The young man across the aisle from me on our airplane was chalky and pale, sweating profusely, and hyperventilating.
I already had my noise canceling headphones on. My earplugs in. My seatbelt fastened low and tight across my lap. An excellent book lay open on my knees.
I stared hard at nothing, eyes forward, catching only the edge of him in my peripheral vision, willing the crisis brewing next to me to simply disappear.
I am on vacation.
I don’t want to render aid.
I am on vacation.
I don’t want to render aid.
I am on vacation………….
I pulled off my headphones and took out my earplugs and leaned across the aisle. “Are you all right? I’m a nurse, and if you’re sick I might be able to help.”
And that is how I found myself spending a flight from the Caribbean to New York City tucked into the very back row of a very full airplane, managing the care of a young man suffering from a massive panic attack as he faced his Very Own New Year at 31,000 feet.
We are hours away from the year 2020.
It is a new year, a new decade. A natural, logical time for new beginnings. Resolutions. Promises. A voluntary choice to improve, to alter, to advance.
But for some people, change came early. Change came in March, or August. On a Tuesday, via text message. On a Friday at that doctor’s appointment. With a phone call. With a knock on the door.
Change came uninvited into their lives, unwanted into their worlds.
And when change arrives, it becomes a New Year. In March, in August, on a Tuesday, on a Friday. It is a strange and ugly and angry and heartbroken New Year, but it is new nonetheless.
And face it we must.
He chose to attend medical school in the Caribbean; it was affordable and the school was good, though he knew it could adversely affect his chance at getting the residency he wanted. Then the dizzy spells started, the headaches, the nausea and the wracking pain throughout his body that sent him rushing to the island’s hospital in an ambulance, sure that he was dying. All tests negative. No diagnosis at all.
They told him he wasn’t sick, but the pain didn’t get the memo.
As his body crumbled under the stress of the mystery illness, he knew that he and his boyfriend would need to leave, need to return to the States where he could still be covered under his mother’s insurance, where he could have additional testing done near his home in New Jersey –
– save for the fact that his mother refused to accept that he was gay, and would never allow his boyfriend to live with them.
But the rent was due on the island and his body still ached and there was no money left, just enough for the plane tickets for them and the dogs, and now here he was.
The plane was in the air. He had withdrawn from medical school, abandoned his dream, broke and sick and terrified and heading back to New Jersey to beg for a grace and acceptance and love that he knew he wouldn’t get and he didn’t want any of these things to be happening.
Everything was changing. It was October. It was his New Year.
Not everyone will be celebrating the arrival of 2020. Not all change is welcome.
Some people are dreading the coming new year. Dreading the choices they have to make, the choices that are being made for them.
Resenting the changes that are needed. The changes that were never invited, but showed up in party hats anyhow.
Changes that have already occurred, and have already left their wounds and scars.
There is no right or wrong way to ring in this new decade. There is no right or wrong way to celebrate, to mourn, to race forward to the shining horizon of a brilliant future, to grip tightly to a beloved past you cannot bear to leave behind.
Whether you celebrate 2020 wildly on Tuesday night, or simply continue to survive the New Year you’ve already endured in 2019, you are not wrong, not bad, not strange.
You are right exactly as you are.
We talked for most of the four-hour flight. I asked lots of questions, listened hard to the answers. I validated his feelings, heartfelt in my sincerity.
I have never been hated by a loved one for simply being who I am.
When the panic got bad I gave him a trickle of oxygen through a face mask, though I knew he didn’t physically need it. It was the act of Doing Something that was therapeutic in and of itself.
We were the last ones off the plane. His boyfriend, struggling to manage their bags and their dogs and all the logistics of getting to New Jersey, met us on the jet bridge with a wheelchair and someone the airline had sent to help us.
I held his hand as we navigated JFK, me walking, him sitting quietly in the wheelchair.
We parted ways as we cleared customs.
I forgot to put my noise cancelling headphones back on for the short flight to Boston.
Instead, I stared hard at nothing, eyes forward, imaging a quiet tidy house in rural New Jersey, and willing the crisis brewing there to simply disappear.
I got a card in the mail a few days before New Year’s Eve that year. An update, a thank you, a quiet reassurance.
And he closed with, “May these holidays be filled with love, laughter, and ever more love.”
I never heard from him again.
And so, for everyone reading:
I wish you grace, strength, happiness, and perseverance in this New Year, no matter when it starts.
May your days be filled with love, laughter, and ever more love.
to E.B. – ✈️❤️