A mostly true story. A man on a plane, and the greatest gift he’d ever received.
Years ago I was talking to a man. In his 70s. On a plane.
pre-warning: I can guarantee that most of the details of this story are true. But some are iffy due only to my selective memory, not subterfuge. I come from at least 3 generations of story-tellers. It means I can spin a decent yarn , and pass along the spirit and message of the story. But… accuracy of ALL the details, well, no guarantees ;) If you can forgive me this, here’s the story…
A handsome, tall man. With hands that showed he’d worked with them all his life. He looked a lot like my Dad. He sat beside the window and I beside him. Coffee was served. We were chatting.
He came around to asking me about what I do, for work. He was a blue-collar man, and I told him I used to be a commercial diver. Underwater welding and whatnot. He was a great listener, and question-asker, so I went on to say that I now teach workshops, and help individuals with my Big Dream Program… that I am trying to help folks remember, and dust-off the Big and Small dreams they have in their lives. Make them happen. Especially if they’ve forgotten about them for awhile since life got busy… That I thought people might wish they had done so later if they don’t do it now, and could use a little encouragement sometimes.
As I shared this, I wondered what he would think of it. Would it seem floofy to this 70-some-year-old man who had worked with his hands? I’d grown up around lumberjacks, farmers, mechanical wizards, so I was ok if he didn’t relate to my ‘new career’. Would he revert back to asking me about the diving?
He didn’t. He smiled broadly. Closed his eyes. Nodded slowly — like he knew something.
He said “that might be the biggest thing you could do for anybody.”
He took a sip of his coffee. And told me that a dream he’d had for a long time had come true recently for him, in the most heart-warmingly, surprising way. He was now really close with his niece who had given him the most remarkable gift. When I asked him more, he told me a story that I want to tell you now. Who knows, maybe you’d like to try the same thing.
His neice had bought a book called ‘All About Me’. It’s a book, as I understood from him, with dozens — probably hundreds — of interesting questions you could ask someone, and blanks to fill out with the answers. The idea is that you use the book to get to know someone, who is important to you, way better.
Here’s what happened… This is what I heard, and could glean between the lines, from his story:
She wanted to know her uncle better, and was also very aware that ‘he wasn’t getting any younger, and had some worrying health concerns’. He said, in the way only salt-of-the-earth folks can, that he might kick the bucket anytime, and that she probably knew this.
She called him up one day, told him about the book she had, and asked if he’d be open to meeting on Thursday morning at Tim Horton’s for a coffee. Wondered if she could ask him some questions about his life.
He readily agreed. He admitted to me that he probably said yes before she even got her full question out. (meet with you? have coffee? I’m in! Questions? sure…)
It was a year later that he was sitting beside me telling me this story.
“So… what happened?”, I asked.
A bit of moisture came to his eyes that he didn’t try to hide (and soon enough to mine) and he said it was one of the best things that’s ever happened to him.
They met for the coffee date. Caught up on the family small-talk, and then she pulled out her book.
She asked a question or two.
They hit it off.
Barring the odd Thursday when someone had the flu or life got in the way, every week they met and she asked him some more questions from her book.
It was still ongoing when he told me about it. It was what he was most looking forward to after this flight, when he got back home. In 2 days he was meeting his niece again.
What was the first movie you remember seeing?
Who was your first kiss? your first love?
What did you like about your hometown?
What are some things you remember about your childhood home? Where was your bedroom?
What are your favourite meals?
Do you have some regrets?
What was hard? What IS hard?
Have you ever been abroad somewhere? Where did you go?
If you had advice for someone in their 20s just getting married, what would you tell them?
What is something you’ve learned in your life or in your work that you feel so many people don’t know about?
What are your dreams now?
This man felt loved, cared about, important, that his LIFE had meant something, was interesting… and he was deeply loving the connection with his niece.
And I can assume she loved it also, because in the end, when they completed her book, she made up new questions, and the dates continued.
A bunch of dreams all happening at once — all due to a book, a young woman, and — as he called himself — an old man.
The plane landed, we got our bags. Shook hands. Parted.
This man taught me one of the most important lessons in my life. And one I forget too often. Life gets busy. But, for me at least, busy is just a knee-jerk placeholder of an excuse. It doesn’t hold water. Busy-ness is often a smoke-screen. When it comes down to it, it’s probably going to be our interaction with others that is the only thing we truly care about — at the end of this week, this year, or when we find ourselves in the sunset of our lives. It’s what will mean the most to them, and it’s what’ll mean the most to us.
I share this story with you not as advice, but with unabashed hope. That you and I both might do something similar for someone — and for ourselves.
We have more power than we often realize to make the world an astonishing place. For someone. For many someones. For ourselves.
It is almost NEVER too late to have a dream come true or make someone else’s come true, he taught me. And often enough, both will happen at the same time. And in ways that seem simple. Obvious. Ways that don’t cost a thing barring maybe the price of a coffee.
Life seems to be a full spectrum of moments. Millions of them I suppose. And thousands of them we will recall later. And… it’s hard sometimes to notice or feel that our lives have been important. And important to other people. That our stories and experiences have value to us, and to others.
I think one of the biggest — and simplest — gifts we can give ANYONE who is important to us would be this:
Grab a coffee, a tea, make a little time, put away the phone… and ask someone a thoughtful question or two, or 100, about their lives. An elder, a partner, a friend, your co-workers, your children, the stranger on the street.
Ask good questions. Use that book, or make up your own.
Years later, it may be — like this man on the plane — the biggest gift anyone has ever given them. And I’d be surprised if you didn’t feel quite the same.