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first person

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Illustration by Drew Shannon

I heard the heavy breathing well before I was pulled into the scenario. As I became aware of the noise, I realized it was not so much heavy breathing as it was deep, rhythmic breathing – like a person might do if they were trying to avert a panic attack. Then I felt the tap on my left arm.

“Excuse me, sorry … (gasp) … to bother you … (gasp) … but …”

The woman, looking straight ahead as if focusing somewhere in the distance, was extending her right hand to me, all the while moving her left arm slowly, rhythmically, from up by her head, down, along her body, in time with the breathing she was clearly – I now had my eyes wide open – trying to control.

In an instant, I realized she was panicking. She needed to be connected to someone who wasn’t.

I reached out and grasped her right hand with mine and used my left to form a vice-like grip around her right wrist.

“It’s all right,” I said. “It’s okay. Just concentrate on your breathing.”

We were seatmates on a flight from Winnipeg to Toronto. I at the window, she on the aisle, the middle seat was empty. My eyes had been closed earlier because I was maintaining my own equanimity during the turbulence that had materialized two-thirds of the way through the journey. In truth, she was taking my mind off my own discomfort.

The woman wrenched her head around and looked at me, a little wild-eyed. “Do you know Lamaze? … 957 …(gasp, ragged breath in) … 956 …”

“No,” I replied truthfully but I realized that I was prepared for this situation thanks to my sensible British mother’s upbringing and my own reading and rereading of the Sue Barton, Nurse books during early adolescence. “Doesn’t matter,” I reassured her. “I’ll just keep holding on to you.” The woman kept managing her breathing.

The woman spoke again. “Sorry … need to move my elastic band … sorry …”

I released my vice-like grip and she moved the blue band, which I had originally believed to be one of those message bands but it served a more practical purpose for this frightened woman. She needed to move the blue band from her right wrist to her left. But before reclaiming my right hand, she pulled the elastic quite far back and let it snap sharply – painfully? – onto her left wrist. “Stop it!” she commanded her body, but as the turbulence continued so did her gasping, ragged breaths.

“I’m losing it,” she eventually said out loud, but continued to count, to breathe, to do the arm movement from her head down along her body.

Passengers around us had begun to notice her distress and motioned for the flight attendant to … well, to attend to her. But it seemed my strong grip and the woman’s own breathing and counting routine were sufficient to see her through her terror toward calm, which came as soon as the turbulence ceased. Then, she and I fell into a conversation.

“Toronto’s usually rough,” she said, by way of explanation. “Oh,” I said, not entirely sure what she meant. “The heat, the humidity, the air – it’s rough,” she explained.

It turned out that she flies a couple of times a month for her job, and the fear doesn’t diminish with the frequency of exposure. It took a Fear of Flying course to get her into a plane again after two years of mainly ground-only travel. After a long bus ride, train journey and a hair-raising taxi ride to the course, the woman promised herself she would take the graduation flight home no matter what. She has been flying ever since. Not happily. Not easily. But successfully.

“I normally try to be very self-contained,” the woman said apologetically, “but on occasion, I’ve elbowed my seatmate when I’ve pulled my band back to snap myself.” We both agreed that fear is often not rational, but it can be manageable with the right routine – and a bit of basic knowledge: In the context of a bumpy flight, turbulence equals discomfort not drastic danger.

On my flight home a month later, my plane also encountered turbulence but the reaction of the young boy sitting behind me could not have been more different. “These bumps are awesome, Dad!” he cried out. “It’s like being on the roller-coaster at the fair!”

Holding a stranger’s hand in flight hadn’t been in my plans that day, but I’m glad I was there to help that woman (we never did introduce ourselves).

We should all be so lucky as to make such an important connection with a stranger on an ordinary day.

While this experience happened in pre-COVID times, I think of it often now. If you are like me, you feel occasional terror at the metaphorical turbulence the virus has introduced into our daily lives: Will this bumpy ride ever end? Will plain discomfort become traumatic danger? Will I ever regain the happy-go-lucky adventurous spirit of that young boy sitting behind me on my return flight? I hope so, though, some days, I can hardly imagine what touching down safely might feel like. In the meantime, I keep my mask on and my heart open, ready to extend a hand to a fellow traveller making it through their own particular terror in these extraordinary times.

Amanda Le Rougetel lives in Winnipeg.

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