Tired from a turn-around trip that began with a 6:15 am flight out of Portland, I waited at San Jose Terminal B, gate 23 for my return flight on Southwest. I had spend much of the past week preparing for the new business meeting that took me to San Jose. As I sat in the terminal following the meeting, I contemplated business, the slow economic recovery, money and retirement. Looking up from deep thoughts, I noted an older man, somewhat disheveled walking unevenly and tentatively toward the gate counter. With shaky hands he withdrew his ticket from his shirt pocket handing it to the gate agent, “Am I in the right place?” She responded automatically, “Yes” and offered nothing else. He looked around and walked towards the empty chair next to me. Knowing he was uncomfortable, I wanted to make up for the insensitivity of the gate agent.
I began, “Hi, are you flying home to Portland or visiting someone?”
“I’m going to visit my son. I haven’t flown in a very long time and I feel so unsure of myself.”
“It’s fine. Together we can listen for the boarding call and then I can show you where to line up. Has it been a long time since you’ve seen your son?”
Tears filled his eyes as he replied, “No, he and his brothers and sisters have visited me often recently. Their mom died three months ago after being on life support for too long. It’s an awfully hard decision to know when to say “it’s time’ after more than 60 years of a life together. I just couldn’t let go and I think I made her suffer too long.”
Filled with his pain, I offered what seemed like empty platitudes, “There’s no way to know when the time is right and no one can guide that decision. It’s something you worked though, and when you were ready and you felt she was ready, you let her go. There’s no timeline for letting go of the person you’ve loved so dearly.”
His smile of appreciation felt undeserved.
“Hi John. I’m Susan. It’s so nice to meet such a brave man.”
With a weak chuckle he said, “I’m not brave. In fact, I know this will sound bad but I’m not sure I will choose to stay around much longer. That must sound awful to you, but each day when I begin to wake and reach over to the empty place on the bed, I can barely breathe. I lay in bed sometimes till afternoon. Just waiting for the pain to leave, for her to talk to me, for something…I don’t even know what. I’m so empty inside.”
Frozen in grief I couldn’t find words, and I knew that nothing I said could answer his need. Still the energy connection gripped me. His heaviness was now mine as well.
Slowly and painfully I offered, “I don’t judge you. I have told my children that I when I’m done, I’m done. My father died recently—he was 95 and he very much wanted to die for the last two years of his life. It hurt me terribly to watch him. He even asked me to help him die and I could do nothing. He thought he wanted to die when he was about 85 and my mother died. The first year was the worst. After that he began going back to church, getting out a little more, and he found he had more life to live. Meaning and purpose may shift for you too.”
“I don’t know. I can’t see beyond today. I don’t really want to visit my son although I love him. It takes so much energy and I’m exhausted. I’m hoping that if I force myself, I might find some relief. Traveling is hard on me. I’m uncomfortable asking for help or directions. I feel like people look at me like I’m just a helpless old man. I’m getting forgetful—happens when you are old.”
“John, I’m forgetful and I’m 63. I don’t know when this “forgetfulness” started for you but it started for me in my 20’s when I had four children! It’s not exclusive to being older. It comes about because we accumulate years and years of to do lists, of birthdays, of 85 years worth of schedules and memories we want to hold onto. People think so many things are old age related when in fact aging begins the day we’re born.”
He laughed and his hand grabbed my hand and he simply said “Thank you.”
The gate agent called for A boarding—my group. I asked John to move closer to the lines and told him that when they called for B boarding he would line up in the first column pointing to where he should stand. Noticing a seat near the line I suggested he sit until it was time to line up. As we walked together, I noticed a young woman making her way toward the seat. Touching her arm I asked if she’d mind if John sat. She nodded to him and said, “Of course not.”
John looked at her slyly and said, “Or I could sit and you could sit on my lap.” Pleased with himself he lit up and we all laughed.
I was hopeful as I boarded the plane that his momentary joy might be a brief peek into a life of renewed purpose. He is such a beautiful soul and to have him leave this world early would be a loss for all those whose life he touched, including me. Ten minutes with John and my life is forever changed.
Susan Cain, Sometimes weary but recently enlightened life course traveler