Two years ago, I had the great opportunity to deliver the keynote at the Symposium for Gynecological Nurse Oncologists in Charlotte. As I planned for the trip, chaos ensued, tossing my normal, happy life into a big salad bowl of uncertainty.
THEN I checked the weather.
Strong storms, heavy rain, hail and tornadoes were forecasted for the south. Great. I have to get on a plane. Welcome to spring in the south, right? Tornado and airplane are two words no one wants to hear in the same sentence. But nevertheless I had no choice, so I added a little tornado dressing to my unsettled salad. Frantically the night before, I searched for my clothes, tossing them in every direction trying to make A match B as I hurriedly packed. To make matters worse, I was out of sweet tea. Most of you know sweet tea is my comfort. I don’t care for most cocktails, but running out of sweet tea and having no tea bags and sugar in the house is something that shouldn’t happen to this addict, especially not today. The television was already issuing warnings of serious impending weather with flight delays/cancellations, and I was right in its path. I was worried. Absolutely exhausted from a very emotional week, I collapsed on my knees in the floor of my closet and prayed, “God, please give me calm assurance in the midst of this storm.” In my head, I was referring to the impending storm within my travel route, but little did I know God (in his ever-perfect timing) decided to use the outside storm to create a beautiful rainbow inside my heart and chose to answer my prayer in a far more magnificent way.
Take off went smoothly. Then came the descent. The voice of the captain delivered those unsettling words, “Hello from the flight deck. Please take your seats and fasten your seatbelts. We’re gonna have a few bumps.”
A few bumps?!?
As the plane tossed right, then left, took a slight dive, then rose. By that time, it became clear I needed to make friends with the nice man in 10A.
I was in seat 10B. The kind gentleman was from Brentwood and was an engineer. Charlotte was his first stop, then on to his next venture. He hoped. With lightning flashing just outside my window seat and the ominous black clouds coming at the plane, 10A and I nervously conversed with lighthearted gibberish as the plane heartily jostled us around. I joked to my friend stating I hope his wife was OK with me landing in his lap. Once we landed, I realized I never asked his name. Clearly relieved, we both decided after our adventure, I was to call him what I referred to him as the last twelve minutes of the flight – “Oh Lord.”
Grateful to be on the ground, round two of this chaotic trip occurred. My long-time friend was picking me up at the airport. But as I landed, I received a message he was stuck in storm-related traffic. We had a meeting in the afternoon in Downtown Charlotte, so both of us decided I needed to take the hotel shuttle and he would just meet and we would go from me there.
Now to catch the shuttle.
With pouring rain and winds working overtime to yank my hair extensions out one by one, there I sat outside waiting on the shuttle. Fully dressed for a business meeting, I was wet, cold and in heels. After waiting almost 30 minutes, the shuttle finally arrived. Looking like my dog, Marley, on a bad hair day, I was just happy to take a dry seat – right behind a man wearing a uniform.
As I fumbled to check my phone messages, the man in front of me began small talk with the driver. Clearly, this gentleman had stayed at the hotel many times before. He commented on my heavy, multi-syllable southern drawl and we began to chat. As the 10-minute ride turned to 15 then 20 then 30 (thanks to the downpour), he asked what brought me to Charlotte. Of course, THAT was the door opener. In honor of being present in NASCAR’s hometown, I hit the accelerator, sharing with pride my survivor story mixed in with a little southern humor. The kind gentleman turned around from his seat to face me. That’s when his own story began to unfold and he began sharing his own experience with cancer.
His 23-year-old daughter, Amanda, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma several years ago. After a long course of treatment and a few months cancer free, the news was again not good. It has returned. The family was devastated. Fear had taken hold. Once again treatments became the norm and they were long and brutal. But Amanda persevered. Thankfully, today Amanda is cancer free. This family had experienced their own storm, again similar to my own and one I have heard so many times on my journey.
I also learned he was a Captain and his name was John. Finally arriving at the hotel, “Captain John” and I said our goodbyes. As I was retreating to my room to change and meet my friend, Captain John told me he wanted to say thank you for my work and asked if I were around later he would buy me a drink.
I could tell by his tone something was different. I heard something in his voice and saw a look in his eyes. It wasn’t about a casual drink at all; there was something deeper. There was a story. A story I wanted to hear.
Through the loud claps of thunder, I told Captain John I would meet him before I had to speak. In a move that surprised myself, I invited him to the keynote session. I could tell he was reluctant but agreed to think about it.
