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Modern-Day Footwashing on an Airplane

Rachel Naomi Remen tells the story of an encounter she had on an airplane that ended up being rather like a footwashing.  As she boarded the plane, she found herself sitting next to a distinguished-looking older man who sat quietly in the window seat, without speaking.  She was deeply involved in her book when she heard her seatmate gasp in dismay.  He had spilled a container of yogurt all over his shoes and his carry-on bag:

Surprisingly, he took no action.  He just kept looking out the window in stony silence.  Then, she noticed the metal brace on his left leg.  His leg was paralyzed.

Rachel asked the overworked flight attendant for a wet towel, but she just snapped back: “There are four hundred and fifty-two people on this plane.  “I’m doing the best I can, you’ll just have to wait.”

It dawned on Rachel that she had to look on the situation in a new way:

“Then I realized that it had simply not occurred to her that I was a participant. ‘If you bring me a wet towel, I will be able to get that up,’ I said quietly. She hesitated and I wondered if she had heard. Then she raised her eyebrows, turned on her heel, and brought a towel. After the cart had passed us, I looked again at my seatmate. He continued to look fixedly out the window, his left foot motionless, his right hidden under the seat.

‘I used to love to fly but I find it difficult now,’ I said, and I told him that in the past few years I have had trouble seeing. Still looking out the window, he told me that eight months ago he had suffered a stroke and now had no feeling in either of his arms from his fingertips to his elbows. Yet he had flown halfway across the country to spend some time in the home of his son. He was speaking almost in a whisper and I leaned toward him to hear. ‘Since my stroke I am incontinent,’ he said, ‘I have to wear a diaper.’ I nodded, marveling at the choreography of this chance seating arrangement. ‘I have an ileostomy,’ I said. He turned tied to look at me and asked what that was, and I explained that my large intestine had been surgically removed and I wear plastic appliance attached to the side of my abdomen to collect my partly digested food. I added, ‘Even after thirty years, I am concerned that it may leak. Especially on a plane.’ After a moment, we smiled at each other. Then he looked at the towel I was holding and I looked down at his feet. As we talked he had brought his right foot out from under the seat. ‘May I?’ I asked, motioning with the towel. Kneeling, I began to wipe his shoes. As I was doing this, he leaned forward and told me, ‘I used to play the violin...’

When I returned the towel to the galley, two flight attendants thanked me profusely. Later another, who was serving me a Coke, thanked me again. Nothing further was said but when I left the plane, the pilot was standing in the doorway. I smiled and nodded as always but he stopped me. ‘Thanks,’ he said, and pressed something into my hand. Halfway up the Jetway I looked at it. It was the little gift that the airlines often give to children after a flight, a pin in the shape of a pair of wings.”

Rachel goes on to make the point that the flight crew's surprise at her willingness to reach out and perform a simple act of kindness is "chilling."  She wonders if, perhaps, we are no longer a kind people.  We all suffer, she says, but in our distancing ourselves from each other, we magnify that suffering.

— Adapted from Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom (New York: Riverhead, 1996), 145-147.