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On the flight to San Jose

I am supposed to be working. I have the bags, under the seat in front, full of papers. I am not working. I am listening.

I have a colleague who hates to fly Southwest because he invariably finds himself next to a morbidly obese passenger in the middle seat. This never has happened to me.

I never have found myself next to a morbidly obese passenger. No, I find myself next to mothers who break my heart.

A few weeks ago, the woman next to me said she was going north to have her hair done. For a moment, I indulged myself. Imagine a life where you have the freedom to get on a plane on a Thursday to have your hair done. I felt self-righteous and hardworking, for at least the 90 seconds that elapsed before the woman told me the whole truth. She also was going north to tend to the garden she and her family planted at the site where her 17-year-old son drove off the road and died.

Not just a hair appointment. A memorial garden. I am more sorry than I can say.

Today, my seatmate was on her way to Stanford, where her daughter is a senior and an athlete, except right now, when she's in the hospital, as she so often is, because she has cystic fibrosis. She is having sinus surgery today. Her mother and I have a close mutual friend. We have seen each other through the years. Didn't I know that both her children have serious health problems? I guess I did. I guess I tried not to think about it.

When I was a kid, I heard more than I wanted to about the starving children in India. That their lives were worse than mine gave me perspective, but it never gave me comfort.

Sitting on the plane to San Jose, putting aside the work that suddenly seems not even worth talking about (much less doing), I try to feel like the luckiest woman on the planet. I am just going to a court hearing, not a surgical suite. When the plane lands, I make sure my seatmate gets out first. She has places to go. I'm just the lucky lady in the aisle seat.

Why is it so hard to hold onto that feeling? Why is it so hard to remember, to feel the blessing of all the things I'm not doing today, all the hardships I'm not juggling, all the pain, etched on my seatmate's face, delicately but there, that I don't face?

The woman whose son died told me her husband had a bad stomach, like me, only his got so bad after losing his son he had to have awful surgery. Take care of yourself, she told me. Maybe we were meant to meet. I try to hold onto that. As I sip my tea, I try to remember I am the lucky one, and I am. I know it. But knowing it and feeling it are such different things.

I am back at the airport now. My hearing is over, and I'm heading home. I sit at the airport thinking about the woman I met just hours ago, sitting at her daughter's bedside, maybe getting some juice, changing the station on the television -- life in hospital rooms. I have spent time in that life. I have done my best.

But tonight, I am not there. I am not tending to a sick child or pulling the weeds in a memorial garden. I am the luckiest woman I know. I might not feel that way, not all the time, but I am grateful, and my heart is full.

Susan Estrich is a columnist,

commentator and law and political

science professor at USC.