Lessons in the Sky: Gratitude at 30,000 Feet
I’ve been learning a lot of lessons up in the air. You all know I’m a full-time Flight Attendant, so the airplane is my office. It is a real petri dish of humanity up there. Brimming with the best and the worst of us. You can find any emotion, age, background story if you look around on a full flight. And if you look hard enough, you can also find some valuable lessons.
Recently, a young man on my flight gave me a gift. A perspective shift of epic proportions. He changed the course of my day and, if I’m being honest, much more than that.
I’m going to tell you our story.
I had been awakened in the worst possible way that morning. To the sound of my phone ringing—my employer on the other end. It was 7:14 and I was supposed to begin work at 7:05.
Not only was the airport an hour away, but I was still in bed, unshowered, shaking the sleep off and trying to comprehend what had just happened.
How could I have done this?
I checked my alarm, set for 5 am. I must have turned it off and drifted right back to my dreams.
In the airline industry, being on time is critical. Sometimes it feels like the most important part of our job as flight attendants is showing up on time. We receive disciplinary “points” for being just a few minutes tardy. Points that can add up over time, all the way to employment review. It is seriously a big deal. So, this not showing up thing was a HUGE deal.
I could not even wrap my brain around how this happened. I was so prepared! The coffee grounds were in the French press on the kitchen counter. The kettle was full of water, ready to boil. My bag was packed, sitting by the front door. Even my lunchbox was tucked into the fridge, food already tetris-packed inside of it. I had set myself up for the easiest morning possible. And the trip was set to be the easiest trip, too.
My original trip had me working to San Francisco, laying over, and then deadheading back the next day. (For review: Deadheading means sitting in a customer seat, but still getting paid.)
But it got even better. I opted to “self-deadhead” which is when we decide not to take the deadhead flight, and we still get paid for it. We do this if we want to fly to a different city, or take an earlier flight, or to sit in first class and enjoy some bougie snacks and drinks. I opted to self-deadhead, or “self” as we say in the biz, for the second two reasons. Instead of going to the layover, I would stay on the plane and head right back to Boston. I would get home a full 24 hours earlier. I would sit in first class and have a nice dinner and relax, maybe watch a movie. I would only work one flight, one day, but would be paid for a full 2-day trip.
It literally was going to be the best.
But then I No-showed. I mentioned the points system to you. That the whole not showing up thing is really bad. To give you an idea of just how bad it is, if I were to call out for my 4-day trip starting tomorrow, I would receive 1 disciplinary point. Were I to show up for a trip a few minutes after “Report time” (the time we clock in) I would be given a Report Late code, and one half disciplinary point. Yes, we really cut points in half.
This code that I received for not showing up—the dreaded ‘No Show’—brings with it a whopping FOUR disciplinary points.
In short, this was a shitty way to start the morning.
I did what I had to do to amend the situation as best I could.
There is a provision that allows us to reduce those points to a lower sentence if we “make ourselves available” to the tyrants at Scheduling and work any trip they give us. It’s a serious risk. But because the tyrants did not want me that day, I was able to “pick up” any trip in open time (that is any trip with unfilled positions) that I wanted.
Short on options, I signed on to work to West Palm Beach, Florida and back. The good thing was that it was a 1-day trip, I’d be home that same night. The bad things were it had fewer credit hours (less money), there was no deadhead involved (free money), and it touched Florida.
If you’re not in aviation and you don’t watch the news, you probably don’t get it. But Florida flights have always been and will always be the worst.
I was doing all the next right things, mitigating the situation, continuing on to work, trying to accept the day for what it was—a piece of human error, not the first, nor the last that I’ll encounter. But still I was really disappointed. Mostly in myself. How could I have been so careless? Who sets only ONE alarm when the wakeup is before 6am? I felt like a teenager—that’s the acceptable age for people to SLEEP THROUGH work, right?
I felt like a loser.
“We have a situation,” they said. “We want to ask your opinion…”
I ended up working with three female crewmembers who were all lovely. I told them my tale of woe. How I was only there on that trip—to Florida, ew—because I had, like an idiot, No-Showed that morning. They listened with sympathy, though whether it was real or feigned I couldn’t tell you. We braced ourselves for the full flight ahead and hoped for a drama-free day.
It was halfway through an otherwise low-key flight when things took a turn.
My two coworkers working in the front of the aircraft came to the back of the plane.
“We have a situation, we want to ask your opinion.”
They told me a customer up front had asked if he could have some of the oxygen we have on board. When they’d asked him if it was an emergency he said no. But he said it would help him to breathe better.
