It was 10:30 pm. I was en route from Kona to Chicago with a layover in the San Diego International Airport. I’ve been through California enough times to know that you never know what you’ll find there. And this time I certainly wasn’t surprised.
I was sitting on the floor by the only available outlet, charging my laptop and phone, when I heard a woman chatting loudly on her cell phone in the chairs across from me. The airport was quiet at this time of night, and her voice was echoing through the air drawing attention not only to her conversation but herself in general. And that’s when I noticed that she had something laying attached to a leash on the floor beside her. It was one of those flufferdoodle dogs with pointy upright ears and a long poofy tail.
I wondered what kind of person traveled directly with their dog, without crating it on with the cargo of the plane. I wondered how expensive of an endeavor it was to bring your canine friend along. But alas I would never know because I don’t own a dog and even if I did would probably never travel with it anyways.
I found my seat and settled in for the 3 hour 12 minute flight to Chicago. Finally, after about 6 total flights, 3 different plane tickets (long story) for the entire roundtrip, I had the aisle seat. Amen. It was dark and the plane was empty enough to guarantee some degree of comfortable sleep for the next few hours. As I sat there hoping that of the 30 people on the flight none would sit next to me, the woman with the dog inched closer and closer until she stopped right at my row.
She had the window seat.
She settled into her seat with the dog on her lap. At this point, the dog had been placed into a soft carrying case no bigger than my backpack. She nestled the case under the seat in front of her. Unzipping the top, out popped the head of the fluffiest, but one of the cutest dogs I have ever seen. She immediately began talking to it, reassuring the dog that it would be ok, that it would be a good flight.
She looked around for the flight attendant and pulled the dog on to her lap. Looking over at me, she said to the dog, “Let’s meet our new friend.” She pushed the dog my way. I stuck out my hand and started petting it’s fluffy, soft fur.
“What it’s name?” I asked.
“This is Sammy. He’s a Papillon. That means butterfly in French,” she remarked.
Well, hello there Sammy, I thought to myself. My name is Elizabeth and in Hebrew that means oath of God, though I don’t speak Hebrew and I’m not sure why God promised anything when he delivered me, it’s still nice to meet you. Bon jour.
I smiled. It’s not often that you get a lesson in the French language at this time of night, and especially not often that you learn clearly one of the most useful words in the French language. I could sense that the conversational possibilities with the word papillon would certainly come in handy the next time I travel in Paris.
“How did you get him on the plane?” I asked. Really, you can’t bring lotion, toothpaste, or water on a plane but you can bring a dog? Imagine all the things you could smuggle on board in a dog’s pooper. Not that I’ve ever tried smuggling anything in my pooper or Chewie’s pooper before but I’m sure it’s been considered by someone in a drug cartel.
“You pay the money, you get the seat,” she said matter-of-factly. “He’s never been on a plane before,” she reported, “but I figured I had the frequent flyer miles so I might as well bring him along.” I did some quick calculations. With the cost of flight today, this woman might have paid up to $300 worth of frequent flyer miles to fly her friend across the country. That seems like a lot, and I wonder if there is some discount for those weighing under 20 lbs (he weighed 4 lbs as she later informed me). Is it like a baby? If it can fit on your lap, does it get on for free? Surely this dog couldn’t cost the plane much. He wouldn’t need a beverage, he definitely didn’t need a seat, and would not add to a weight problem. In fact, the only costly or risky thing about him what the possibility that he might poo or pee in the aisle – which the flight attendant warned her before boarding the plane, yes in these words, “As long as he doesn’t poo or pee, it’s ok with me.” I’m not saying I’m a flawless professional, but I would have thought that a phrase like relieve himself, or potty on the plane, might have been more appropriate than poo or pee.
She pulled out a bottle of pills and tried with effort to pop off the top. She actually smelled a little ‘shiny’ herself, so I wondered if perhaps she was going for the old 1 – 2 punch, a little synergism to help her through the flight. “These are his sleeping pills,” she explained pulling out some small blue pills, “but I’m not so sure he needs them. What do you think?”
Suddenly I felt important. Here I was flying home from San Diego and my veterinary skills are being called into question. Not that I have any skills, but it made me feel special that she even bothered to ask my opinion.
“He seems to be fine,” I said. And he did. He was quiet, calm, at ease. Not at all what you’d expect from a small, fluffernut dog like that. Certainly made I-Chi and Chewie look like overactive, easily distractible raging hounds from whence hell came.
