November 20, 2008

The Silence in Between

2008 1532 page22 cap’m sorry, ma’am, but your flight has been delayed another hour,” says the attendant at the airline desk. “But because you have been waiting five hours in the gate area, we have upgraded you to first class.”

Well, that’s not entirely bad news! I think. About 45 minutes later I board the plane and find my seat. A woman already seated by the window looks out. She turns my way; we exchange smiles. Then, as if in a movie, we both stop mid-smiles and just stare at each other.
I know this woman.
My travel companion laughs, claps her hands, and says, “Look at you! What a pleasant surprise. How are you, Dixil?”
Melissa. Her name is Melissa. I recognize her bright-blue eyes. She looks older, but I remember her. My heart aches a little, and then I feel her taking my hands in her own and saying:
“I have been praying for you ever since the day we met. What are the chances of meeting you here? I guess He wanted me to see my prayers were answered.”
2008 1532 page22She laughs. I remember her generosity, her kindness, the gift she gave me nine years ago. I had never forgotten Melissa. But I never expected to see her again.
The Road Less Wanted
In my mind’s eye I see myself traveling down the metaphoric road of life. There is a fork in the road. Before I get there, someone taps me on the shoulder. I turn to see who has recognized me, and I stop in my tracks. The thing about illness is that it’s never wrong. You don’t just turn to see “Cancer” looking you straight in the eye. You truly expect it to check its list and say, “I’m sorry, wrong person. Please keep walking.” But no, it’s not like that. Instead, I turn, look at it, and somehow precious items I have collected on my journey seem to fall from my hands. Gifts such as strength, courage, peace, and faith just drop, and I realize just how fragile they are as I slowly hear them break, one by one. My new travel companion points me in a 
different direction.
A Second Chance?
“Tell me what you’ve been up to!” Melissa says. “You beat the cancer, didn’t you? I knew you would. You had plenty of prayers coming your way. Tell me, tell me, how are you doing?”

