Lately I find myself thinking about small stories from my past and wanting to tell them.
Tonight I've been thinking about December 2008 when I went to Thailand for two weeks. I went to spend some time with Father Joe Maier, a Catholic Priest in Bangkok who runs an orphanage called the Mercy Centre for abandoned and orphaned children with HIV/AIDS.
The flight time from Ottawa, Ontario to Bangkok, Thailand is about 20 hours, not including layover times, and I took four planes to get there.
My third flight was from Detroit, Michigan to Toyko, Japan and it was going to be 12 hours. I was in economy class and I was already tired. I just wanted to sleep the whole flight away. It was about to be the longest flight I'd ever taken and I wasn't sure how I was going to manage to sit in one seat for that long.
I was in a window seat in a row of three. A man took the aisle seat and I admit I was anxious to see who was going to be sitting beside me. It seemed a very long time before I found out.
It was a young woman with her three-year-old daughter! I had no idea a child that age could be booked to sit on your lap on a long flight like this.
As the plane loaded, all I can really say about that child is she was very bouncy. She was as excited as a little girl could be and everything about people boarding a plane and stowing their luggage was fun for her. But she actually screamed as she laughed at the things she was witnessing and I admit it was trying my patience.
I was full of judgment. And so were the passengers in the rows in front of us and behind us. I could hear them talking behind us about how much longer this flight was going to be with this screaming, hyper-active child. And the passengers in front took turns looking over the seats at us with pursed lips and frowned faces.
As the plane was taking off, I couldn't help but imagine this was not going to be the best of travel experiences. I had boarded my first plane in the middle of the night and had spent many hours on layover in two airports already. This flight was going to be 12 hours before another layover in Japan and my final flight was another six hours before arriving in Bangkok.
The weird thing about going to Thailand is you travel for more than a day and with the time change you actually arrive there before you left!
And as the plane took off, Ahnia started screaming. She was terrified this time. This was her first time on a plane and she was throwing a tantrum. Her mother could not console her for the first half hour of our flight.
When she did start settling down it only meant that she stopped being so vocal. Ahnia was restless. She wanted to be in the window and then in the aisle – then up and down the aisle. The flight attendants had to bring her back several times.
At first I thought her mother needed to be doing better. She seemed inattentive to me and didn't seem to be trying to direct her child very well. There was a reason for this though and it was awhile before I found out what it was.
I don't recall how much time passed before the in-flight meal was served. But having something to eat did seem to help Ahnia settle a little more but still not completely. Now her mother was trying to have her lay on the floor at our feet to sleep and I was having some issue with that. It was bothering me but I didn't think I could say or do anything about it.
And then it happened... Ahnia's mother desperately grabbed an air sickness bag and started vomiting! I felt like my eyeballs stuck in the back of my head, I rolled them back so hard.
Hearing this woman vomit and being able to smell it so close to me made me feel like my patience was at it's testing limit. I rang the bell for the flight attendant and asked if I could be moved.
I was flying Air Asia and the attendants were beautiful, perfectly groomed women who were so extremely polite. The attendant did her best to tell me as kindly as possible that there was nothing she could do.
Ahnia's mother vomited repeatedly and apologized over and over again. This is when I learned she was having trouble managing Ahnia because she had been nauseous since she boarded and mistakenly thought eating would help her tummy settle.
The attendants tried bringing her ginger-ale and crackers, but it wasn't helping. And you could see this woman was suffering - she was feeling so ill. Finally an attendant offered her a Gravol.
Ahnia's mother took it and before long she was fighting the sedative effect. I could see she was worried about falling fast asleep with her child at hand.
By this point I was feeling so badly for this young woman. I had moved from being an exhausted traveller who just wanted to shut people out and sleep, to trying to console this young woman. I went from judging her to complete empathy.
I ended up showing her my badge, telling her I'm a police officer and that she shouldn't worry... she should sleep and I would look after Ahnia.
Passengers who had been talking down about this situation had also looked over the seats from in front of us and behind us, offering to me that Ahnia could visit with them too. The village was now chipping in to assist the child.
Soon after, Ahnia's mother had a pillow and her head resting on my left shoulder and Ahnia was on my lap with her head on my right chest. And both were sleeping soundly as I looked out the window.
Another short while later, I myself woke up with a start only to find I was sharing the pillow with Ahnia's mother and now this child was wrapped around me. I had my arms completely around her and she was dreaming.
I giggled a little at the change of scenario and went back to sleep. It was very restful sleep. Exactly what I had hoped for. I just couldn't imagine it would come this way.
What started with the potential to be a very bad time, turned into a life lesson taught to me by a little girl who barely spoke English and a young woman whose name I've long forgotten.
So much of what we get out of life depends on the attitude we choose.
The mental health challenges I've faced in recent years narrowed the lens of my attitude for awhile. I've spent time blinded by confusion, fear, self-pity, anger, reluctance, isolation, mourning and even feelings of defeat and loss of power. I've had to work on not remaining the victim of PTSD and depression. I've had to choose to feel gratitude for surviving the pain I didn't always understand and still don't completely. I've had to chose to see it as behind me and force myself to move on.
In my opinion now, just as we can learn to cultivate our compassion and learn to choose gratitude, we can also learn to recover.