An Open Letter to the Boy-Man Behind Me on the Plane:
You were loud. You were, in the most generous light, very loud. And you knew it.
You were holding court, regaling your newly acquired groupies with tales about where they were headed, where you had been, and where they absolutely had to go. You kept insisting that you “wouldn’t lie” to them and that you were “being honest,” which only made me doubt your sincerity. You were the best at everything, the most experienced of anyone. Even your apology, when I asked you to please quiet down, was dramatic.
I knew the reprieve wouldn’t last long; you and your man-bun would not be denied the opportunity to share every mind-numbing detail of the ski resorts you visited in the last two weeks and which stamps in your passport were your favorites. It’s okay that you were telling these stories—I’m glad you have stories to tell—but a captive audience is, by default, captive; I never asked to hear your one-man show.
I tried a second time to encourage you to be considerate. I turned around and peered over my seat, but you pretended not to see me. One of your adoring fans did, though, and she gestured awkwardly in my direction. “Oh!” you called out in mock surprise. “Am I being too loud again? I’m so sorry. It’s just that I’m so passionate!”
“It isn’t you!” your new friend protested in a loud whisper. “It’s her. She just doesn’t have any passion.”
And so I am writing this letter. Because I want you to know, before you barrel into the third decade of this life you think you have figured out, how very quiet real passion can be.
I want you to know that while you were employing volume to convince others of your commitment to a life of adventure, I was committed to finishing another chapter of the book that is my constant companion, “The Bipolar Teen.” While you were raving about the artificial highs that are the basis of your nightlife, I was ranking potential mood stabilizers based on which have the fewest side effects. And while you were boasting about your own frenetic pace of living, I was wondering how much longer my 13-year-old son can stay one step ahead of the mania that seems determined to overtake him.
I want you to know that, in a civilized world, your passion would not have prevented the conversation that didn’t—couldn’t—begin until the plane landed and we were preparing to debark. I would have had more time to talk to the passenger to my right, the mother of a young woman with Asperger syndrome. When I commented on her puzzle-piece-adorned lanyard, she told me how proud she is of her daughter’s accomplishments, but how heartbreaking it is to watch her struggle to make meaningful social connections. To my left, there was a 51-year-old woman who saw my book and freely and vulnerably shared the fact that she has been living with a bipolar diagnosis since her tumultuous twenties, after years of self-medication and risky behavior. I wished desperately—passionately—that I could have had more time with these women who have gone before me in the morass of mental health care.
I want you to know that I was on that plane to rekindle another kind of passion. For the first time since our honeymoon 16 years ago, my husband and I were spending three nights away from our children, including the son who, for weeks on end, couldn’t be left alone in his own room. This trip was a blessing out of the blue, a mini-vacation gifted to us for reasons that don’t matter here, and it could be another 16 years before we can afford a trip like this on our own. I don’t pretend to know how you afford to indulge your “passions,” and your money is yours to spend, but life is about finite resources and difficult choices. And sometimes, no amount of cash can buy the things you most desire.
You didn’t notice my husband on our flight, because, as members of boarding group “C,” there was no chance we were going to sit together. He was closer to the front of the plane, where he had found a seat near an empty overhead bin. This is important, because he was in charge of both of our carry-on bags. You wouldn’t have known by looking at me (not that you ever really saw me), but I can’t lift a heavy bag high enough to stow it. It’s a combination of invisible ailments: the shoulder I dislocated last year after physical therapy made me a little too flexible, and the double mastectomy that necessitated the physical therapy in the first place. So my husband takes care of a lot of things for me, and while that might not sound like passionate love to you, it is the best kind.
I want you to know that although I have never been to Vegas (your ultimate destination after that flight we shared) I have faced and beaten odds greater than any glitzy casino could boast. And now I will use that same determination, that passion, to find the help that my son so desperately deserves. That’s not easy to do in the archaic world of mental health care, but I’m a mom, and there is nothing I feel more strongly about than my children’s well being.
Surely, if a life of passion is evidenced by dazzling Snapchat photos, my journey will be mislabeled. It will look, to an outsider, both uninspired and uninspiring. But never confuse skiing the Alps with tilting at windmills. True passion does not require a podium or a Twitter feed or even an audience. Real passion—real life—isn’t about hashtags, and it isn’t about proving that your life matters. It’s about proving that someone else’s life matters to you.
These are the things I want you to know. And I’m not lying.
Heather Smith “Taking Flight” is the second work I have had published. “Why Today is Jammie Day,” included in “A Cup of Comfort for Mothers,” is a story about the two-year-old version of the son featured in my current essay. In the years between then and now, I have written a variety of poems, letters, and essays to help me process life as a wife, a mom of three, and an advocate of students with special needs. In addition, I chronicled my time as a breast cancer patient, at https://www.caringbridge.org/visit/heatherksmith