I get the kids buckled in, supply them with snacks and books and then settle into my own seat, novel in hand, scarf wrapped snugly around my neck. I open to chapter ten, intent on finishing the book before the plane touches down in Omaha.
“What are you reading?”
I turn toward the young girl seated to my right. She wears wire-rimmed glasses and grey and pink Nike sneakers. Acne dots her chin and forehead, and her blond curls frizz unruly and unkempt.
“It’s called Drowning Ruth,” I reply, smiling before turning back to the page.
“What’s it about?” she asks, nasal voice monotone and grating.
“It’s fiction, about a girl named Ruth,” I answer, averting eye contact and keeping my gaze on the page.
“Seriously?” I think. “Seriously? This is the way it’s going to be for the next two hours? Crammed next to a pain-in-the-neck chatty pre-teen traveling alone? Give me a break.”
“What chapter are you on? Do you like to read? What kind of books do you like to read? What are your favorite TV shows?”
She peppers me with questions and then, craning forward to peer at the boys across the aisle, she turns her attention to Noah and Rowan.
“What grade are they in? Where do they go to school? Do they like to read, too? What kind of books do they like to read? What’s the name of their teachers? What movies do they like?”
I’m irritated. I give clipped one- or two-word answers and continue to keep my book open on my lap. I turn pages, hoping she will eventually get the message that I am not interested in small talk.
It doesn’t take long for me to realize that Rachel has some sort of developmental delay. She asks too many questions, and her voice, the way she forms her words slowly and carefully, isn’t quite up to par for a six grader. She absolutely won’t stop talking.
I glance at the passenger seated diagonally behind me across the aisle. She raises her eyebrows and half-smiles.
Closing my book, I wedge it between my thigh and the armrest.
I admit, it’s not an intentional decision to engage in conversation with Rachel. I don’t want to. I make every attempt not to, even to the point the rudeness. But Rachel doesn’t notice my obvious disdain. She presses on, pointing out a photo of Taylor Swift in the Teen Magazine on her lap, mentioning twice that James Durbin is her favorite American Idol contestant, giggling at a scantily clad Carly and then quickly turning the page.
I surrender. But only because I have to.
By the end of the flight Rachel, the boys, Jeffrey the flight attendant and I are all friends. We’ve talked for nearly two hours about school, the weather, teenage pop stars, the Kardashians, our favorite Delta snacks – Rachel prefers the pretzels, I the spice cookies – Rachel’s Dad in Cincinnati and her mom in Lincoln and her little brother and how much she likes school. As we begin our descent into Omaha it finally occurs to me that I should ask my seatmate some questions as well, to show interest in her the same way she has to me. It’s taken me nearly the entire duration of the flight, but I am finally genuinely engaged.
I think about Rachel long after we wave goodbye to her and her mom at the baggage claim. And I think about her on Sunday morning, when I hear these verses about the blind man from John 9:
They asked, “Who healed you? What happened?” He told them, “The man they call Jesus made mud and smoothed it over my eyes and told me, ‘Go to the pool of Siloam and wash off the mud.’ I went and washed, and now I can see!’” (John 9:10-11)
And then I say a prayer of thanks to God for seating me next to a girl named Rachel who talked and talked and made me see.
“Staying put and doing the best we can to live in the present moment and being attentive to whatever is before at this moment is what makes listening and responding possible…I cannot be Christ’s hands if I’m not fully there to discern what his hands would do. ‘Let us open our eyes to the divine light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out this charge: ‘If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts.’” (Jane Tomaine, St. Benedict’s Toolbox).
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