I first saw the couple waiting in line at the airport ticketing desk. I was probably standing 25 feet away. They were elderly and Indian. The wife wore a bindi on her head, the traditional marker of marriage in Hinduism and a protection from the evil eye. Neither of them looked like they’d showered in days. He faithfully pushed her through the lines in a wheelchair. I noticed that when he stepped away to get their tickets, her hand went up in the air. It seemed to be searching for him.

I very unpastorally thought to myself, “Gosh. That looks like a whole thing.” And moved on.

I had been at Mockingbird’s New York City conference. I had shaken a lot of hands and had too many conversations. I was tired and thus more honest than my Christian mask typically allows.

As I arrived at the gate I realized that mine was the very last seat to board on Southwest Airlines: C36. I consoled myself with the idea that I would soon be reading about “How to Have an Italian Summer” in the latest issue of Food and Wine.

Then I saw them again. They were seated in the front row of the plane. The seats with no trays. The husband was in the middle seat and the wife was next to the aisle. I sat down at the window seat, annoyed with my lot in life.

I always travel with my children. I’m always that mom on the plane. Just when I thought I was free, here I was again, with needy people.

As soon as I sat down, the husband began to encroach upon my space. The wife kept trying to put her feet across him. He kept leaning back into me. All the while he was trying to feed her a mushy banana. The flight attendant told me that I would have to put my bag in the overhead compartment. Suddenly, even my dream of having an Italian Summer was slipping away.

I breathed deeply. Which is when I realized how bad the couple smelled. The overripe banana and what I imagine was the wife’s incontinence filled my nostrils. And suddenly all I could hear was David Zahl. That morning at St. George’s Episcopal Church in New York City, he had reminded us all that the division in our world is due, in part, to the fact that people have lost their sense of smell. Screens, social media, and sinful rage have made us forget that people are people.

Then I noticed how anxious the couple was becoming as the plane approached the runway. And then my heart broke a little bit. God told me to pray for them. So I did.

Not long after takeoff, the husband got up to use the bathroom. I imagine with the care his wife needs, he takes these few and far between opportunities when he can get them. He likely had not been able to use a bathroom since they left their house that day.

Within 30 seconds of him getting up, his wife began to try to lie down across the three seats. I thought she would just lean over onto the second seat. But she wanted all three. Even mine. I looked down at my own lap and realized she was shoving her head under the armrest. My maternal instincts took over. I raised the armrest and positioned my neck pillow under her head. When her husband came out of the bathroom, he saw his wife lying across the row of seats with her head in my strange lap.

I was as surprised as he was.

He halfheartedly tried to get her to move. I told him it was fine. Even though I wasn’t sure it was fine. And in sickness and in health, he perched himself on the edge of the aisle seat, giving her most of the room. Then he began to talk and I began to nod. He told me she had a stroke last year. He told me she’s like a child now. They have been married for 40 years. They have two children. She used to do all of the cooking. She had been an engineer.

Then he began to doze a little. I just sat there and stared at these two sleeping people, placed into my reluctant care. I was completely dumbfounded by Jesus.

The flight attendant kept walking by and mouthing, “I’m so sorry” to me. I reassured her that I was not to be worried about. What I wish I had told her was, “I think God wants me to do this. So I think I’m just going with it?” Because only hours earlier as I sat in the pews of St. George’s Church, the Rev. Dr. Fleming Rutledge spoke these holy words to us:

“And we humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as though hast prepared for us to walk in…”

They come from the Rite One communion service. And they originate in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. He was reminding those early Christians that good works do not come from their own doing, but are a gift from God. This is certainly how it felt to me.

At one point the husband felt like she should sit up. So we rearranged. His wife began to moan. We asked the flight attendant how much longer. “Only 40 more minutes!” she cheerfully and anxiously declared. I leaned over and said, “It’s okay. You can put her head back in my lap.” He looked so relieved and thankful. We got her resettled across the three seats. She calmed down immediately and began to chatter to herself.

“Do you hear what she’s saying?” the husband asked me, “She’s asking for her mother.”