I can’t speak. I am surprised and very conscious that this is the opportunity I missed. What do you say when you get a second chance to witness to someone? Where do you start? I smile and laugh and hear myself telling her all about my experiences. Yes, I beat that cancer, and three more since then. I tell her a few of the many miracles that have taken place in my life. She is speechless and lets me talk. I unravel my story of healing to her as if it were a delicate ribbon just curling up in my lap. She cries a little and laughs a little. Somewhere in the clouds I am sharing stories of unbelievable miracles with a woman I met once for only a couple of hours. Somewhere in the clouds I am getting a second chance to minister.
The First Meeting
It’s funny what things take you over. You get used to the hospital; you get used to the smells of disinfectant, plastic, radiation, decay, blood. You recognize these anywhere. You get used to textures—the feel of softer dead skin, starched hospital gowns, gauze, intravenous drips, different-sized needles, hospital bedsheets.
I consider this as I stand in line. I think about how to explain this to the customer service person at the store where I am about to return merchandise because it doesn’t “feel right.” It seems like having cancer has given me a different voice, a different kind of courage.
I step up to the counter and place the sheets in front of the attendant. My mouth feels like cotton and I suddenly feel incredibly ridiculous.
“Can I help you?”
“Yes. I just came about two hours ago and picked up these sheets. Then I got home, and they . . . didn’t feel right. Can I return them? I have the receipt.”
She says nothing, takes my receipt, then asks if I want to exchange them. Yes, I do. I would love to exchange everything in my life right now, but I don’t say that. I will go back to the sheet-and-blankets section. I will definitely exchange these.
I walk around for 15 minutes. I secretly try to open a little bit of the packaged sheets to feel the fabric. But I can’t get a feel for them. All I know is that the other sheets felt the same exact way that the hospital beds feel: soft, starchy, ill. I notice someone walking my way.
“Hi there. Can I help you with anything?” she asks. She reminds me of one of my students. She must be about 20 years older than I am. She has a very kind tone of voice, and her eyes speak of honesty.
“Yes. I am trying to buy sheets. And, well, the problem is that I cannot get a realistic touch for what they really will feel like once I put them on my bed. I don’t want sheets that remind me of other stuff.”
Maybe I should clarify this for her.
“I don’t want sheets that remind me of the hospital. I am a cancer patient. I want good sheets. Good feeling sheets. Different from the hospital’s. So, yes, can you help me figure out the textures?”
She smiles, then takes out a box cutter from her pocket and simply asks, “Where do we start?”
For the next two hours I spend time with the woman. We open 25 packages. She lets me unfold the sheets. She helps me wrap myself in the sheets and lets me feel them against my face and arms. She even rolls a steam machine over to our area so I can feel the sheets without creases.
Package number 25 is the winner. I am happy. I look around at all the mess. The sheets will need to be folded, restocked. Is that her job now? I feel a bit guilty and offer to help. She waves her hand, “No.” I am grateful, and I thank her. She helps me fold the sheets I am about to purchase. Meanwhile, she tells me:
“My daughter died from breast cancer a year ago; she was only 25.”
She looks me straight in the eye as she says this. She doesn’t have a trace of apology in her tone. She knows she is not reminding me of my own mortality.
2008 1532 page22“My daughter was very young. In the end, I almost lost all my faith and all my hope as I saw her spiral down. The cancer was aggressive and terrible.”
She takes a breath, sighs. She looks down, as if to pull strength out of the tiles on the floor. I can see that her pause has taken her to her daughter’s bedside. She looks up at me again with a smile and says:
“Now you take those sheets home. You try them on the bed. You call me if you need to fix anything. My name is Melissa. I am the district manager for this area. I’ll be visiting for a week here. I am usually not walking around the store, but you can tell them to come fetch me. OK, doll?”
She hands me her business card. I take it, and I hear myself whisper to her, “It’s stage-4 endometrial cancer.”
She looks at me with tears in her eyes. I know that as a mother, she is probably thinking about my mother right now, what my mother must be going through while I am sick. She takes the card back from me and writes her home number on the back of it. She looks at me and says, “Anytime. And I do mean anytime.” I know she means it.
An Epiphany
At home I wash the sheets, dry them, and carefully place them on my bed. I finally lie down and wrap myself in them. The sheets are perfect. I can’t figure out if it’s the texture or just the kindness they came with. I begin to weep—for Melissa, for her daughter, for myself, for so much understanding I received today. I cry, and my sheets suddenly feel like second skin.
A Missed Opportunity
“Hi, I am looking for Melissa.”
I am back at the same counter, not to exchange anything, but to share—to give something back.
“I am sorry, ma’am, she left this morning, and I don’t expect her to come back. There was some important meeting, and she left this morning for San Diego.”
I stand there, holding my little gift bag that contains The Desire of Ages. I didn’t get to witness to her. I had the opportunity to say something about her daughter, and it escaped me. I was thinking only about myself, and the opportunity slipped through my fingers.
“Is there any way to reach her? To send her something? She helped me yesterday. I just wanted to send her a note and say thank you.”
“You can look up the corporate office online; that’s where she works. That’s all I know. Sorry.”
I go back home, feeling that I have failed a mission. That night I write a note to Melissa and package the book. In the morning I mail it. I never knew if she got it.
Landing on Greener Pastures
“I am so delighted to see you again,” Melissa now says to me. “And I cannot believe you are an associate professor! That’s wonderful, Dixil, just wonderful.”
I smile. Then, I can no longer wait.
“What you did for me was just pure kindness, Melissa,” I say. “You were kind and good to me when I wasn’t in a very good place. I went back to the store the next day, wanting to give you a small present. I wanted you to know that I too lost a lot of faith when this happened to me and that I was reading this book, which I have read before, but I was reading it and getting a new perspective on it, and I really thought . . .”
I don’t get to finish my sentence. She looks away, reaches into her briefcase, and pulls out a very battered and worn-out Desire of Ages. She hands it to me, and I skim through it. It has my inscribed dedication for her on the first page, Psalm 91. Almost the entire book is highlighted, pen and pencil marks all over. I look up at her.
“Dixil, I have prayed for you and your health ever since we met that day.” She pulls out a tissue from her purse to dry her eyes. “I received your package when I returned home. I opened it and read your letter. I was tired from traveling, so that night I went to bed and read a little from your book. I couldn’t put it down. I read some more, and some more. The book came at the best time possible. My daughter’s birthday was approaching, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was so upset, so sad. These words”—she holds up the book—“really helped me. You helped me more than I helped you that day.”
There it is. The door is open. Lord, help me walk through it.
The two-hour flight seems to fly by. We talk about religion, family, friends, work, and more. When the captain finally announces the landing, Melissa takes my hand and holds it. She smiles.
The Departure
At gate E3 we exit. We exchange business cards, promise to e-mail, and she assures me she’ll let me know when she’ll be back in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Then we pray together, right there in E3. People walking by, people sitting. Goodbye hugs.
Then we head in different directions. 
Dixil L. Rodriguez is an associate English professor at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas.