Semper fi : “Always faithful”
One year ago today, my dad died on his birthday. It seemed like something he’d do. He would think that it was so cool. A year ago, I was back home, sitting in his recliner with his beloved chihuahua Marty, both of us gazing at each other with deep sorrowful eyes. I wasn’t planning on flying out from California to Florida to see him before he died, but at some point toward the end, it hit me.
He’s dying! He’s really dying.
I took a flight out that very day in order to arrive on the morning of his birthday. When I had made the decision, desperation rose up in my heart. I must see him. I need to hold his hand one last time. I need to be there. I want it so badly.
Mom told him that I was heading out and his eyes got big. His life was fading very quickly, his whole face covered with tumors. He didn’t want me to see him like that, but I didn’t care. I didn’t care what he wanted – I had to see him. I knew that despite his stubbornness, he would want to see me, too. He would want to feel my hand on his.
I felt the hours ticking by as I waited to board the plane at LAX. I would have a layover in North Carolina. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep, but I decided to buy a neck pillow anyway. It was hot pink.
My seat was at the very back of the plane in the middle of course, because I’d booked it same day. It didn’t bother me at all because after flying for years with two children with autism, a solo, stress-free flight was great no matter where they sat me. The guy on the end stood up to let me in. He never looked at me, head down. The guy next to the window was slouched down with his hat pulled down and earplugs in. His arms were folded across his chest and he never glanced over. They both wreaked of alcohol and I’d imagined that they probably were college kids heading back home somewhere. Or maybe they’d had a layover in LA from Vegas. Whatever the case, I knew we wouldn’t be having any conversations, which was fine and normal really.
During the flight my thoughts were racing. My mind was running so far ahead of this plane, where I was already there and how cool was that – I would be there on his birthday!! I was so glad that I’d made the decision to go. The neck pillow was a good idea, but I couldn’t sleep. How could I? Dad was dying. It was hard to imagine a world without him in it. I always understood dad in a way that I’m not sure anyone could. I understood his complicated and unique qualities and even adored them. And I loved him deeply.
As I tried to sleep, my mind began to drift to the guy on my right. He squirmed and shifted and I’d glanced over to see his eyes closed, face turned down. I closed my eyes again and I began to feel an overwhelming urge to pray for these two young men – these two strangers to my right and left. I began to pray – to myself of course – and my prayer became deeper and deeper.
Bring them peace, Lord. Bring them comfort.
And then my prayers began to turn to dad, and I just felt the incredible peace of God wash over me. I felt the presence of God so powerfully in that moment that it was as if I were rising to Heaven itself. His presence flooded my soul.
I looked around to see that no one was aware of this glorious spiritual ecstasy. The plane was dim and the people were quiet. I glanced again to the guy on my right. He was trying to sleep with his head propped up on his hands. He looked beat down. When his eyes opened, they were droopy and his face was sullen. He seemed annoyed and on edge. And very unapproachable. Little did he know of my intense prayer for him. If he only knew, but I definitely would not be telling him! I was certain of that.
Then I felt God speaking to my heart. Give him your pillow.
What?! Um, no. I brushed off the nudge because, after all, I really needed this pillow. But mostly – No, I can’t talk to this guy! His whole posture screamed, Don’t talk to me. Don’t even look at me.
But the nudge got stronger and the next time he shifted in discomfort, I went with it – I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “Hey, I want you to take my pillow.” His eyes opened startled as glanced over in surprise, “I’m fine…”
“No, here I want you to take it…” And I took my hot pink neck pillow and before he could even respond, I’d wrapped it around his neck. Now his eyes got really big as he shrunk away from my touch. It was then that I came to my normal “appropriate” human senses and realized what I was doing
… Oh God. What did I just do? I just totally and inappropriately touched this strange man and forced my very obnoxiously bright hot pink neck pillow around his neck.
But it was too late to take the gesture back.
“I can’t sleep anyway so please take it.” Things felt mildly uncomfortable in the minutes that followed. He left the pillow on probably just out of kindness. I realized looking over how pink it really was. And how awkward it all was. After a few minutes he took it off saying, “Yeah, thanks anyway, but I can’t really sleep either.”
Then, since we were both very awake, we started to chat.
“Where are you heading?” he asked.
“Well, my dad is actually dying of cancer. So I’m going to see him before he dies.”
“Oh wow. I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Actually, we just got done with basic training in the Marine Corp. Now we’re all going for job training.” I glanced around as I realized that the couple rows in front of us were filled with young men who had just gone through one of the most extreme trainings there is. I noticed for the first time his shaved head.
“Oh wow, really? My dad was a Marine too! He was in Vietnam.” I sat up and smiled, thinking about my dad at this age coming back from basic.
“Really? That’s cool.” He began to tell me all about basic training and the things he did. He seemed proud and weary. “Yeah.” And then he paused. “They really beat you down in there.”
That’s how he seemed to me in that moment and even from the moment I saw him.
“My girlfriend broke up with me while I was there. She wrote a letter telling me she wanted to break up.” There was a world of pain in his young tired eyes.
“Wow. It’s funny because the same thing happened to my dad. His girlfriend who he was really in love with broke up with him when he was in Vietnam. He was really devastated. She wrote a letter too…” I told him all about how dad has signed up for the Marine Corp right when he turned 18 – he didn’t wait to be drafted. How he worked on tanks and didn’t want to talk about what he saw over there. And then he told me about his family and how he felt like he had nothing else to really do back home. I felt like I kept repeating “Yeah, that sounds like my dad.”. And it did. Despite the fact that I never even got his name, somehow this complete stranger didn’t seem so unfamiliar. I saw in him qualities that reminded me so much of dad. That spirit of courage, that mind of defeat and a heart searching to love and be loved.
At one point I almost told him about my prayer for him, but those words never made their way out. But I’m not sure it really mattered that I didn’t tell him. God was there. He’s always there, always faithful.
Soon our conversation extended to the rest of his fellow Marines. The guy in front of me was very cute with an enormous smile and eyes that shone so bright. You’d never know he just went through the grueling, traumatizing training of the Marine Corps. He asked me all kinds of questions. I told him about dad and the kids and how they have autism. He gave me a huge smile and with a twinkle in his eyes said, “Hey that’s great! Having kids with autism is a blessing!!” I really wanted to reach over and hug him. But we high-fived instead.
We all walked off the plane together and I looked back to see them gathering in a group at the gate.
“Bye you guys! It was so great meeting you all. I hope things go great and take care. You guys are amazing! Truly.” They waved and smiled at me as I turned away and headed toward my next gate and the flight home.
When I finally landed in Ft. Myers, Florida, I called mom while waiting for my aunt to pick me up. I was so relieved to finally be there.
“Ok, I’m here! My flight just landed.”
“Sabra…your father passed away early this morning.”
My heart sank and tears flooded my eyes. I knew it. Somehow I just knew, but it didn’t make the pain less.
I didn’t make it home in time to see his body before they carried it away. And as much as it hurt, I knew that’s what he wanted. Who knows? Knowing him, he planned it that way. He sure was stubborn.
As it turned out, dad passed away when I was on that flight from LA to NC – when I was with those brave and tired young men. Those men who made a commitment of sacrifice to our great country. Those men whose names I’ll never know. Or maybe they were angels. Those strangers that for a moment in time were as close to me as anyone could be that morning when God lifted my dad to Heaven and for a moment in time, lifted me with him.