03 August 2011

the stranger on the plane.

What is it that you're doing over there, the intrigued passenger next to me questioned. Listlessly, I replied that I was writing and continued to punch away at my keyboard. This didn't seem to satisfy him and he tried again. Impatiently, I glanced up to see why this complete stranger was so interested in me when, quite frankly, the interest was clearly not mutual. My eyes shifted from the glare of my computer screen to a tanned face framing a pair of deep, mysterious eyes. Immediately, my eyes drifted down to his left hand, and I quickly thanked God that he was wearing a wedding band. I wasn't in the mood to be hit on by a 50 year old. I politely explained that I had recently joined the bandwagon of blogging. Puzzled, he said "blogging?" Doing my best to avoid the automatic roll of my eyes response that is triggered when I'm agitated by someone, I explained what blogging was. Then, in a hasty attempt to adhere to social etiquette, while keeping the conversation snappy, I went through the obligatory introduction process, hoping that my computer could have my undivided attention, sooner rather than later.

After five minutes of chatting, I succumbed to the fact that there was no hope of returning to my blog. My newest companion couldn't seem to stop talking and I simply didn't have the heart to cut him off. The more he talked, the more I realized there was something different about this complete stranger, but I couldn't quite place my finger on it. There was something about him that seemed so...lost, yet so hopeful all at the same time. There was a certain urgency in his voice, a compelling need to continue conversing with me. Before I knew it, he was unravelling a tangled story of sadness, anger, frustration, and guilt. His perfectly healthy brother-in-law was killed two days prior in a freak accident a mere two hours after he had spoken to him on the phone. I didn't know what to say. I barely knew this person. He barely knew me. What could I possibly say to help this helpless stranger. Finally, I understood the sadness in his eyes, the pain in his face, the confusion in his mind.  Despite my most valiant efforts to dig deep into my soul to find the perfect words to soothe him, I couldn't formulate a
sentence. So I listened. And amidst my interjections of "I'm so sorry" and "oh my goodness, how terrible," he continued to pour his heart out to me. Slowly, the urgency in his voice dissipated, replaced by a wave of calmness. With less desperation in his voice, he acknowledged that he wasn't much of a writer himself, but was still curious if I received any benefit from writing. Ahhh, so this is why he was so intrigued when he saw me furiously typing away. Making up for my prior loss of words, my whole face lit up as I explained how incredibly therapeutic writing can be for the mind, body, and soul. The act of writing transports me light years away from reality, allowing me to open up my mind and channel my deepest, innermost thoughts and feelings out of my body onto a piece of paper (...or computer screen) in a brilliantly constructive conglomeration of words. When I write, I'm able to examine all of the things that plague my mind, allowing me to think more clearly and understand life as I know it just a little bit more.  As I talked away, it dawned on me that the therapeutic benefits I reap from writing are perhaps the same benefits this man was gaining from simply talking to me.  This man needed someone. Right then and there. He needed the warmth of a human voice to subdue the pain and anguish that was torturing him inside. He just needed a person who would listen to him as he questioned the meaning of life and the complexities of death. He needed to be able to talk freely to someone who wouldn't judge his complaints about the unfairness of this crazy ride we call life. He needed to put his vulnerabilities on the line and let his guard down. He didn't specifically need me. I just happened to be the person Orbitz.com placed next to him on a flight from Atlanta to Philadelphia.

And so this person turned to me. As much as I tried to remain strong and not let the sadness of this man and his story permeate into my heart, I could feel the tears forming. It doesn't take long for the floodgates of my seemingly never ending supply of tears to open, and I was quickly reaching my breaking point. One by one, the tears slowly slid down my cheeks, meeting the edges of my mouth, their saltiness tantalizing my lips. Collecting my thoughts, I turned to him and slowly offered him my insight. The truth is there is no reason for freak accidents. These types of things can happen to anyone at anytime, anywhere. We are all vulnerable to life and death. And as much as we yearn for a reason as to why certain things happen and certain things don't, we'll never know for sure. The only thing we can do is accept life when these unfortunate and tragic events are bestowed upon us. It is up to us to find the courage to move upward and onward. I then reminded him that it's  even possible to extract something positive from this untimely, tragic accident. The death of his brother-in-law served as an unexpected reminder to me and, now to you, my "audience" of how fragile life truly is.  How lucky was I to be on a flight home to the happiness of my family, when this man was flying home to the sadness of his. How fortunate was I to be the person this man chose to open up to. I wouldn't have known this person from the next random guy in the airport, but for whatever reason, we were seated next to each other on an airplane packed with dozens upon dozens of people. And for that I am truly thankful. 

As the plane taxied down the runway, the man graciously thanked me for listening. I assured him that I was incredibly grateful to be his airplane companion and that my thoughts and prayers would be with him and his family.

Later on that day, I still couldn't stop thinking about my flight home. A flight that was supposed to be dedicated to blogging turned into a story that I will forever hold near and dear to my heart. A complete stranger was able to provoke my emotions in their rawest form. The horrific death of someone I never knew had not only affected his family, friends, and loved ones, but me - a complete stranger.