Her name was Doris Brinlee. I met her in June of 1994.
We sat beside each other on the same international flight from Heathrow to Dulles that summer, and her words would alter the course of my life.
I was twenty-years-old, returning from a tourist trip abroad, still navigating the emotional space of losing my older brother to suicide in March of that year.
Suddenly, I had become an only child, and I was just starting to feel the weight of that burden. I had not yet entered college. I worked as an assistant bookkeeper in the cramped back office of a car parts store. I sneaked in the back door, slinked along the dangling rubber parts hanging from hooks, and spent my days sorting invoices and filing.
But, things would soon begin to change.
The year my brother died, I began to do some of my best living.
The airplane cabin smelled of stale smoke. This was back when you could still smoke on international flights in certain designated rows. The lights were dim and the air felt stuffy but cold.
On my left side was a thirty-ish man in a blue ball cap with a horrible case of halitosis. I was glad that he chose not to speak much. I suspected that English was not his first language, and he seemed happy not to have to engage in conversation. Mostly, he slept.
We were all sandwiched into our seats, our knees bumping the backs of the people reclining in front of us. The flight was seven hours, and it felt long and wearying. This was before ipods, and only a few people traveled with their walkmans or CD players. So, the options were to read, watch a movie when it showed, write, or sleep.
I had trouble sleeping on planes, in cars, wherever I was staying still but still moving. The feeling made me nauseous. So, I sat awake, scribbling notes on a small pad and listening to the snores of the majority of my fellow travelers.
I had not traveled much, and at this point in my life, I was shy, reserved—the idea of having to squeeze past people to get to the aisle seemed like a lot of effort, causing too much attention. Plus, if they knew that I was going to use the bathroom, I could already feel the hot embarrassment on my cheeks.
So, I sat quietly.
I had refused all opportunities for beverages, and my throat was dry.
I could hear the flight attendants stirring. Soon, they would offer us coffee or juice, maybe even a small “breakfast”-type treat of a small granola bar.
And, then, she spoke.
On my right sat an elderly woman with short, white hair. She must have been in her late sixties or older. Her face in my memory is like a face in a dream—hazy, undefined, yet unmistakable.
“I surely am thirsty,” she remarked. She had a soft, Oklahoma accent. She and her husband (I can almost recall his name) lived in Oklahoma City she would explain later. This was before Timothy McVeigh and his evils. Back when the Oklahoma City building was bombed, Doris was the first person who came to my mind.
She nudged me.
“Doesn’t juice sound good,” she said.
I smiled and nodded.
“Have you had anything to drink on this flight yet?”
I shifted in my seat and mumbled. “No, I haven’t been thirsty.”
She raised her eyebrows and tilted her head.
“I know what you’re doing,” she said, like she’d caught me eating cookies from the jar. “You’re not drinking so you won’t have to go to the bathroom.” She shook her head. “There’s no need for that. You drink something, and then just tell me and my husband, and we’ll move for you.”
I felt my cheeks flush.
“Well, but I—“
“Listen,” she said, her voice matter-of-fact. “Don’t you ever be backwards about being forwards.” She patted my hand. “If you need something, you just ask.”
Don’t ever be backwards about being forwards.
I can still hear Doris’ soft Oklahoma accent and lilt. Those words stayed in my mind. Of all of the souvenirs I would bring back from England and Scotland, Doris Brinlee’s words would mean the most—a kindly stranger keeping watch over a shy young girl too afraid to ask people to move so that she could use the bathroom.
Since then, I have put those words into practice. When I returned home from that tourist trip, I would eventually apply for college. My life decisions would eventually lead me from that cramped back office and onto graduate school and new cities. Year by year, moment by moment, I chipped away at the wall that kept me from engaging other people, strangers, and simply began asking for the things I wanted in life.
I stopped being backwards about being forwards.
In fact, now when I tell people that I used to be so painfully shy, they look at me with disbelief.
“Yeah, right,” they chuckle.
By the time our flight ended, Doris and I had shared a long conversation on a variety of topics, and when we parted ways, she grabbed my arm and asked what I have always thought was a peculiar last question:
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
My heart stopped, and I couldn’t breathe.
“No,” I said quickly. I rarely lied to people, and it felt dirty.
She smiled. “I’ll bet your parents are real proud of you.”
I tried to breathe again, “I hope so,” I answered.
And, I grabbed my bag, and that was it.
Simple moments on an international flight. Both shaped me. I still wonder whatever happened to Doris. It’s been sixteen years.
Who knows where life took her, or if anything I said helped her.
But, now, whenever I have the chance, I strike up conversations with people—all because of that kindly woman from Oklahoma who didn’t let a young girl stay hidden in her shell.