Charlie and Rita. A Love Story.

on an airplaneIt happened again. I got on the plane, anxious to get to my seat and settle in quietly with a good book for the four-hour flight from Charlotte to Phoenix. My eyes focused on the numbers and letters above the seats in anticipation of putting my tote bag in my seat and getting my carry-on in the overhead compartment as quickly as I could.

I hardly noticed the woman sitting in the middle and the man sitting by the window as I took my bottle of water and book out of the tote bag and pushed the bag under the seat in front of me. As I fastened my seat belt, I finally looked at the woman next to me and smiled. Nothing too engaging, just being polite and cordial is my modus-operandi after I’ve had a busy few days speaking. I briefly said hello.

I couldn’t help but look into her eyes as I spoke. They were noticeably red, with dark circles underneath and brimming with tears. Her face reflected an all too familiar pain and sadness marked with grief.

A quick nudge to my heart and emotions and I knew I was going deeper than a simple hello. “Heading back home to Phoenix?”

“No.” She hesitated, then said, “We’re going on to a place near the border for treatment for my husband. He has advanced, stage-four cancer that has spread. He’s had chemo and radiation and there is nothing more that can be done for him. He wants to try another kind of treatment as a last resort.”

“Oh,” I said softly, “I am so sorry.” I reached over and gently touched her left hand. Her right hand held her husband’s hand tightly, as if it were a life-line between them.

holding handsDuring our flight, the only time she let go of his hand was when she lovingly tucked a blanket around him, opened his crackers, poured his apple juice, or helped him up to go to the bathroom. If she didn’t reach for his hand first, he reached for hers. It was a picture of two people devoted to each other.

I guess it was the compassion in my eyes – or maybe it was my touch – but the unspoken words between us at that moment seemed to bring her a little comfort. “I’m Susan, what’s your name?”

“Rita,” she said, “and this is my husband, Charlie.” I leaned forward and looked over at Charlie. He was frail, gaunt, and very pale, but he managed a smile and nodded his head.

As Rita and I talked, I learned they had been married 52 years. She was from Germany and they met when Charlie was in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. They had two children and six grandchildren. They’ve lived in the same house for over 30 years in a small town in Ohio. I asked her if she had a group of friends, a support group, or a church family to come alongside them. “Only our neighbors,” she said. “We used to go to church, but haven’t been in the last four years since Charlie has been so sick.”

I was beginning to see why God had put me in Row 6, Seat C. Rita desperately needed someone who had walked a similar journey and who understood her pain. Someone who didn’t have all the answers, but enough to comfort and encourage her for a time such as this.

It was then that I began to share my own story of Bill and his stage-four cancer, how it spread so quickly, and how he lived only four months after the diagnosis. I went on to tell her we had been married 45 years, had two children, and six grandchildren. Bill had also been in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.

She leaned closer to me, tears rolling down her cheeks, and whispered, “I’m so scared. I don’t know what I’ll do without Charlie. I don’t know if I can make it.” 

My words to Rita poured out of a heart that had once whispered her same words and expressed those same fears. I reached for her hand and shared these things which I knew to be tried and true during my darkest days.

“Take one day at a time. Live each precious day together to the fullest, no matter how hard it is.

Trust God when you don’t understand. Talk to Him, He’s listening. Run to Him, He’s your refuge.

God will give you the strength you need to get through this. He’s right by your side and will never leave you.

God will comfort you beyond what you can imagine.

He will guide and direct you every step of the way when you feel alone and afraid.

You will make it, Rita. If I can survive, so can you.” 

I knew we were going to land soon and I didn’t want to miss the moment to say one last thing. “Can I pray for you and Charlie before we land?”

“Yes, I would like that,” she said.

Although I’ll never see Charlie and Rita again, I think of them and pray for them often. I can still see their hands, aged by years and love, held tightly together.

I smile knowing God had my seat and row waiting for me to sit down and settle in so He could carry out His perfect plan for a four-hour plane ride.

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. Psalm 34:18

Susan Miller