The woman pulled the unmedicated Sammy out of his Sherpa Bag (really, it was called a Sherpa Bag) and plopped him lightly on the seat between us. She pet him gently and talked to him in baby talk about whatever you talk to a Papillon about. For all I knew, it could have been French. I asked if he had to stay crated for the whole trip. She said yes, but perhaps because it was a late flight they would bend the rules. But, she added, he should probably be strapped in. With that, she took the seatbelt and tried to fasten it around Sammy. Right then, the flight attendant stopped by our seat and sternly said, “You know the rules.”
The woman smiled sheepishly, and looking at me she said “Looks like we got in trouble.” I didn’t know at which point I and her became “we” but she seemed to have found a caring camaraderie in me as her seat mate and was taking full advantage of our newly formed partnership. In fact, at that moment, she reached over, grabbed my arm, and said, “Thanks for being such a good seat partner.”
Compliantly, she put Sammy back into the bag and zipped the top closed. She turned to me and said, “If he makes noise, you’re going to be in trouble because you told me not to give him the pills.” She was joking, obviously, but there was also something strange about this woman, like she really believed that I knew enough to advise her not to sedate the dog and that it really would be my fault for giving her faulty advice.
She started talking about Sammy, how happy she was that she decided to bring him along. In fact, she admitted that her only hesitation was the fear of crashing with Sammy on board. Honestly, she wondered how Sammy would save himself if he was zipped into his Sherpa bag. And, if it was an over-the-water landing, would he be able to swim? I wasn’t sure if the French knew how to swim, but I know they liked to wander beaches topless so I assume they feel some degree of comfort around water. To set herself at ease, she kept the top of the bag slightly unzipped, in case Sammy needed an out. In case we crashed and he needed to save himself. I wondered if I should even mention that the oxygen mask might just be a wee bit too big for Sammy’s small mouth.
While we waited to depart, she began sharing the details about her life. There are some people out there who can tell you years of their life in about 10 minutes. I am not one of them. All she got out of me was Hawaii, vacation with husband, end of story. And from her I learned that she had 4 children, 3 stepchildren, 11 grandchildren, one of which was 3 weeks old, and lived in Columbus, that she was going to see, but they used to live in San Diego, but liked Columbus better, because her son is a professor at Ohio State, and she owns a clinic, and sometimes Sammy comes with her and people think he is a healing dog. Now, breathe.
Once the lights went out and we were in the air, she quieted down. And Sammy slept. Even I fell asleep in the most comfortable position a post-Ironman can find being upright (code for ‘no positions meeting this criteria’).
About halfway through the flight, the woman got up to use the bathroom. As soon as she left, Sammy’s radar must have signaled ‘owner gone astray’, because he immediately popped his head up out of the bag and nervously looked around. I said hello to him and could sense what happened next - he saw an opportunity for freedom and jumped out of the bag. I tried to catch him with my hands, but he was little and spry and took off running towards the back of the plane. I’ve never seen anything as funny as a small white pooch running down an airplane aisle. Clearly this has to violate some safety code, some federal aviation law. You can’t tamper with the fire alarm in the bathroom, you can’t unbuckle your seatbelt, you can’t use the wrong bathroom, you can’t call the flight attendant a dime store whore (not that I would), but let your dog run up and down the aisle – that literally flies no problem. At the very least, it should have stirred most people into laughter. But the plane was dark and I’m not even sure anyone noticed but me.
Sammy made a beeline to the bathrooms in the back of the lane, but when he realized that his owner had illegally used the bathroom in the front gally (first class only, after all, and while I’m at it, what the hell is a gally?), he ran quickly in that direction. The woman was just about to go into the bathroom, with the door slightly ajar, Sammy jumped in with her and she closed the door.
After a few minutes, she returned to her seat with Sammy in arms. She carefully zipped him up into the Sherpa bag and both returned to sleep.
After we landed, the woman took Sammy out of his bag and put him on her lap. He nuzzled against her and she cradled him almost like a baby. And in one of the most loving, most comforting gestures I’ve ever seen, he looked up at her and licked her face.
I wonder what (if anything) happened to this woman, why she was traveling alone with her dog and not a husband or a friend. What had her living thousands of miles away from her children, and grandchildren, and stepchildren, and living only with this dog. I sensed that she had more than a companion in Sammy, she had perhaps a friend, someone that listened to her stories, someone that completed her day and made her feel important again. I wondered what life had brought to her, how she found Sammy, and what made her bring him along.
And this is the beauty of meeting strangers and having them share a piece of their life with you. No matter how fleeting the moment or how short the encounter, it makes you think and wonder as you spin stories of their life situation while making you more grateful for your own.