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A woman flying to see her dying mother was the plane’s only passenger

Sheryl Pardo was preoccupied with one fact as she boarded her flight. This would be the last time she saw her mother. A surprise awaited her as she learned she was the only passenger on the plane because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Sheryl Pardo was preoccupied with one fact as she boarded her flight. This would be the last time she saw her mother. A surprise awaited her as she learned she was the only passenger on the plane because of the coronavirus pandemic. (CNN)

Sheryl Pardo was preoccupied with one fact as she boarded her flight. This would be the last time she saw her mother.

A surprise awaited her as she learned she was the only passenger on the plane because of the coronavirus pandemic. She met Jessica and Dion, two flight attendants who turned her trip into something to remember in a good way.

The American Airlines flight attendants bumped her up to first class and addressed her personally over the loudspeaker. Pardo spent the flight telling them about her mom and the loving, get-things-done person she was.

"I think in moments like this the pain of losing your mom is exacerbated by being in this frightening time," Pardo told CNN. "Other people's kindness is what's going to get us to through this.

"I want them to know how much it meant to me," the 59-year-old said. "It was super positive, which I didn't expect from that trip."

One last trip to see her mom

Pardo boarded the flight from Washington, DC, to Boston on March 27. She was flying up for just one day, as she wanted to minimize the risk of getting sick.

Her anxiety grew as she got to the airport, thinking the exposure to the virus would be bad. That lifted when she realized how few people were in the airport.

"The second I got there, I realized that the airport was safer than the grocery store," she said. I think we all have this attitude of airplanes are really dangerous, and there would be exposure, but there was nobody there."

Most of the airport was locked down, except for a Dunkin' Donuts, she said. Only a few people sat in the departure lounge at 6 a.m.

A unexpected delight was found in flight

Going from the quiet of the airport to the energy on the flight was a warm welcome.

The flight crew and Pardo laughed about only having one passenger. They had fun with it in the otherwise-scripted onboarding message.

"And we have Sheryl as our passenger today, living it up in first class, mama," flight attendant Jessica said in a video. "Everybody shout out to Sheryl, the only passenger on the plane."

Later the captain came on and said, "Sheryl, we are now up to 10,000 feet."

Pardo and the two flight attendants even took a selfie together. Don't worry, they were standing 6 feet apart, even though the angle makes it look closer.

"The flight attendants were so great ... and it was kind of fun," Pardo said. "I was obviously anxious about seeing my mom for the last time, so it was kind of awesome to just laugh."

She was touched by the light-hearted mood and how one particular flight attendant asked about her mom without making it sad.

Jessica told Pardo her "whole life story" and the two bonded instantly with their similar personalities and optimistic outlooks, she said.

"This is not a tragic situation because my mom had dementia and had really been declining," she said. "She was living in a stage of life she would not have wanted prolonged, and she was in hospice."

"(Jessica) was like the perfect antidote," she said.

Her mom dedicated her life to helping others

Jessica asked Pardo about her mom and wanted to know what she was like.

Pragmatic, gets things done and loving -- these are the words Pardo used to describe her mom, Sandra Wilkins.

Her mother worked as a school nurse and later in life, she went back to school to get a master's in human ecology. She spent years helping refugee families in the US and she volunteered in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

The family came together to help their mom as she fell under the cloud of dementia.

The past two months were hard, with frequent trips to the emergency room, a fall and infections. The rehabilitation center where she stayed was closed to visitors because of coronavirus, so Pardo and her brother couldn't even visit for a while.

Pardo got to spend a day with her mother, who was already drifting off to the next life. Her mom, her role model and her biggest fan, passed away the next morning on March 28. Her son and daughter-in-law were holding her hands.

She was 83 years old.

Pardo and her family plan to host a memorial, perhaps in the summer when things may be safe. They plan to celebrate her in Ithaca, New York, where their mother raised them.

"When we all get released from captivity, we'll do a celebration together of Sandra's life," Pardo said. "It feels like reality is suspended right now. I feel like it's going to hit me differently when life returns to normal."

The scene was just as surreal when Pardo returned the same night from Boston on a 10:30 flight.

"It was also this very eerie experience of being the only one dropping off the car at the rental, the only one on the bus going to the airport," she said. "The TSA people were delighted to see me."

She once again became a VIP passenger -- she was the only person on the flight back.

“It’s been fun to have people care about this story and to get to elevate the flight attendants who have a really hard job and who I’m sure scared going to work right now,” Pardo said. “I want them to know how much it meant to me.”