“Do not disdain the small.
The whole of life—even the hard—
is made up of the minute parts,
and if I miss the infinitesimals,
I miss the whole.”
Ann Voskamp, ONE THOUSAND GIFTS
The flight from Houston to Oklahoma City was completely full, and I had taken the only available seat. I had a book in my lap and had hoped to catch up on some reading.
Life had something else in mind.
I was seated next to a couple who is in the midst of a severe medical drama. They fly from Oklahoma City every two weeks to MD Anderson’s cancer center in Houston, and they’ve been making this trip for four years. The morning of our flight they had received devastating news from the doctors—it was actually the worst news a cancer patient can receive.
Jeff and Diane. Married for many years and childless, they were all each other had.
I learned a lot about Jeff and Diane during that flight and about the world that orbits around them.
While Jeff slept in the window seat, Diane told me of the treatments he’d endured over the past few years, of the trajectory the malignancy had taken through Jeff’s body. She talked about their need for God and their decision to return to the Church.
She told me, in the course of the hour and a half flight, about her sister—a rather famous Home Shopping Network personality—who was often stopped on the street and asked for an autograph. “You’d think she was Elvis!” Diane told me. “And, oh my! I just love Elvis!”
Diane told me the story of Jeff’s mother. The woman had been a widow with eight children. She had been hired by a wealthy man who wanted a cook and who wanted someone to help raise his children. He ended up marrying a much younger woman who didn’t like the widow cook disciplining her new step kids. On a day in April, she sent the widow packing. Wealthy man, it turns out, ran down the street after her, assuring her that she would outlast the young wife. “I want you,” he told her, “to keep right on spanking those kids of mine who are misbehaving.” While cooking for wealthy man, widow woman would let his young sons stand on chairs beside her, learning to stir and chop and measure. Those boys are now well-known chefs with restaurants in New York City.
Diane told me about the deaf girl who was seated behind us on the plane, and about how the girl flew to Houston every couple of weeks to visit her boyfriend. Diane knew this, because they were often on the same flights. On those sojourns for healing one often, I think, comes upon other pilgrims on a similar voyage.
Diane told me about her other sister—the one who lives in Oklahoma—who had remarried. The new husband is a ski instructor in New Hampshire and had been teaching his new stepson how to ski. Just this past winter, the boy had been chosen to join the Junior Olympic ski team.
She told me about a hotel in Memphis (She couldn’t remember the name but thought it might be called the Drake—turns out it’s actually the Peabody) where every morning, a uniformed bellman would blow a bugle, the elevator doors would open, and ducks would waddle out single file down a red carpet and out the door to paddle around in a fountain all day. Every evening, when another uniformed bellman blew his horn, the ducks would climb out of the fountain pool, waddle single file down the red carpet and re-enter the elevator. They were housed on the top floor at night in their own penthouse cages. Diane thought that was one of the best things she’d ever seen. She liked it better than Graceland.
The only thing about that whole duck parade she didn’t like was that she’d learned they would retire the ducks by releasing them in the wild. “I’m an animal activist,” she said. “And that just doesn’t sit right by me. It just doesn’t seem right.”
I must admit I agreed.
Diane and Jeff didn’t have children and they didn’t have dogs. But I feel I would know her cat anywhere…just by some of his eccentric behaviors she cared to share with me. She’s planning to buy a toilet seat for the cat, so she doesn’t have to clean the litter box anymore.
She’s also planning to order a remote control “responds to commands” Star Wars R2D2 Robot from the SkyMall catalogue for Jeff’s Christmas present, because she just knows he will get a kick out of that. She teared up at the thought that it might be the last gift she would give him.
Poetry is often epic and grand and eloquent and lyrical. But not always.
Sometimes poetry speaks of the trivial, the smallness, the mundane, the everyday.
Sometimes it is sad. It is You and it is Me. It is those we sit next to on a plane or a bus. It is the cashier at Walmart, the ticket taker at the movie theater, the illegal who mows your lawn, or the waiter who refills your tea.
The next time you take a flight—forego the book or the magazine or the laptop or the movie. Introduce yourself to the person next to you. You might just be surprised by the stories you hear. You might be surprised to find that you and that person are journeying through the same world.
On that flight from Houston to Oklahoma City, I didn’t miss a thing in not reading that closed book on my lap. I had, sitting next to me, a woman whose life was a story.
The small. The mundane. The infinitesimal…