Strangers on a Plane
I met a man on a plane last month. He was the kind of guy I’ve been seated next to a hundred times on a flight without saying more than a polite hello: a generation older than me, graying hair, jeans, tucked-in button-down shirt, sneakers. He reminded me of my dad.
We were flying Southwest, which has an open seating policy, and I happened to have A1 for the only time in my life. A1 is the first passenger to board the plane, and accordingly, I got to choose the first seat. Now, this is tricky proposition for an introvert who likes options. The entire plane is open (great!), but I’d be fully responsible for my personal placement if I ended up in the wrong neighborhood (not so great).
There is a single, tiny half-row on most Southwest planes that has only two seats: an aisle and a “middle.” (The window seat is just an empty space by the over-wing emergency exit.) I selected the inside seat where I’d have no one to my left and only one adult to my right, since you have to be at least 15 years old to sit in an exit row. The fact that my seat didn’t recline seemed like a fair trade off. (Perhaps I should have said “introverted data and process analyst who likes options”…)
I settled into my seat and waited as passengers streamed down the aisle past me. Periodically I’d look up to check in on the action. As he approached the empty aisle seat next to me, a man caught my eye and jutted his chin once toward the seat in question. I nodded back with a tight-lipped smile to confirm the seat was available and went back to reading my magazine. He seemed normal. We were off to a quiet start.
The plane was fully booked, and boarding took a while. Our conversation on the tarmac started slowly, in the way these conversations with close-sitting strangers usually start. “Are you heading back home?” “Yeah, how about you?” “Yup.” And then, after a pause: “How long have you been in Chicago?” “Just an hour. I connected from Manchester.” “No kidding. Me, too.”
With that commonality revealed, the conversation flowed freely; we had more places to start. The man, whom I’ll call D, was originally from Massachusetts and was travelling back home after attending his niece’s wedding in New Hampshire. His brother lives two towns away from where my parents live now, and he grew up two towns away from where my parents grew up just outside Boston. I like to imagine he’d even crossed paths with them when they were all younger; he was born the year after my mom, two years after my dad. It’s possible.
The flight from Chicago to Tucson takes about four hours depending on headwinds, and on that flight, D and I talked the entire time. My magazine sat unopened on my lap; my iPod lay idle in the seat-back pocket. It is impossible to recount every detail of the conversation, but the most important ones are on a replay loop in my head.
We talked about how we ended up in Tucson, of how he spent his 20s driving a massive rig and hauling heavy equipment around the country. We shared an appreciation for the sky above the northern plains and a preference for I-81 over I-95 through Virginia.
D told me about his last cross-country adventure a few summers ago, when he drove a massive RV from Arizona to New England to pick up his parents, who at the time were both in their 80s, and drive them to visit relatives in the small Canadian town where they grew up.
What D didn’t know—couldn’t have known when he chose his seat—is that I am working on a novel. And in that novel, my main characters embark on multiple road trips from New England to their family homestead in Canada. And several of my characters are in their 80s.
So, naturally curious, I asked him more about his trip, about his parents. It turns out the RV trip to Canada was one of the last they took together. “My life was pretty uneventful for the first 59 ½ years…” he said, choking back tears and explaining that his dad had died two years ago, shortly after the trip to Canada, and his mom passed away last year. “I still miss talking to them. I used to call them every day. And they’d tell me, ‘D, you know you don’t have to call us every day’, and I’d say, ‘Yeah, I know, Ma, but I won’t be able to talk to you when you’re in the box.’”
D was married once in his 20s, which is what brought him to Arizona, and he was divorced at 30. He never remarried and doesn’t have any kids. He started a construction business out here, building it from the ground up into a large, profitable enterprise. He has all the toys you might expect of a successful person with disposable income: cars, houses, planes, boats. And every year, in May and June, he’d send each of his parents a large check for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day with strict instructions to spend it on themselves. His dad often used the money for a summer’s worth of golf greens fees and to buy ice cream for his grandkids. D’s mom usually made practical purchases like new hearing aids and things for the house. Every year, for more than a decade, D mailed them each a check with the same gentle reminder: This is for you. Do something for yourself.
As his parents were nearing the end of their lives, D recalled talking to them about burial plans. He asked what kind of flowers they might like at the service. “We don’t need any flowers, son,” his father replied. “You’ve been giving us flowers every year while we were alive to enjoy them.”
As you can imagine, by that point in his story, he was crying. And so was I.
It’s not an exaggeration to say this was one of the most important conversations I’ve had in my life, and the thing is, until twelve hours earlier, I wasn’t even supposed to be on that particular flight from Chicago. I was booked on a flight the prior evening, but severe weather led to massive delays, and rather than waiting it out at the airport, I made the call to fly out early the next day instead. I had used my extra night in New Hampshire to grab dinner and a movie with my dad.
Turns out D wasn’t originally planning to be on that specific flight either. He’d been staying with his brother’s family after the wedding, and when they all went back to work after the weekend, D was just killing time. So he changed his flight to head back to Tucson a few days early.
So there we were, shoulder to shoulder, two strangers crying together on a plane.
It’s taken me a while to sit down and write this, not because the writing itself is hard, but because I’m still incredibly moved by the experience. Sometimes I write best in the moment, and other times, like in this case, I need to process things first. I’m still not sure I’m ready to write this, even as I’m writing.
But this story is important to me, as is sharing it. I doubt I’ll ever run into D again. I live in a big city in a big state, and as I’m constantly reminded when I travel, this country and our tiny planet are massive. We go lifetimes and only interact with a fraction of a percent of our fellow humans.
But in that small percentage…man, there are some unexpected rockstars. Those folks you just want to sit down and talk to for hours. Or maybe they sit next you on a plane. You feel this connection to them, to the universe, to yourself. And for a few moments, everything makes sense and your soul soars and your story starts to write itself.
This is part of my story. Now make it part of yours.
Next time you’re travelling, make it easy for strangers to find a seat on a full flight. Call your parents soon, too, because you won’t be able to talk to them when they’re in the box. And bring flowers to the people you care about while they’re alive to enjoy them. –J.