The thing about being a flight attendant is as much time as you are on the job, as many scenarios as you have trained for and as many times as you have simulated emergency and medical events, you can on any given day encounter a completely new situation. There will never come a time when you have seen it all.
This sounded like a unique one—did he or did he not need the oxygen?
It makes sense why my two coworkers—both newer in the job than I—would be unsure about how to respond. We don’t, after all, just “give oxygen” to people all willy-nilly. It is reserved for emergencies.
But was he asking for it to prevent an emergency?
I went and spoke to the man and his wife to assess the situation. Both looked to be in their thirties—around my age. He was sitting in the window seat, she in the middle. His breathing was labored. His eyelids looked heavy, his speech was slow. It looked as if it were painful, draining for him to move, to respond.
He didn’t look good.
I got an oxygen bottle down for him and set it up, and we called for medical personnel to check him out. It turned out that his mother-in-law, seated just two rows ahead, was a Nurse Practitioner. We made space so she could sit with them and monitor his condition. Hooked up to the Oxygen bottle, with an ice pack and an ice water, he began to feel a bit better, they said. But he still looked rough to me.
This young man was battling ALS. Often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease and the cause for the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ that went viral some years ago, this degenerative illness is serious. His wife told me later that they fly often and with no difficulty. That he normally only uses oxygen at bedtime—a CPAP machine. That he recently had surgery to have a feeding tube inserted. It seemed that after the surgery, his breathing may have become worse.
He was terminal.
The mother-in-law told me this.
When someone has ALS, their brain and muscles stop communicating with one another. Meaning that simple things—picking up your phone, typing a blog post, walking, swallowing a sip of water, speaking, breathing—all become more difficult as time passes. Until the ability to do those things is lost entirely. I have read more about ALS since this day and found that the average life expectancy after diagnosis is 2-5 years.
I wondered about this couple. Had they known he was sick before they got married? Before they got together? Or were they blindsided later? Did they have kids? How did they make it through the day, always knowing the end is creeping up faster than everyone else’s? It is incredible what people persist through.
My thoughts shifted to the mother-in-law. Imagine adopting a son into your family, embracing and loving him, and then knowing he’ll be gone. Knowing your daughter will lose the man she loves and chose to build a life with. The second-tier heartbreak of this was enough to stop me in my tracks—make me feel short of breath.
And then his parents.
And then him.
He was so young.
It isn’t ever fair.
And what must that feel like, to know the end is coming?
I know we all do at some level, but it feels so far off when you don’t have a time gauge. ‘Five years to live’, ‘ten years to live’, ‘six months to live’. It feels far enough off that I think we never really believe it. Not until age starts to take its toll, our bodies beckon: “Believe me, the end will come.”
In a young body, with a young mind, in the early stages of what should be peaking and rolling on life’s road. What is it to know your time will be cut short?
It was excruciating to think about. It hurts so much to see the painful realities others are living through. To be strangers, bearing witness to intimate, difficult moments. All we could do was be kind. Offer our services, attentions, care and concern for that hour and a half.
Everything looked different to me, after interacting with this family.
My “terrible day”—what was that? I was human and made a mistake? I overslept? I got some disciplinary points—nowhere near enough to get me in any real trouble anyway. I had to work this “crappy Florida trip” instead of the princess trip I’d been planning on?
What was really that bad, in my terrible, no-good day?
The thing about being a flight attendant is, as long as you’ve been on the job,
there will never come a day when you have seen it all.
I was able to mitigate the repercussions of my oversleeping mishap, by working this flight. Though it was indeed a Florida flight, the people on the plane were chill that day. The crew I worked with was fantastic. All three of them were women I would be delighted to work with again. I still got to go home at the end of the workday to my own warm house. In my warm car. I was able to spend my mealtimes eating food through my mouth and not through a feeding tube. I walked through the world on my long, perfectly functioning limbs. I did not require a goddamned oxygen tank to breathe.
And now I’d met this family and they’d touched me. Awakened my napping consciousness.
I realized that nothing in my bad day was really all that bad.
I realized that if we had perspective shifts, if we looked around more often, outside of ourselves, we would find that this is usually true.
I have it so good.
I am so lucky.
And this young man and his family provided a vital reminder that I was in need of that day.
My gratitude swelled at 30,000 feet. I counted my blessings, of which there are many.
I marveled at the tenacity of the human spirit. How we can go on loving and living and soaring through the air, despite the scariest turbulence and darkest storms.
I often say one of the best parts of my job is that work doesn’t come home with me. Like a light switch, once I step off the plane and the flight is over, I don’t give it another thought.
But that isn’t always true.
The young man from 14A, his wife, his mother-in-law are still with me. I’m thinking of them a lot. It is still excruciating.
And they are still reminding me to count my blessings.