I was sweating. The layover between flights was cut short by a delayed flight and when most people would think it was an adequate amount of time to get to the departing gate, a working-nursing mom, away from her baby for 18 hours, was frantic. Thankfully the door didn’t close without me and my black bag on my shoulder, which was a few ounces heavier.
Being the last person on the flight, I quickly passed each row in search of 18C. When I arrived, I found a sweet older woman in my seat and her travel companion expressed that she was hoping to sit next to her. So, I nodded and smiled while back pedaling a few rows towards the front of the aircraft, directly behind 1st class where I spotted a whole row open. I sat down with a huge sigh of relief, got settled with extra leg room, and peered across the aisle to a man that smiled, and wittingly repeated my polite response to the lady. “Oh it’s okay, I’ll just find a seat up here.” He knew that that sure worked out well for me.
I was dressed in a black suit, had been in it since 5 am, when I departed from home that morning. 14 hours later, I was on my way back to the start, where my three babies would be fast asleep when I arrived home. While delayed at the airport in Ohio, I had tried to get a different, direct flight back to Minneapolis/St. Paul but unfortunately when you try to find the cheapest flight and book it through a 3rd party, there is no negotiating. So, it only made sense I would be flying to D.C. to get back to St. Paul. Sigh.
“What were you doing in Ohio?” he asked curiously.
Still to this day, I always prepare my heart for the reaction I am going to get when I share the work we have been doing with Jack’s Basket. Sometimes I politely smile and move on based on their reaction but mostly find myself giving the 30 second commercial pitch for the organization which leads me to the conversation you are about to read. My dad (who is a Vietnam Veteran) taught me to make a friend wherever I go…and this day was no different. These moments have happened to me more times than I can count…and this one by far is my favorite. Little did I know how much I would have in common with the guy across the aisle.
“Today was Legislative Day in Columbus, Ohio and I had the opportunity to give the keynote address at the Ohio Right to Life Luncheon. Many legislators were in attendance as they were trying to pass the bill that you cannot terminate a life based on a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis. My son Jack has Down syndrome, and we wouldn’t change him if we could. But we will change the world for him.”
And he responded with the most loving and affirming words. We talked for most of the flight and I heard more about his large family and where he now called home. You would never believe that we came to realize that he lived in the same small town in southwest Minnesota I grew up in, for a short period of his life. What were the chances? I was beaming from ear to ear when he was naming some of his family members that currently live there and could only imagine what my dad’s response was going to be when I told him about a guy I met on my flight home. But that was just the start of discovering who this guy was.
He had such wise words, sprinkled with humor, and was deeply founded on great principals. We covered a few more topics before the end of the flight in which he talked fondly of his wife, and how he always reminded his (5) kids that long before they came along, it was just him and her. He emphasized how important marriage is and shared his great love for each of his kids. He talked of his faith and how that has shaped his perspective on life.
The flight was about over when he handed me this letter that he wrote to Jack.
And then handed me this. "Here, I want Jack to have this."
You never know the story of the person sitting next to you.
How often do we miss opportunities to learn from those around us because we are too busy? Too disengaged. Too exhausted. Too ignorant or simply arrogant to listen to someone’s story. To hear of the impact they’ve made. In this case, I was speaking to a man that sacrificed his life for our country. He was a retired Navy SEAL. He trained and served in the most dangerous situations to keep our country safe. He risked his life to defend our freedoms. In his humble way, he forgot to mention that he was also an actor, author, and is often seen on major political news channels being asked of his highly respected position on topics regarding our country.
The other commonality that we shared was that both of our roles defend lives. He defended the lives of our country. I didn't know that when I became Jack's mom I would also have the role of defending that his life is worth living. I have an opportunity to speak the worth of these precious babies with Down syndrome. That the life of a child with Down syndrome deserves to be celebrated not terminated. The reality is, our community is affected. The population of people with Down syndrome is decreasing by 30% as a result of prenatal screening (Skotko, 2017). We are battling ignorance, bias and inaccurate information, and a society that is quite frankly soft. We want the easy and comfortable, the ability to choose or control the outcome, avoiding anything difficult or challenging. Yet, many times the best things that happen to us are in the unexpected.
Thank you I Seal Platoon Chief, for validating that you fought for my Jack, and all of us. You are a brave and courageous man who risked your life for all of us in our country. Every life is a gift from God.
All of us.
Even my Jack, who’s made me better. And even those precious babies that deserve life and the ability to make a difference in the world for the better. God bless you.