Recently, I was in line to board a flight out of the Northwest, headed back into the great state of Texas. I was waiting for the gate agent to call me up for a hopeful miracle upgrade (which on American Airlines would really be a miracle). A woman was sitting next to where I was standing, and I noticed her because she had on a straw hat and was dressed in all black. She had her ticket clutched in her hand, and I glanced down to see that her seat was the aisle seat on the row to my window seat. There was one person waiting on the list ahead of me, and it didn’t take long to realize that Straw Hat Lady was that person. The gate agent announced that first class was full, and we began boarding the flight. Straw Hat Lady pushed her way ahead of me, seemingly annoyed. As we rounded the corner of the aircraft to walk through first class, she stalled and eyed every vacant seat and turned around and headed back out to the gate. Ten minutes later Straw Hat Lady flumped down in her aisle seat in my row clearly upset. The steward walking up the aisle was her first victim. In a loud voice she began to tell him that she could not remember when she had ever sat in coach! What were they going to do about compensating her, she’d asked. What amount of free things were they going to offer her because of such negligence?
I rolled my eyes and watched as she rubbed her finger over the printed words on her ticket stub, muttering that she should be in first class and American Airlines was going to hear about this! Honestly, my first thought was to take notes from her bad behavior as I have remembered the countless times late planes, ridiculous delays, and seemingly “mystery like weather” had canceled flights I was booked on. I actually felt embarrassed at the chance that in any of those cases I could have sounded like Straw Hat Lady.
What everyone in our radius on that flight knew most about her was that she needed her wine. When, she had asked, would they be giving her free wine! A small, precious older man from India sat in the middle seat between us, and she leaned over telling him her “first class” story. As the flight got underway, I asked the passing steward for head phones, and Straw Hat Lady leaned over and said to me, “Honey, don’t pay a dime for those horrible headphones they offer. I have hundreds of them you can have!” She opened her bag to reveal a pile of airline headsets! I laughed and took her handout, saving myself the five bucks. The four-hour flight was harder for our neighbor in the middle seat. Curiosity had me with one ear bud out the entire way listening to her reveal to him the details of her life.
She had never married and NEVER wanted children. She thought children were disrespectful, rude, and ungrateful. Her father had raised her to work hard and not expect a break. She used some colorful language to describe her father’s personality but then defended his behavior because she was now an adult who learned from all those “good” lessons he had taught--the bitterness in her voice rising. She had a home in two different states, and she had traveled the world. When she was home, she basically lived in a curtain- drawn room alone, in the dark. She liked it like that she had said--no one to talk to or to mess up her day. She felt she was well rounded. It was hard for me not to find the exchange between her and our middle seat neighbor comical. Our neighbor tried telling her about his life in India, his wife, and three children. Every so often she would ask him a question only to brush through his answers to talk about herself, or to put herself in his country seemingly knowing more about it than he did.
Several glasses of wine later, she detailed her recent travel adventures, and our sweet neighbor asked her what she did to have the luck to go so many places. Her answer was, “I don’t do anything now. I just travel to sleep! If I can’t sleep where I live, I get on a plane and travel to exotic locations. I find a hotel, some good food, and sleep!” Her life played out in my head as she told her story. This wasn’t a woman who actually paid for first class tickets, but one who had earned a status in travel that gave her upgrades. She wasn’t the kind of rich person who lavished herself with fancy hotels and rich foods. In fact, she said she would find the cheapest hotel room as close to the airport where she’d landed. She talked about the food they offered as if it were cooked by a chef at a five-star location!
Listening to her talk for four hours, I realized that she didn’t come with a major trust fund. She was indeed smart and had worked hard at a job that had her earning privileges in frequent flyer status. She didn’t wear fancy makeup and, outside her handbag, really didn’t look like she lived the life assumed of one in her position. What I could tell, though, was that she was broken. She was in pieces, but she didn’t stay focused on it long enough to deal with it. She lived on the run. She had emotional baggage in the cities where she had residences, but when she got bored or pressed with pain that stole her sleep, she fled to another city to sleep off the memory of her un-dealt-with emotional baggage. I asked the Lord where the break began in her life, and I heard Him simply say, “When bitterness marinates in the soul, it breeds un-forgiveness, and from there it breaks the heart into pieces. The more pieces it breaks into, the harder the come back.”
I felt that that wasn’t the moment to evangelize her. She was, at that point, highly intoxicated and could not remember the last sentence she’d formed. I sat there undone for Straw Hat Lady. I wished I had known her years ago. I wished I had sat next to her perhaps fifteen years prior on one of those flights that built her status. Maybe she would have needed less wine to drink. In many ways, as I prayed for her, I sensed deeply that sometimes God sets people in our path for us to simply intercede for them. Maybe she wore that hat that day so I would remember her. There is still a chance for Straw Hat Lady. I was never more convinced of it than I was that day. God could still draw open her shades and let the light in. Jesus could give her peace and the sleep she couldn’t find in random cities. She could stop running from the broken pieces and run towards God. She had made a reference briefly about the church and about God in a negative tone, and it was enough to cause me to speculate that those who were to be the hands and feet of Jesus perhaps missed at conveying Him well. Maybe prayer would have her meeting up with provision. Maybe it would have her finding a path to take her away from bitter waters and resentment.
The flight ended, and she maneuvered her way up the jet way to find her next flight. I watched her walk down the hall, her steps fluent with the effects of her drinking, and I prayed she would find her way home safely. Her face stayed with me and I think it always will. As I shut the light out that night, exhausted from travel, I was provoked to remember when I traded my own bitterness for forgiveness and laid down my own resentment for humility. How close would I have been to becoming a Straw Hat Lady had I refused to let go of pain and hold on to Jesus? Possibly closer than I could imagine. Sometimes the lost show us where we could have or would have been if we had not held on to truth. I am grateful for the chance to pray for her, but I am also grateful that she is a reminder, as well, of freedom and what it can look like. We all are broken pieces trying to be whole. I am undone over and over at the revelation that I know the One who can put every piece back together.