Later that evening and before my speech, I went to meet Captain John at the bar. He wasn’t there. I thought he had just gotten caught up with other tasks of the day. I was a bit disappointed, thinking I may have misunderstood in the chaos of lightning strikes and whipping winds. Just as I was ready to take the stage to speak, I realized I had left part of my speech in my room. I rushed out of the ballroom and to the elevator. As I awkwardly galloped past the bar in six-inch stilettos, I saw Captain John speaking to an employee. “Hey there!” I shouted. “You owe me a drink! Grab one for yourself and come on down to Ballroom A.” Captain John smiled and waved. With no expectations, I took the stage in front of oncology nurses from around the country, desperately hoping to inspire these incredible group of dedicated women.
As I began to speak from the podium, I noticed the air began to calm. I also noticed the calm in my heart. It was the one I prayed for. The one I realized only Christ could bring in the midst of a storm. God knew my heart on the floor of my closet. He knew my prayer only as He could.
I delivered my most heartfelt speech ever as I honored the nurses that give so much of themselves. My speech was about my nurse and her love for me as I faced my own battle with cancer and how thanks to her, I had the passion to want to give back. Appreciation and love was the focus, and as I do in my talks, I gave credit to the amazing army that walks along beside me. One by one, I honored those supporters and survivors that were to me as refreshing as a glass of perfect strong, southern sweet iced tea. When my speech was completed, the lights were raised. That’s when I looked up and there stood Captain John in the back of the room.
After a meet and greet with some amazing nurses, I looked in the back of the room, but Captain John was gone. Saddened, my heart hoped somehow something I said eased the storm I knew was in his heart. With the exhausting day, I was toast. My feet were swollen, I was hungry and all I could think about was getting to my room and climbing into bed.
As I staggered to the elevator, once again I passed by the bar. I rounded the corner and there he sat – Captain John. In his hand was a glass of wine. Sitting next to him was an empty seat and on the table sat a full glass of strong, southern sweet iced tea. I smiled and happily took a seat, totally forgetting the exhaustion.
A drink turned into dinner. We were like two old friends catching up for lost time. There was so much more to his story. Captain John was a fighter pilot for our country for 20 years and an American Airlines pilot/instructor for over 30. He was married 30 years to Diana and they had three children – a set of twins and Amanda. He shared his heartfelt joy and pain of his wonderful family life, an incredible career of ups and downs in the airlines, thoughts of retirement, and then cancer. He had brought with him an IPad with pictures of his family and Amanda’s cancer journey. For almost three hours Captain John shared fear and appreciation for his personal journey to the happiness he feels today. We laughed as he tried to teach me the elements of flying a plane. He shared with me his prized possession – a car pre-owned by Jeff Gordon. (Only in Charlotte does this happen, right?) I shared more about the WSA – telling him about the Heather Hall’s, Linda Ragsdale’s and Jessica Meyer’s of my world. Conversations always led back to his sweet daughter, Amanda, and how her cancer journey had shaped the family. I watched him wipe the tears several times over the course of the evening. I watched this wonderful Dad release his pain as years of his own storm gave way to rays of sunshine and hope as he talked about his dreams for Amanda’s future.
As darkness settled in and the long conversation began to wrap, I glanced out the window. Finally, it was quiet. I once again said goodbye to my new friend, Captain John. A miracle of healing had somehow taken place in that little bar – for both of us. The storm had passed and a quiet peace covered the beautiful city of Charlotte, North Carolina. As I fell into bed and picked up my computer to write, I couldn’t help but think how God had answered my prayer on the floor of my closet just 24 hours earlier. I had asked for a sense of peace in the midst of the storm. Just like God does, he answers prayers. But today, He made sure I knew He had my back, so he made it clear not once, but twice. Today, I had two Captain’s guiding my way along in this journey called life, one in human form, and one from above.
As I called it good for the night, I lay my head down knowing without a shadow of a doubt I am blessed. Blessed to know the power of prayer. Blessed to know those prayers are answered. Blessed to have been given a gift of calm assurances during the storm, and blessed to experience the beauty of the rainbows that follow. And while the rain is sometimes a representative of our tears and thunder represents our fears, it is always the comfort that each day we take any flight, we all have a guardian angel as our Captain. For that, I am forever grateful.
Just this week, I received an email from Captain John. The subject line read, “Hi Karen, this is your guardian angel.” Seems life is beautiful for both my friend and his precious family. Amanda is strong and all in the Captain’s world is loving life. God bless you, Captain John. Thank you for your service, your love, and your spirit. May we all be blessed with our guardian angels both watching from above and in our daily lives.