer appreciation survey. “No,” I replied shortly. Damned survey, I should have been done with the whole process twenty minutes before. It appeared that they were having technical difficulties with the web site and if I could just hold on a few moments… a few moments turned into 22 minutes. During that time I had gone to the bathroom, said goodbye to the girls, left the office, and made a drive-thru bank deposit just in time to get my Delta confirmation number. Again he asked me to hold as I sped home, in a somewhat controlled emotional frenzy, trying to go over my closet in my head, thinking of the appropriate clothes to bring, relaxed pieces, sleepwear, running gear, and then the obvious black for the wake and funeral. I felt a sudden pang of guilt and sadness, as I realized that I had to plan for Gram’s death even though at this moment she was still alive. Something about that felt so wrong. I wouldn’t be coming back after just another normal visit and I was missing the last moments of her life because I was dealing with this Delta nonsense. Like a frantic, redneck woman I rounded the curve in the driveway, kicking up gravel and dust as I peeled into my parking spot and slammed the truck into park. The nice man came back on the phone to tell me that they were having trouble processing my credit card and that he could put this reservation on hold to be paid when I arrived at the airport. The thought that I had been waiting on the phone for the last thirty minutes only to be told that I would have to take care of it at the reservation counter was about to make my head spin off. I pictured myself looking like the angry, bald husband in those old fifties cartoons, whose face swelled as its color slowly changed from white to red. “Do you know what time it is?” I spoke at him frantically, not really intending for him to answer my question, but more to get my point across. “I won’t have time for that. I live an hour away from the airport and the flight is in just under two hours. Can’t you just take another credit card?” The panic was rising in my voice as I implored the innocent man on the other end of the receiver to please take my money. “Yes,” he replied curtly. I grabbed my wallet from the seat of the truck and pulled out the card on top, spitting out the numbers of my Capitol One card, hoping he could just blink it into the system. After waiting another five minutes my flight was finally confirmed and the Delta fiasco was temporarily over. I raced, gripping the handrail for stabilization, down the stairs to the house where Kim had my suitcase opened and waiting for me on the bed. Kim was my partner of two and a half years and sometimes the other functioning half of my brain. We had met on a blind date, a camping trip of all things, set up by my neighbors and her aunt and uncle, apparently because we weren’t doing a very good job choosing dates of our own. I knew as soon as I laid eyes on her, as she skipped over the rocks of the creek to meet us, that there was something about her that felt close to home. With her bubbly spirit and smiling personality, she instantly reminded me of Gram, and I felt she was meant just for me. Every day since then during my morning meditation, I thank the Lord for bringing her into my life. Kim had already packed up some things I would need: socks, underwear, a few bras, and some of my favorite comfy pajamas, leaving the dress clothing to me. I reached out to give her a hug, appreciating her thoughtfulness, but she instead rerouted me to the closet, reminding me that I could very likely miss this flight and we could hug later. I just wanted to stop for a second and feel a little comfort, let my poor heart catch up with my head. I moaned as I trudged forward. “Do you want me to come? I can come, you know.” Her voice was soft and sweet. Looking at me earnestly, her light blue eyes are always the direct connection to what is in her heart. She is the most sincere woman I had ever met. “No,” I muttered, “I don’t even know what’s going on. It’s all happening so fast and I have no control over it. There’s nothing I can do this time but watch and wait.” I looked down, suppressing tears, as I pulled clothes off their hangers and tossed them on the bed. It pained me to say those words, knowing that I helped people in pain every day. This time, even though it was someone so close to my heart, my own grandmother, there was absolutely nothing I could do to prevent it from happening. There was going to be no hero this time. It was the most awful feeling, a doctor’s worst nightmare. “Why don’t you stay here, get everything taken care of with the animals and I’ll call you tonight when my mind is a little clearer? We can come up with a better plan then.” She nodded and squeezed my hand. Kim was a very go with the flow kind of woman, making life decisions a whole lot easier when the situation got sticky. Although I desperately wanted her support and would have loved having someone to lean on, it didn’t make sense for both of us to leave in such a hurry. We would need someone to stay at the house with the animals and I knew she would need to make work arrangements. I sorted through the sweaters and blouses, skirts, wraps, and slacks, eventually deciding to just pack every article of black clothing I owned because you could never accurately guess the temperature of Massachusetts in the spring. It could easily be 35 degrees one day and 65 the next. Before I zipped up the bag I grabbed my old, flattened feather pillow, all weathered and worn out. It was the same one I had snuck from Gram years ago, back when we slept together in our double bed, before my parents added on to their four room cottage on California Road. She always had the best pillows on her side of the bed, good and broken in. I would snuggle up and spoon her after she