One of my closest friends is fighting a particularly mean and supposedly merciless kind of cancer, and I have begun to make the trek from my home in Brooklyn to her home just outside Boston as often as I can.
Thanks to $96 roundtrip flights from JetBlue, I’m able to travel there without having to face a much more expensive and monotonous four-hour train trip or one of the even longer and more harrowing budget bus trips I regularly used to take to see her years ago when I was in grad school.
On Thursday, as I boarded my flight, I instantly knew something out of the ordinary was happening when I was greeted by a sweet, 20-something puppy dog of a flight attendant who welcomed every single passenger onto the plane by singsonging the exact same thing ― something like: “Hi! I’m Zach! Welcome aboard and I hope you’re having an AWESOME day!”
He was so friendly it was almost violent.
But that was just the beginning. Zach continued to tell everyone on the flight (person to person or over the intercom) how “awesome” everything was going to be and repeatedly let us know how “grateful” and “happy” he (and the entire crew) was that each of us was there. As we stowed our carry-on luggage and took our seats, Zach buzzed around us, helping where he could and profusely apologizing whenever he was forced to ask any of us to do even the simplest or most routine of air travel tasks. A request for someone to push her bag further under her seat, which, normally, I would have automatically tuned out, turned into a memorable miniature performance ― a grand gesture of apology like, “I’m so, so sorry, ma’am, but do you think it’d be possible for you to move that bag? Is that OK? Yah? Awesome! Thank you for being SO AWESOME!”
Never in my life have I heard “awesome” used by one person so many times in such a short period of time, and I came of age in the ’90s.
I quickly realized I wasn’t the only one who thought something unusual was happening on board flight 1318, and soon passengers began to call out to Zach from their seats to ask him questions like, “Where are you from, Zach?” (North Dakota) and ― as most of us thought this must be his first week on the job because no one could be in customer service for very long and still be this berserkly chipper ― “How long have you been doing this, Zach?” (two years!). Most of the plane would spontaneously erupt into applause anytime Zach said anything over the intercom due to the contagious giddiness that I realized was born of the sheer unadulterated joy coming from this young man.
“I can honestly say I have never witnessed anything like it. It was nothing short of mystifying.”
As we lifted into the air, I could hear the passengers around me talking to each other about Zach ― quietly laughing and congratulating themselves for guessing that his persistent tenderness and unbridled positivity meant he had to be from somewhere other than New York or Boston. Even I, someone who historically prided himself on (and at times secretly lamented) being a particularly nasty breed of cynic who would normally sneer at someone like Zach, felt myself almost giving in to the awe that this young man was conjuring up simply by being so damn nice.
Then, halfway through the short flight, as I was passing the time watching the kind of trash you only allow yourself to watch when you’re flying thousands of feet above your normal life, I suddenly saw Zach shuffling down the aisle of the plane on his knees.
It took me a second to realize he wasn’t looking for something someone had dropped but, instead, was on his knees so he could be at eye level while introducing himself to every single passenger on the flight. He approached me and said, “Hi! I’m Zach! I just wanted to personally introduce myself to you! Is there anything I can do for you to make your flight more comfortable?” I shook his hand and said “No” and “Thanks” while trying, but miserably failing, to match his level of enthusiasm (something I would almost never normally even let myself ― or care about letting myself ― attempt), and then he continued to scoot down the aisle. I just kept thinking, WTF is going on here? Is this really happening?
The flight to Boston from NYC is only 45 minutes, so Zach didn’t get to everyone, but he fired up the intercom and apologized to those people he missed and let everyone know that he wished he could have talked to each and every one of us.
I can honestly say I have never witnessed anything like it. It was nothing short of mystifying.
Part of me wondered what Zach’s coworkers thought about his unorthodox approach to his job, but the other flight attendant didn’t seem bothered by it in the least. In fact, she seemed just as charmed as the rest of us were.
As the plane was taxiing, Zach got on the intercom one last time and told us that he always liked to end every flight with an inspirational quote. His quote for us on Thursday sounded like something out of a self-help book ― some treacly line about striving to be the best we can be and how good it’ll make us feel ― that I typically would have scoffed at, but I found my trusty go-to trademark eye roll just wouldn’t roll.
I’m not sure exactly what was going on with Zach. All I know is that I wanted to ― and usually would ― hate someone like him. But something changed right around the time he started crawling down the aisle toward me.
It was then that I realized maybe this wasn’t an act ― or if it was, it was an act concocted so purely and deeply and genuinely by Zach for whatever reason that it was no longer merely an act and had become some greater truth for him and, in turn, touched everyone who encountered him in a truly mindbogglingly beautiful way.
“Lately even the tiniest pinprick of light can feel like grace, and leaving Logan Airport Thursday afternoon, I could feel the cold Boston sunlight streaming through the hole Zach had lovingly punched through my chest.”
In recent months, as I’ve grappled with what is happening to my friend and the terrifying specter of her possible death looming somewhere in the too-near future, I’ve been looking for ways to puncture my especially tough exterior in order to let a little more joy into my life wherever and whenever I can. Lately even the tiniest pinprick of light can feel like grace, and leaving Logan Airport Thursday afternoon, I could feel the cold Boston sunlight streaming through the hole Zach had lovingly punched through my chest.
I’m sure he doesn’t know what he did for me ― and seemingly for many of the other people on my flight. I honestly think he just gets up every day and decides it will be a good day no matter what disappointments he is or isn’t facing at any given moment, no matter what secret heartache he may or may not be currently trying to keep inside his ribcage. Considering the state of this country and what’s going on in our world and how distraught so many of us are feeling about so many things right now (even those of us who aren’t grappling with something as monumental as cancer or death), I view Zach’s unflinching optimism as a radical, desperately needed kind of activism and I’m incredibly grateful I got to experience it, however briefly.
It’s hard for so many of us, who in hopes of protecting ourselves have closed ourselves off from ourselves and each other, to not be skeptical when we encounter someone who appears to be immune to the various kinds of grief that regularly distract us ― or, at the very least, seems to be relentlessly devoted to rooting out and spreading goodness wherever he can. But, in part thanks to Zach, I’m starting to realize maybe we should all attempt to be more like those people― if not every day, then for a few minutes each day or however long we can physically and emotionally bear it. And maybe, like a muscle, the more we work that part of ourselves, the easier it will be to engage it until kindness becomes more of a reflex we can rely on and less of a burden or a chore.
Zach reminded me that we get to choose how we approach our lives and the people we meet and that finding the bright side ― or at the very least looking for the bright side ― of any situation is always an option. And as hokey as it sounds (and trust me, I know it does), in the middle of the strange, sad journey I’m on right now, that truly feels like a gift.
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