At first they were just another couple in the airport crowd. I hardly took notice of them. The next time they caught my eye though, something about it wasn’t quite right. I saw her leaning into his shoulder, heavily, almost as though he held her up while she pressed into his side, her face buried into his neck. That’s when I saw it. The military fatigues. Now I understood. This was one of those goodbyes.
The airlines allows families of departing soldiers to walk with them all the way to the gate. For all the security machinations we travelers endure–some of them seeming to border on the ridiculous, allowing this piece of humanity shows that the airlines sometimes gets it right.
She squeezes him tight one final time and lets him get into the boarding line. Then she waits. Wondering. Will he? Yes, he gives her one last turn-back-and-wave before disappearing into the tube that leads to the plane. As long as he might possibly turn back and see her, she holds herself upright. But the moment he is out of sight, I know it, because her shoulders drop and begin to heave. A large folded cloth comes out to press against her tears.
She moves quickly to the side and takes up a post at the massive glass window. From here she begins the stare, locking her gaze on the plane that will take away this man she clearly loves and carry him into harm’s way. In time, the accordian walls of the walkway fold up and the tube backs away from the plane. Suddenly she begins to pat her pockets. She fishes out a cell phone and starts texting. And receiving texts. Something makes her smile. Something makes her grow serious again.
A group of young men plop down behind me. It’s obvious from their chatter that they are recovering from days of golfing and more than a few hangovers. Good natured and occasionally off-colored ribbing is bandied back and forth. At another time, I’d have smiled at the fun they’ve clearly had. But today they seem immature…careless…even insensitive.
I sit and wait for my own boarding. In the meantime, the soldier’s plane has backed away and now unexplicably sits on the tarmac. It’s not moving. Neither is she. I’m not sure how she endures it. She is still standing, unwavering, occasionally texting, and staring at a plane that at this moment is holding her heart. Finally the pilots get the okay and the aircraft pulls away. She, as she must, watches till it’s gone. Finally, without fanfare, she turns to walk slowly from the terminal.
For the briefest of moments our eyes connect, but I look away instantly. I’m embarrassed. I’ve intruded. I have just witnessed a depth of intimacy that outstrips all the pathetic R-rated versions in a thousand movies.
On this Memorial Day weekend, when you have your barbeques, you gather with friends and you eventually say good bye when it’s over, breathe a quick little prayer of thanks that it’s not one of those goodbyes. And then, remember to say a fervant prayer for those for whom it is.