When I sat next to Angela on a flight from St. Louis to Newark, I knew something was up.
I knew, because Angela had been gone for nine years.
I had an aisle seat that late December night. I was two months pregnant, nauseous, exhausted, and traveling alone, so I wasn’t paying much attention to my surroundings. The plane took off, they dimmed the cabin lights, and I settled in to get some sleep. As I turned my head, I glimpsed the profile of a woman sitting next to me and my heart stuttered. The profile of the woman next to me was the exact, and I mean genetic spitting image, of my friend Angela. My Angela, who had died from cancer nine years before.
I sat in the dimmed lights, breathing deeply and trying to settle my heart rate back to an acceptable level. The woman was asleep, and it was dark, and everyone else was either asleep or reading, and I discovered that if I turned my head just so, I could gaze at her undetected to my heart’s content. And I did. I never took my eyes off her.
The slope of her nose, the set of her eyebrows on her forehead, the way her eyes were closed tightly and determinately. Her nose, her chin… they were all the same. I knew Angela’s face better than my own, especially when she was sleeping. Before she died, I spent hours with her while she slept in the hospital, and then at the end as she slept in her home while the cancer finally took her over. I remember trying to memorize her face during a small family viewing before they cremated her, knowing that I would never set eyes on her beautiful face again.
And yet, here I was.
Rationally I knew it was not Angela. But emotionally the hairs on my arms were standing up, and tears were streaming down my cheeks, and I felt in my soul that my friend was paying me a visit. I felt that somehow in the realm of the cosmos, heaven, behind the veil, or whatever other term one uses for “the next world” was stretched thin at that moment. It felt like she was with me, her warm, wise, take no prisoners, suffer no fools, spirit washed over me and I could feel her, while I gazed lovingly at a replica of her face.
I sat there, thousands of feet above the world’s surface, in the dimmed cabin of a jet airplane, and thought, “Something is up. Something is happening. This must mean something.”
I used to be a woman who looked for meaning in everything. I believed that we received visitors from the great beyond. I believed that a fluttering leaf from the sky that landed at my feet in the shape of a heart meant something wonderful, that God was messaging me. I believed that when I prayed “help” into the world, an ever-loving God heard me. I used to be that woman. But years of heartbreak, loss, disappointment had stripped much of that away.
And yet on that night, in that plane, looking at the face of my dead friend, I knew absolutely that something was up. I just didn’t know what it was. So, I decided to consider it a blessing, a hello and a how-are-you from a woman I had loved with all my heart. That I still loved. That I would always love. I reconsidered the beliefs I had lost, the idea that maybe I should once again look for signs. And I sat in the dark of that airplane and gazed at a stranger’s face and felt love in my heart for my friend, and maybe for that divine power I doubted.
When the plane landed, the cabin lights flooded back on, causing me to squint and avert my gaze because I didn’t want the poor woman to wake up and think she had a strange stalker staring at her. But I couldn’t help it, and I glanced back at her again. And that’s when I saw the woman looked nothing like Angela. She took her hat off and she had short blond hair, nothing like Angela’s brunette waves. When not in profile, her features weren’t nearly as refined, her nose was blocky, her eyes blue instead of green. It was as if Angela had shape shifted away.
Instead of feeling baffled, I quietly smiled and gathered my purse and got ready to get off the plane. Angela had been to visit me. And then she had gone back to wherever she’d come from. I felt warm and loved, and so happy to have seen her again.
A few days later the baby inside me died. Well, actually, if the doctor’s calculations were correct, the baby had died inside me around the same time I was riding next to Angela on that airplane.
It felt like a practical joke, a New Year’s Eve “just kidding” moment inside the ER as the clock struck midnight and all the nurses cheered and wished each other a happy year, welcoming 2018, and my baby was dead inside my stomach. I laid on a narrow hospital bed, in my hospital gown and looked down at my stubby haired legs I hadn’t shaved in a few days because of the pregnancy nausea and exhaustion. It felt like a joke because just two weeks before, coincidentally on the anniversary of Angela’s death, we had gone to the doctor and listened to his little heartbeat. I had even visited her old blog and left her a comment about it. It felt like the right thing to do, letting her know. Had that called her to me? In my mind, my baby was a boy, and very stubborn. Despite lower than normal HCG levels, he continued to grow and develop. He was determined, I’d felt it. I called him The Little Engine That Could because I just knew he would make it.
But he didn’t.
On the anniversary of Angela’s death, we got good news of Little Engine’s heartbeat. A week later Angela rode beside me in the airplane. A week after that, I said goodbye to my baby. I sat in the ER, listening to the drunk revelers coming in with sprained ankles and joking about dancing on tables, and cried my eyes out. I cried in a way I had never cried before, and listened to sounds coming out of my mouth I’d never heard before, mournful inhuman sounds I didn’t know I was capable of making.
I laid there with my hairy legs and ass hanging out of a worn gown and cried my heart out. I cried because I was 37 and everything felt too dark, too late, too old. I cried because I missed my friend and the wise words she would have been able to give me. I cried because I loved that little life and its heartbeat inside me so much. To everyone else, I’d lost a pregnancy. But to me, I’d lost a baby I already knew and loved.
I feel certain that there was no coincidence in the tangled timing of Angela’s death anniversary, baby heartbeats, and ghosts on a plane. All those signs were enmeshed in a way that I cannot possibly detangle, and I still can’t. It all had to happen to remind me that there are some things we will never, ever, understand. I had to go through all of it to be standing where I am today, home again in Arkansas, living in a house that feels like a hug, with my two happy babies. And lately Angela has been waving hello at me again, this time in less dramatic, smaller, private ways. I believe that in this life, if we’re lucky, we get more than one soul mate, and she will always be one of mine.
I like to think of Angela in the next life, loving the three babies I lost, but especially The Little Engine That Could. If anyone could appreciate a stubborn little spirit, it would be Angela. Maybe that’s just a silly fantastical story in my mind, but it comforts me. If there was anyone who would love my babies, it is her.
Signs are everywhere, and I don’t think we’re really ever meant to decipher all of them. Instead, I think we’re meant to be comforted in the knowledge that this isn’t all there is, that there are bigger things happening behind the scenes, and that the ones we love never really leave us.