The lessons we learn in the air

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Her name was Deb. I could tell she had plenty of stories to share from the moment she sat down beside me. Over the course of the six-hour flight this vivacious woman, whose language was peppered with words such as “awesome” and “far out” and who played in a rock’n’roll band in Salt Lake City, Utah, shared just a little of her soul with me.

Sometimes when you fly you’re not in the mood to talk to anyone – no matter who is sitting next to you. But I’ve meet some very cool people on planes, some of whom are now firm friends and some I’ve gone on to do business with. I guess in the end, I generally just like to hear other people’s stories and it sure beats sitting there daydreaming about the plane crashing as I am often unhelpfully prone to do.

Deb had flown from Salt Lake City that day and was transiting through Brisbane with her husband as they headed to Bali for a business/pleasure trip. Bali was on her bucket list but Deb was no insular American traveller. She’d travelled and lived and loved and lost and then learned how to live all over again.

She was about 20 hours into the journey and had already flown from Salt Lake via LA and Brisbane to get to Denpasar that day. While her husband wisely slept beside her, we shared much about our lives and soon found many synergies even though we were from very different places and have lived very different lives.

Deb is the mother of five children. Her first-born was adopted out to a childless family the teenaged version of herself found through her doctor. They sounded like good people, she said, so after the baby was born she handed the child over and walked away, knowing the professional couple could give the child a better life than she could as a very young mother with few prospects at that point in time. That was more than 35 years ago.

And it was 30 years ago that Deb got sober. She spent the best part of her teenage years and her early 20s in the dirty, tight grip of substance abuse. A violent father and some other undiagnosed issues meant she tried absolutely everything. It was before HIV, she said to insinuate to me the life she had led for a time. I nodded that I understood and she told me her wild stories with good humour and no shame.

But unlike so many others, she had the willpower and the will to live a good life to stop. She soon had a wonderful husband and four beautiful children. They started a successful shipping broker business, went snow-skiing in their backyard and reef diving in exotic overseas locations. She joined a rock’n’roll band and life was good. Then her eldest son lost his long fight against mental illness when he accidentally mixed his medication and everything changed.

That was seven years ago. She mourned him for three years. She wanted to join him, she said, even though her family still needed her and she loved them all with a passion. In her more selfish moments she wanted him back even though his life had been mired by mental health issues for years and he knew he had no fight left in him.

Then a chance encounter with a woman, who had been in and out of institutions and had no semblance of a life to speak of, changed her thinking. She said she recognised that her son was in a better place and that his life would have always been one of struggle and one of torment. And then finally she learned to breathe again.

Deb told me this story as we both flew to paradise. As her husband softly snored, she smiled at me with her wonderfully bohemian aura and with tears in my eyes I smiled back. I think we both knew the connection we made that day was more than just a coincidence. It was definitely far out and more than fabulous too.

Every time I come to Bali, I learn life lessons – either in the air or on the ground. As I write this today, the 11th anniversary of the Bali bombings and the terror that struck this wonderful place and its peace-loving people, I know that Deb’s story will be part of the next life journey for me. And without a doubt that is freakin awesome.

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