fell asleep, edging my head up to her pillow, trying to get as close as possible without waking her up. Musty feathers still reminded me of her. I inhaled the familiar smell before tossing it in the luggage. After tying up a few loose ends at home, I grabbed some cash, my journal and pen, and before I could say Jack Robinson we were out the door. Time felt like it was at a standstill. Kim knew that it wasn’t. ***** The dense fog of my brain clouded my senses, making it feel as if we were in a slow motion film. I was trying to rationalize the events of the morning while Kim was zig-zagging through five lanes of traffic with the precision of a Nascar driver, attempting to get me to the airport on time without getting a speeding ticket. It was easier for her to focus on a definitive mission and goal, getting me on the plane, rather than trying to Band-Aid my emotional unraveling. We barely talked as she focused on defensive driving through the rush hour Atlanta traffic. If you’ve ever been here, you’d know that delays on the 75/85 connector can cost you a few hours if hit at the wrong time. By some act of God, we got to the airport in record time without any traffic, unheard of at four o’clock in the afternoon. Traffic was always thick and congested around the arrival and departures gates. You could no longer leave your car and run inside, so passengers and bags were all mish-mashed in the lanes, crossing in front of moving vehicles, while several other cars waited in line to fill their space. It was a constant mess. Just as we were rounding the curve someone pulled out and thankfully we were able to parallel right in front of the Delta door. Kim jumped out of the truck and had my suitcase out and waiting on the sidewalk before I could even get my door open. I quickly gave her a kiss goodbye and said “I’ll call you” as I ran through the automatic sliding doors, awkwardly dragging my luggage as I searched the terminal to locate the baggage check. The self-check-in kiosk was quick and simple. Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was large enough to have all of the modern amenities, like computerized check-in, which I was so thankful for. I glanced at my watch and noticed that the forty-five minute luggage cutoff was in less than ten minutes. Rushing over to the baggage drop, I found myself standing behind five or six other customers, each with numerous bags that needed tagging and tending. It was hot inside the terminal and I was still wearing what I had worn to work that morning, dark jeans, a three-quarter length pinstriped white collared blouse, and a navy blue sweater vest, plus my black fleece jacket because I always got cold on planes. I pulled at my collar as I counted again to see the number of people ahead of me in line. All of the time we saved by not hitting traffic was being wasted waiting in this barely moving line. I felt beads of sweat forming on my forehead as my skin became clammy; I hoped that I could keep it together until I got to Boston. As time ticked slowly away, I realized that I could very well miss this plane if the line didn’t speed up. Without full consciousness of my behavior, I must have started rocking back and forth and praying out loud, “Lord, I can’t miss this flight. Please don’t let me miss this flight.” As I was chanting and mumbling to myself, willing something to happen, the tears I had been fighting all day finally came. Tears because the line wasn’t moving, tears because how could a God who loves let Gram fall down the stairs and hemorrhage to death, tears because things always had to change, even when they were perfect. My heart ached, a deep, burning ache, like nothing I had ever felt before and I forced my eyes closed, not wanting to see any more, not wanting to feel any more pain. I tried to center myself as I felt a light touch on my right shoulder. It was the hand of the woman ahead of me in line. “Are you alright?” the soft voice asked in a motherly tone, like hers were shoulders that were always available for crying on. She stood a few inches taller than me and wore a long cotton skirt down to the ground with a loose-fitting white tunic. The round of her face smiled although she wasn’t actually smiling, and I don’t remember seeing her eyes, because her cheeks were set so high. I do remember she had curly hair, left natural to salt and pepper, cut a little below shoulder length and tucked slightly behind her ears. “Yes, well, no, my grandmother is dying right now and I am trying to get to her before….” I couldn’t say the rest, trying to hold back a total emotional meltdown in the middle of the airport. I felt her sympathy flowing through her hand warm and gentle, as it rested on my shoulder. “Well I am truly sorry for your loss,” she said, adding an extra space between the two syllables of truly and sorry, making me aware that she was Southern. Her accent sounded like it was from Charleston or Savannah. “Why don’t you step ahead of me in line, I have well over an hour to wait.” She led me around her luggage and edged me forward, so that I was next in line to be helped. I turned around to look at her, so appreciative that she had taken time to stop and comfort me. “Tell me your name. I will add your family to my prayers.” I was so overwhelmed with emotion that I could hardly get my name out, but I managed “Kara” and “thank you” in a whisper as they called the next person in line. That conscious willingness to help is what I love about Southern culture. True Southerners are never in such a hurry that they cannot take the time to help. That woman opened her heart and lifted me up, in the middle of a loud, chaotic airport, like an angel. She offered me strength and support as I was about to fall apart. There was a chance she was a total stranger, but I think she may have been a gift from God.