Ten years ago, I was sitting in BWI Airport in Baltimore waiting for my flight to depart to Buffalo. I had just left an Annapolis hospital where my mother was making a slow recovery after being in intensive care for 10 days.
What should have been an hour-and-a-half wait turned into an eight-hour delay as the flight kept getting pushed back due to severe thunderstorms. One ticket holder left the gate ranting and raving. His anger was so unsettling that my own anxiety started to mount. As the departure time kept changing, I could not help but notice a diminutive 50ish woman who sat across the room. Her feet were curled beneath her as she sat reading. Her serenity was palpable 50 feet away. I began to study her as each hope of our flight departing was dashed.
By midnight, we were told that the flight was canceled and we lined up to surrender our boarding passes. As we lined up again to receive hotel vouchers for the night, the pilot came in and told everyone to get on the plane. He said that we would have to fly "a bit west first to avoid the thunderstorms."
I remember thinking: Why are we going to fly now? Is it his anniversary, or his child's birthday? Just how far west are we going to have to fly to avoid these storms?
Since our boarding passes had already been collected, we were told to pick any seat. As I entered the plane, I realized it was a puddle jumper. My fear heightened. As I walked down the aisle, I noticed the lovely, serene woman sitting alone. I thought to myself, "If this plane goes down I want to be sitting next to her."
When I asked if I could sit next to her, she smiled and invited me to. We began to chat and I confided that I had been impressed by her composure and serenity throughout the evening. "You must be used to such things," I remarked. I admitted to her that I was fearful of this flight and had deliberately chosen to sit next to her as I could sense a peace about her that radiated across the room.
She then told me about her life. She was a human rights activist and had already been in four airports and on multiple planes that day. She was supposed to meet with President Bill Clinton, but missed the appointment due to delays caused by mechanical problems with a plane. Although scheduled to fly out of Dulles Airport in Virginia that evening, another snafu made her take a cab to BWI Airport in Baltimore. She said that she had just wanted to get back home that night.
All this she took in stride. Since she had traveled throughout the world, particularly in undeveloped areas, this was nothing new to her. She told me about her family and the young Rwandan man her family had taken in. His entire family had been slaughtered in the genocide in Rwanda. She talked about her daughter in Boston and her husband. There was so much love in and about this woman. I have sensed this before in other noble people. Just being in their presence is a gift.
We arrived safely in Buffalo and I never forgot her. A couple months later, I saw her picture in a Buffalo News article and showed it to my family. "This is the woman I told you about. The lovely, serene and peaceful woman who calmed me as we flew on a bumpy flight."
I saw Alison Des Forges' lovely face in The News once again. Only this time, it was a story about her death in the crash of Continental Flight 3407. I was saddened and hoped she was not sitting alone on that plane. I suspect that others noticed her, too, and were calmed by her compassionate spirit.