I flew back from a conference last week sitting next to a man who was flying to Boston, so that he could drive to Springfield to bury his sister. He told me this as matter-of-factly as if he were telling me about his business, a deal he had just closed, or his favorite hobby. And then he broke down and started to cry.
It had been a long but peaceful trip. The man, whose name I never got, had been very quiet throughout the trip, hadn’t read anything, and seemed to doze for a bit from time to time. He was a very considerate neighbor who kept to himself. But as we were close to landing, he relayed the brief story of his trip. His sister had died and he was going home to bury her.
I touched the man’s shoulder as though he were my father (he could’ve been my grandfather by age). I felt so keenly for him and his loss, and I don’t know. The human experience, where loss is universal, and the sadness and awkwardness that accompanies it… also universal.
I fell silent. I wanted to ask questions, to show my interest and my curiosity, but I couldn’t — I didn’t want to intrude. I didn’t know how he felt about it. He continued on in the silence between us and told me had lived in Texas nearly all of his life. This was the first time he was back up to Boston in decades. I felt especially bad that he seemed to move away from his family, and that he lost touch with them, as it must have resonated on some level with me and my family, too.
And in that respect, I suspect that I’m not unlike many, many people. People who want to say things to their family, their loved ones, but keep waiting until it’s too late, until they’re dead and buried, and then whisper those words while praying over them: “I loved you once” “I wish I had spoken to you more” “I’m sorry we never made up after that fight.”
I don’t feel that way particularly toward any of my family (in terms of expressing something I can’t say)… And yet, I still felt the loss of that stranger on that plane almost as though it were my own loss. Perhaps it was felt more acutely because of my mom’s sister’s recent death, leaving my mom only the third remaining child (out of 10), and only remaining daughter, in her family. It brings the brevity of human life home.
In that man on the plane, I saw me, the man I will be some day, flying somewhere, to some destination, to attend some funeral of someone that I should’ve kept in touch with better. Such people are like Rorschach inkblot tests in our own lives, because they reflect all of our own suffering and grief and loss. This is not a man from Texas flying home to bury his sister. This is Everyman (and woman), flying some place, to bury some one they left behind.
In that man, I felt my age, my experiences, my years. I saw in his eyes the wisdom that age brings, but also the sorrow such wisdom can carry along with it.
When we deplaned, I wished him well and a safe trip. I knew not what else to say.
He stopped walking, put down his suitcase and shook my hand, “Thank you,” he replied with sincerity and great warmth. It was a handshake I won’t soon forget.
He was only looking for a little compassion that day. And that day, I had only what little to offer him — I just hope it was enough.