A PERFECT STRANGER
They say when people die from lung fibrosis it is likely to have been developing for many years before. The tissue in your lungs becomes stiff and leads to shortness of breath over time and the survival rate is depressing: especially for someone like my dad who had smoked in his younger years, lived by a mine for most of his life, and was 75 years old.
My father and I were never close. In the latter part of his life, I struggled with my relationship with him. He had lost a lot of my family’s money and put us into a difficult situation where many sacrifices had to be made. My mom had to pick up two additional jobs to help make ends meet. I never felt like I could talk to my dad about stuff like budgeting, financial decision or developing character straits like resilience. At one point we we hardly speaking and as a flight attendant jetting all over the world, this occurrence became almost absent altogether.
He was my dad, yet we were strangers.
On Valentines Day, 14 February 2019, it was raining heavily in Johannesburg. I was late for my flight that I was supposed to catch to go to Cape Town for the weekend. I had been living abroad for a year already working as crew a crew member on a leading International airline. My world had become so big and I had become so used to the busyness of it, the shock of coming back to a Johannesburg ICU ward after a superb weekend in Cape Town, with a diagnoses that was terminal, left me complete disbelief.
I needed to fix things with this stranger I called my Dad.
All the years of being angry, unforgiving, impatient and short tempered towards him felt so unbelievably pointless. I had invested so much negative energy into a relationship that needed care and love to re-establish itself. In the end, I had 10 days, 7 of which he was in a coma.
I got to speak to my dad for 30 minutes. I got to tell him that I was sorry and he got to do the same.
On the 24 February 2019 I lost this 'stranger'. This perfect stranger. My Dad.
My mom and I had the privilege to be by his side when he left us. It was a difficult day and I had to come to terms with the fact that since I was an only, adopted child - it would just be my mom. He was supposed to walk me down the aisle. He was supposed to hold my children. He was supposed to meet the man I would one day call my husband. He was supposed to be by my mom’s side for life.
This perfect stranger was no stranger at all. I knew him. I had plans for him.
Anybody who has dealt with death, losing a parent or mourning someone they love will tell you that going back to normal life is the hardest part. We received flowers, calls, messages and food every day. Our pace of life slowed down, yet everyone else's carried on. I spent nights begging God for one more conversation. One more hug from my gentle giant dad. He was a man with so much love to give me and I pushed him so far away.
The irony and guilt of it all ate me up.
I realized that the next hurdle was going back to my life in my Middle East. My job as a flight attendant was to always make my passengers my priority. Their meals, their comfort, their experience with us was my responsibility. Yet the thought of caring about a complete, real stranger felt impossible.
I was fortunately travelling as a passenger on this particular flight and an anxious, nervous, first time passenger is exactly how I felt. Once we were airborne, I made my way to the crew to ask them for some tea to calm myself down. A supervisor I'd never met, who realised I was staff approached me en route to ask if I was returning from holiday. Without hesitation (and to my surprise at the ease of my response) I told him my Dad had just passed and the I had been home for the memorial. The supervisor pulls me in to the galley, hands me a cup of green tea and tells me how he'd too had lost a parent. His mom a few years prior and tells me how he can appreciate that coming back to work was difficult for me as it was for him too. He told me to surround myself with good friends and offered me his number in case I wanted to chat.
This stranger could not have been more perfect. Perfectly timed. Perfectly empathetic. Perfectly valuable at that point in my life.
A perfect stranger
I realised that my job is more than just making sure someone gets their vegetarian meal option or that they’re sitting in the right seat. My job is about listening and paying a little attention to the human beings around me. Everyone is struggling with something. We are all trying our best to survive this big, bad yet beautiful world and sometimes the small acts, and moments of kindness can go such an incredibly long way.
I don’t remember that man’s name, but I’ll never forget my perfect stranger.