Mel's Healing Pilgrimage 2016

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Friday, December 13, 2013

Disposable Me - an Advent reflection

I posted an article on Facebook yesterday about an incident on a jet. It's a little story, but it has affected my Advent meditations.

It was my last flight of the year, which is meaningful since I travel 100,000-150,000 miles every year. This year was remarkably easy, as I only visited three continents, in contrast to six as I have in the past several years. Most of the travel is work, with some of it for growth and vacation.

I mentioned that on this flight, a very old man who didn't speak English was delaying that last flight of my year. He wouldn't sit down and the flight attendants could not lock the door with his wandering. He was dressed ethnically, looked confused and was likely mentally distant and confused. I had seen him taken in a wheelchair to the jet. I was in the third row of this American Airlines flight, so I saw all the interactions with the crew. His caregiver, possibly a friend or grandson, was trying to explain what he needed to do, but he was resistant and confused.

His behavior was angering people who were in a rush to make connecting flights. Quite a number were connecting in Los Angeles to continue to Hawaii for vacations. A few were band members who might have had a gig to attend. I saw soldiers who probably wanted to see their families. And I was tired, eager to enjoy the Advent season at home and my church, All Saints Pasadena.

Sadness overcame me because his dementia was palpable and people didn't seem to notice. He was in the way of our immediate wants. I felt guilty because until I saw his age and his condition, I just wanted him to sit down and listen to the flight attendants. But when I did see, a light sparked in me and I realized that what I wanted wasn't him to sit down.

What I wanted was travel mercies for all on the plane but, more especially, mercy on those like this man who lived a full life but needed just a little more time.

After about 15 minutes of delay, he just was escorted off the plane by his companion. He was disposable. My heart broke for him and the family. He looked dapper with a nice suit and hat, but his eyes were vacant and sad.

I knew the flight attendants had to be firm, but they were empathetic and uncomfortable. His companion was distressed. I felt bad they got off the flight instead of heading on to see family and friends. I prayed that it might be best thing to occur, given his present condition. We left after another 15 minutes delay, as the airline had to take his bags out of checked luggage as required for security.

Which brings to to my reflection on the challenges of so many families, especially during the dark times of winter, in the bleak winter, when songs of cheer often cause melancholy because the world feels broken and unforgiving.

I could not help but imagine that it was me with Mang (phonetically how my siblings and I called our paternal grandmother) struggling in her decline. That personal story is why my research at the University of Southern California was in Alzheimer's disease. It's also why I left the field because I get profoundly tearful by it from an existential level.

Life is full of sadness, challenges, and changes of directions. People who were once mighty and powerful in spirit, mind, and body can be laid low by the punishment of time. I find the difficulties of dementia to be very provocative: who are we really? What is our soul doing when our mind isn't playing kindly? Where's the Holy Spirit when we begin walking down these paths?

I wonder about this older gentleman, my new friend in spirit. Where is he now? Is he scared? Does he know he's loved?

Advent as a season of waiting and repentance is not about waiting for death or choosing something that will fix things for us. It's not about wondering if Santa will make things right with the perfect gift, if I pray just right to Jesus. 

This little story on the jet from Chicago is making me think that, during Advent, we are waiting hopefully for those who around us, for those we touch and influence, and not for ourselves. It's making me reflect on a penitence of living better and not living for the fleeting moment, of loving better and not loving for the temporary smile. We light the candle of hope to bring justice and mercy to all, even if we don't know them personally. I didn't know this man, but I knew a lot about his life. I pray that my Christmas will be all the richer from what he taught me.

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