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The flight attendant had black curly hair, and I was envious. Born with board-straight, dirty blonde strands thinner than a spider’s silk web, I wondered what it would be like to have hair that bounced. She didn’t make eye contact. Her focus was on keeping her tray upright without spilling a drop from the plastic cups. We had three hours to go on our flight from Cleveland to Phoenix.

“Cabernet,” she named and handed me the wine. My tear-stained eyes looked directly at hers, but she continued distributing beverages from her tray. “Orange juice . . .  Coffee, two sugars . . .”

I’ve decided that people don’t know what to do with other people’s feelings. My eyes were swollen and red and my face burned from salt-stained tears. The guy next to me was reading Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. I’ve never read the book. And I thought, don’t you want to make a friend not win them? Friends aren’t games. I hated that book because of the title. But maybe I should have read it to prove me wrong. Millions of people bought in, what was stopping me?

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The lady in the aisle seat was eating pretzels. And I . . . I was crying like a baby bird who lost her wings. The dry cabernet coated my tongue as I inhaled a long sip. Gazing out the window, my eyes met the clouds, and I wiped the tears once more. Pulling my small navy journal and pen from the front pocket of my Kate Spade bag I wrote:

March 2014
My parents’ house smells like Tide. It’s on my skin and in my nose and it’s not washing my feelings away. The kitchen smells like the knickknacks. Coffee and Pier 1 imports. My cousin and I drank Jameson. We added it to our coffee. Mom gave me the be-good look. Surprised that her daughter would drink whiskey. I am 31 years old, and I still get nervous of Mom’s looks. I don’t want her to be mad at me. Grandma does it to her. My cousins do it to their kids. I was amused watching the looks of the family. Those side eyes. Curious eyes. Squinting looks. Brows furrowed looks. Families are strange. Different personalities. Different paths. But we have the same lines on our faces, and I love seeing the smiles. We carry different stories in our bones.
My eyes hurt.
Grieving is stupid. I don’t recommend it.

I swallowed the rest of my wine and slid the journal back into my Kate Spade bag. The guy next to me closed his book and set it on the tray as if we completed a chapter together. Go on . . . influence me. I screamed between my ears. Say human words. Console this devastation that is painted on my face. You won’t.

Looking at other people’s pain is difficult and could have the capacity to re-open wounds. It’s walking into a hospice room, unloading the depths of your soul, and realizing the person in the bed doesn’t know you anymore. Grief can cloud your eyes and clutch your heart. The fear you might not understand someone’s vulnerable state could end up shattering something inside you. It’s painful to watch pain.

The flight attendant came by to clear our rubbish. I handed over my empty wine cup. My seatmate handed over his sugar packets and coffee remnants.

“Can I get you anything else?” the flight attendant asked. The smell of his dark roast was calming, like Mom’s kitchen, so I asked for a cup.

“You know, that sounds good, I’ll have another coffee please,” he smiled at me. The flight attendant strolled on.

“Are you okay?” he asked. My eyes grew wide. Does Dale Carnegie cover empathy?

“My grandpa died . . . I’m just . . . figuring out how to deal with it.”

“Grief doesn’t have a timeline. I’m sorry for your loss,” he offered a head nod and a smile before continuing. “I’ve sat in your seat before . . . on a flight from Detroit . . . 30 years ago . . . grieving sucks.”

The flight attendant handed us our coffees. I set mine on the tray in front of me and stared at the man with an eagerness that could heal my pain. He resumed, “I grew up in Michigan and used to fish with my grandpa. Sometimes I go back there to remember childhood. I’m 62 years old and often wonder what Gramps would say to me now.”

I smiled. He had been in my seat. “Thanks,” I offered.

“It gets easier.”

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Easier. He was right. Someone somewhere said time heals things. It’s been almost 10 years, and I can still hear Grandpa’s giggles. I smell his soap scent on occasion and smile. When I make popcorn, I remember the nights watching Jeopardy together with a handful of salt and buttery goodness. I drink out of the green koozie from his favorite restaurant, Conchy Joe’s Seafood in Jenson Beach, Florida. And I wonder what he would think of me now. A married woman expecting her first child.

My husband and I went to the La-Z-Boy store to find a rocker for the nursery. I found a recliner, similar to Grandpa’s, and sat in it for nearly five minutes. The soft fabric was his warm hug. We didn’t buy anything that day, but I took home nostalgia. I wonder what Grandpa would think of welcoming a great-grandson or the joy he would feel in potentially sharing the same birthday.

Sometimes I think about the guy on the plane and wonder if he was a grandpa too. Curious if he’s had the chance to go fishing in Michigan or introduce anyone else to his pastime. And I wonder if he is still influencing people, the way he affected me.

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Lindsey Gray

Lindsey is a freelance writer and host for Central Phoenix Writer's Workshop, a 6,000-member association for writers of all genres. She is a member of The Writerlies and Women in Publishing. In her free time, she can be found on a hiking trail, playing with her dogs, and embracing motherhood.

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