Unexpected lessons from a widow married 33 years

Airline passengers inch by me like sardines being shoved into a tiny tin. As always, the endless boarding march reminds me that despite my love of travel, they're spelling them wrong.

These are air-pains.

I turn to an older woman to my left in the middle seat of row 26. "So,where you headed?"


"With family?"

"No," she says in a way that suggests she's still convincing herself. "My husband of 33 years died one year ago and I'm remembering him with this trip to Hawaii. I always wanted to go, but he wasn't healthy enough, so I'm doing it alone."

"I'm so sorry," I choke, sounding like a frog with strep.

Soon both the plane and our conversation are off the ground. Between breaks for movies, small naps and smaller snacks, we discuss family, faith and forgiveness. They're lessons more valuable than the price of our tickets.

For nearly four hours Mary and I discover that God doesn't expect us to just look up for answers and inspiration, but to our left and right. And before her lifetime of wisdom slips by me in the jet stream, I ask permission to take notes.

My new friend Mary, 69, from Maryland, was married the first time when she was just 16 years old. Her husband was 17. After five years and three children, the couple divorced but remained remarkably close.

"We were just so young," she says. "And we both made mistakes. But we decided to forgive, no matter what. Christ requires that."

Years later, when her mother died and she was broke and still single, Mary called her former husband and he paid every penny of the services.

No strings. No expectations. No IOU.

"Forgiveness is powerful," she says. "We are close friends to this day."

In her 30s, she met a humble, handsome corporate chef named Louis walking down the sidewalk in Alexandria, Virginia.

"There was something about him," Mary says. "But after my first experience, I knew I wanted to do it different. Take our time."

Thirty years and two children later, Louis fell terminally ill and said a long goodbye.

"I miss him," she whispers. "In fact, I miss him more now than a year ago because I see how much I took for granted." She wipes her eyes and in sweet, almost reverent tones, she describes the empty left side of her bed. "I feel so lost."

I ask what advice she would have for newlyweds who aspire to a 33-year-marriage. "My advice is take your time. Get to know each other, keep getting to know each other even after you're married," she says. "I think young people think it's enough to fall in love."

"And don't get into debt! Louis taught me if you can't pay for it, you don't need it," she added. "He worked as a chef and drove a cab for a lot of years to pay the bills. By the time he retired, he owned rental properties and everything paid for. No debt."

Mary spoke of wisdom and the value of recognizing it in your spouse before they're gone. "I use his wisdom now, but I wish I'd used it so much more when he lived."

After another break, we chat about our faith. Mary is a lifelong Baptist with a deep love of Jesus Christ and a profound understanding of his life, ministry, sacrifice and the role of repentance in returning to live with him again.

"Imagine a world without grace," she preaches. She's troubled by people who believe church attendance alone qualifies them as Christians. "Going to church doesn't make me a disciple. If we really believe, we'll want to be like him."

In the next breath, now turning toward me and speaking passionately, she warns about judging others. "It's not our job. Heavenly Father does the judging," she says. "And the way we forgive and love reflects him."

Then, with a thump and a screech, we're on the ground. As we say goodbye, Mary suggests God puts his children together for a reason. "He's got something for us to learn every day," she says. "We just have to look up."

With a photo and a hug and her permission to write this column, we say goodbye. She admits to being scared about traveling alone to Hawaii and I give her my card and a promise of prayers on her behalf.

Watching her wind her way to a Honolulu-bound plane, I remember how many flights I've wasted buried in my iPhone, iPad and under my closed eyelids.

"I'm grateful I looked up," I say to myself as I walk off. "Even better, I'm glad I looked right and left."