Thirty-one

A few weeks ago, I found myself on the first leg of an itinerary from Virginia to California. I boarded the first plane from Norfolk, Virginia to Charlotte, North Carolina and located my seat — 11B — next to the window. Already seated next to me was a elderly woman — age 88 as I would find out later — who gingerly moved her legs to the side so I could move past her. I sat down, turned to her, smiled, and said a customary hello.

I removed my jacket, and pulled out a thick book from my carry on. I was kind of in a rush to finish it. I’m one of those people who tend to pause their life when they find a good book to read and I didn’t want to continue past the flight home.

Since I forgot to use a bookmark, I found where I left off and read through the takeoff. About ten minutes later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the woman next to me rubbing her hands in — what I interpreted as — anxiousness. I put a finger in the book and closed it. I looked at her and asked what her final stop was.

“Chicago.”

“Is that your home?”

“No, no. My son is there. I’m headed out there to visit him.”

“That’s great. How long has it been since you’ve seen him?”

“Oh… I’d say about two or three years.” She started to wring her hands even more.

“I’m sure he’ll love to see you again after all that time. I love Chicago; it’s a great city.”

“Yes, it really is nice. You know, I grew up there. I miss it but I had to come out to Virginia to help my daughter with her newborn baby. Originally, my sister was there helping her, but she got too old and I had to move in. That was ten years ago.”

We continued to talk and as we did, she started to feel at ease. Her sentences became longer and her hands became part of her storytelling. We talked about her life in Virginia, what she missed most about Chicago, and what a brilliant child her grandson is.

As I listened, I felt a growing desire to get back to my book. I was about 300 pages away from finishing it and while the current flight was about two and a half hours and the next leg would be five hours, I started to feel tension. At the next break in conversation, I chose not to ask any follow-up questions and let the silence determine it as an appropriate time to open the book again.

After thirty minutes of reading, and with about twenty minutes until we landed, I heard her voice over my hunched-over shoulder.

“I hope they have my wheelchair ready when we land.”

I closed the book, forgetting to keep my finger in place. Wincing at my stupidity, I asked her a few questions and learned more about her situation. While she could walk on her own, there were sometimes long walks between terminals and limited time to get there so a wheelchair with an escort was usually needed.

I asked if walking around Chicago would be a problem when she arrived, or if her son had plans in place to make it easier for her to walk around.

“No.”

She started to wring her hands, and with a vacant stare that looked past me, her eyes started to well up with tears.

“He’s in a hospital there. He has cancer. Stage four.”

Her voice became overwhelmed with emotion so she lowered her voice to almost a whisper as she continued to speak. I couldn’t hear her. She stopped to compose herself then continued, louder this time.

“It’s not supposed to be like this. I’m 88, he’s only 64.”

She put her hands up in front of her and slapped them down on her lap in exasperation.

“I would gladly change places with him. Why couldn’t it be me? I’ve lived longer… I just don’t understand.”

I put my hands on hers, without saying a word.

A minute later, we heard the wheels of the plane come down, readying the landing. I lifted my hands from hers, clasped them together and told her how grateful he must be to see her. I encouraged her by commenting on how much this would mean to both of them. She smiled.

We landed without saying anything else and taxied to the gate while peering out the window. It was twilight now and we could see five planes lined up in the air, ready to land.

The plane came to a halt at the gate and the flight attendants turned on the cabin lights. She looked at me.

“I want to thank you for talking to me. Thank you for talking to an old woman. It helped to keep my mind off my son’s situation.”

“Of course. Thank you for sharing about your fascinating life and about your son.”

I waited until the wheelchair came for her before leaving. We then left the plane and parted ways somewhere in the terminal, each of us saying a final farewell to the other.

This experience left a few impressions on me, especially as I turned thirty-one.

First, there’s so much I can fit into one lifetime. I sat captivated as this wonderful woman told story upon story; she had done so much in her 88 years. I’ve heard it said that the older you get, the faster time seems to go, but a minute is still sixty seconds. I was reminded to spend the minutes of my day wisely, with more ambition, and better structure, because my a successful, meaningful future requires it.

Second, I can choose to do great things, learn new skills, or master current ones, but the manner in which those things are done is more important than what they are. Kindness and selflessness still reign because worth isn’t determined by those who are smarter or more talented but by those who leave a reflection of — and point to — Christ.

Third, I was reminded to continually engage in the lives of others. To hear their stories, care, be gentle and caring… I’ll miss out on wonderful perspectives, opinions, and ideas otherwise.

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