During the pandemic, I flew back to the Bay Area, and I sat next to a woman with a terrible and persistent wet cough. My wife and I had decided to fly to San Diego when things were opening up, when the vaccine became available, and I thought I knew what I was getting into, but that woman’s cough just shattered that belief.
You see, as a Latino, my sense of personal space is very limited. It’s almost nonexistent. Take Governor Andrew Cuomo, for example, when he said, “I’m not a pervert. I’m Berlusconi.” Actually, wait, that’s not what he said. He said, “I’m not a pervert. I’m Italian.” I understood what he meant. It doesn’t actually apply to Cuomo, because all the evidence pointed at him being a pervert. But there is truth in what he was trying to twist, and that is that the sense of personal space is different across cultures.
I had almost no sense of it before the epidemic. But it has changed. Now I have a personal bubble. If people burst it, I pretend to cough, under my mask, and people around me just run for cover.
But it is different in an airplane
The airline industry violates our personal space and we accept it, because it is more convenient to fly than to embark on the Oregon Trail.
Our flight takes off, and immediately hits a small pocket of storms. The turbulence was scary, until I realized it wasn’t turbulence. It was this woman hacking her lungs out. As I stew in my anger I compulsively ask myself why no one checked this woman’s temperature, at the very least.
Her skin palor was gray. She was sweaty and clammy. Apparently, as long as you have a ticket, and a pulse, you can board your plane.
And die in it.
I wasn’t the only one having these thoughts, as with every cough I could hear the grunts of indignation from everyone around us. And I really wondered if anyone had brought a pitchfork as a carry-on. My wife next to me whispers, “What are we supposed to do?” And I say, in a moment of unprecedented clarity, “Maybe we can have some compassion.”
Of course, I didn’t say the rest of what I was thinking.
“It doesn’t matter what we do. We’re in a plane. We’ve now got what she’s got. We are dying of this!!!”
And right then, that’s why I knew why I was so angry. Because I was afraid. And the response I blurted out at first was the one that stopped me.
What a weird thing to think about in the middle of this pandemic. Compassion is a forgotten memory of my upbringing. When my parents divorced, my dad threw himself into religion and became a Christian. And my mom threw herself into work.
My mom remained a Catholic because it is the most productive path to salvation, because it is the religion that requires the least amount of effort. Monday through Saturday, everything is fair game, then on Sunday, you reveal your darkest, juiciest secrets to your priest, and you start Monday with a clean slate again.
“Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!!”
But from being dragged between religions, I remembered that most of their stories have the same theme — to be nice to others in their moments of hardship.
Before the pandemic, it was very in vogue to be compassionate. It was as if hipsters and spiritual gangsters were finally going to gentrify the concept of compassion, and we were going to be able to incorporate it into our fabulous self-care routines, along with other small actions, like smelling essential oils, using crystals, tripping on hard-to-pronounce but very expensive mushrooms.
Once we were presented with a truly difficult time, all bets were off. And sadly, it seemed that as a society we couldn’t get it together. Sadly, high-waisted shorts seem to have a longer shelf-life than compassion.
When that flight landed, I was still afraid, but I was no longer angry. I was sad that I looked at that sick woman, and I wanted to run her out of the plane like she was Frankenstein’s monster and I was an angry villager.
But that woman was still a human being.
A human being in pain. Maybe she had a mother and father that would worry about her in her moment of sickness. Maybe she had kids who would mourn her loss if she did have COVID and died from it.
That’s when anger was replaced with a wish, a genuine wish, for that woman to feel better. You know, because of this pandemic, I might always have to keep strangers at a distance that, according to Governor Cuomo, Italians will never understand. “Non lo capisco!”
I just hope that I can maintain that space that I found at the end of my flight, the space where, even if momentarily, compassion lived in my heart.