Twelve years ago, my paternal grandmother died (not to be confused with my Nana who is still alive). We didn't have a great relationship, but missing her memorial service wasn't an option. I had to say goodbye and put some closure on our relationship for myself.
When she passed away, I was living in Washington DC and her memorial service was being held in Chicago. Because she was cremated, the service was planned for a Saturday when everyone in the family could be there ten days after her death. This was wonderful because the family was spread all over the country and it meant we could all save a few bucks on airfare.
The ten days between Grandma's death on May 1st and her memorial service on May 11th were very difficult for me at work. We were preparing to file a Summary Judgment brief in a case in the US District Court for the District of Columbia on May 10th and had been working insane hours - 14-16 hour days. I had been working 7 days a week for weeks, but this particular week I spent nights at the firm and didn't sleep at all and ate even less.
By the time we filed the brief late that Friday afternoon, I was a physical and emotional wreck and I still had to drive home, do laundry, pack, eat, get to sleep, and be at the airport in time for my 6:30 flight to Chicago. If everything went smoothly, I'd arrive in Chicago about 8:00, have enough time to have breakfast with my dad, and we'd be at the church in plenty of time for the 10:00 service.
By the grace of God, I arrived at Washington National Airport on time, but it didn't matter. We boarded the plane and about 20 minutes after we were scheduled to depart, our flight was canceled due to mechanical problems. Knowing I had to be on a plane to Chicago, I called United's customer service on my cell phone and they put me on the 8am flight, which was a full flight and scheduled to arrive at O'Hare at 9:30. The only problem was that I couldn't reach my dad to let him know he didn't need to pick me up and he should just go straight to the church. Then I called my uncles and the church and begged them not to start without me. I also managed to reach my mom who said she'd be waiting for me at 9:30 to rush me to the church. The church in Glencoe was exactly 30 minutes from O'Hare.
I got my boarding pass and discovered I was in the last row of the plane. Sitting down in the last row, I took a deep breath and suddenly all the emotions and exhaustion I'd bottled up for two weeks came rushing out as tears running down my face. My sobbing was completely uncontrollable and involuntary. Given the size of the plane, I knew that it would take 30 minutes just to get off and I'd never make it to the memorial service on time.
In spite of my best efforts to conceal my sobs, a few minutes later a flight attendant arrived. She asked what was wrong and although I tried to assure her that I was fine, I did manage to explain my situation. Without a word she left, only to reappear again and asked me to collect my things because someone in first class had offered to give me his or her seat so I would have a chance of getting to the church on time.
Now I'd flown first class a couple of summers before, but nothing will ever compare to this experience in first class. For the first time in weeks, I ate a real meal with real dishes and silverware, as opposed to take-out food with plastic silverware. I slept and woke up in Chicago refreshed and calm, two emotions I barely remembered. I'm not exaggerating when I say it was the best food and best sleep I've ever experienced.
When we arrived at O'Hare, they let me off the plane first and I ran all the way to the arrival pick-up area where I found my mom waiting. She sped all the way to the church, but the service had already started without me.
To this day I don't know who gave up their seat for me and I never had the opportunity to say thank you in person, but I've never forgotten how in one of the lowest moments of my life, a stranger came to my rescue.