Friday, May 30, 2008

Traveling and the human condition

Well, I have just returned from some research-related travel, and I had a great series of seatmates on my flights.

As I made my way onto the plane for my first flight, I saw my seatmate already sitting in his assigned seat. An older teen boy with earbuds pumping out music loud enough I could already hear it and a classic black rock t-shirt, he looked awkward and nervous. And, I thought, possibly he seemed a little developmentally delayed or autistic. Sure enough, as soon as I sat down, he blurted out, "This is my first flight by myself." He went on to tell me about his fear of takeoff, so we chatted and channeled his interest elsewhere... favorite band, favorite Harry Potter book, why he was traveling, etc. We talked about his plans for college, where, he noted incredulously, "they will pay for me to go, as long as I keep my grades up!" He was sweet and funny, and we chatted on and off throughout the trip.

Once we landed at the hub, it turned out we were on the same flight to our final destination. We went to the food court and ate supper together, and then took our seats apart (mine towards the front and his in the back) for the flight. As we made our way back on the plane, he said, "My parents were so worried that I was traveling alone. But I'm not. I'm with you!"

When we landed, I was one of the first people to disembark. I saw a woman crying as I came up the jetway. She approached me as I came off the plane and demanded, "Which flight is this? Where are you coming from?" When I confirmed that it was the flight she was waiting for, she began crying anew, saying that she had been so worried that she would miss her son, who was arriving on this flight. "He is a 19-year-old autistic boy, for God's sake, and he is flying all alone!"

"Is his name [X]?" I asked.

Her eyes grew wide and she nodded. I assured her that he was on the plane, towards the back, and that he should be deplaning shortly. She was still surprised, but happy, and I left her waiting for him. I saw them together later, when we were all getting our bags. He sat by me as we waited for the bags to start down the carousel, but I never actually got to introduce myself to his mother.

As I stood waiting to board the first leg of my flight home, I spoke with another woman passenger at the gate. It was a short, friendly conversation, the kind you have while passing time in a small space together. I was surprised when I approached my seat to see that the same woman was actually my seatmate. Following up on our earlier conversation, we discussed politics, family stuff, and the cultures in different parts of the US. She told me about her late husband, who had died fairly young 2 years earlier, and how her young adult children were making sure she continued to travel and stay engaged. She noted how much she sometimes envied her friends who were traveling and enjoying their retirement with their spouses. She told me how she felt cheated out of those "golden years" with her spouse. Nonetheless, she was funny and kind, and I enjoyed her very much.

My last seatmate was something of a surprise. When I first came onboard, he was in my seat. When I pointed that out, he noted that he had changed seats with another passenger who had a friend onboard, and he wasn't sure which seat he was supposed to take. As we settled in, I looked him over--ball cap, casual wear, tan lined face--and immediately thought, "I'll bet he's a farmer." I also assumed that he was likely a conservative. It turns out I was wrong on both accounts; I came to find out that he was a retired minister in a denomination I am familiar with, and he was at least liberal in his politics.

When I came out to him, he disclosed that his adult son was gay. We discussed another minister we both knew to whom he felt a special connection because his children were also gay. He explained that he didn't have a religious issue with homosexuality.

He has faced a number of obstacles in his life. He quit the ministry when his wife fell ill, and he currently holds 2 jobs while he provides support for his adult daughter who is developmentally delayed. "She doesn't like to be called retarded," he confided. His shyness and Western reserve showed through when he noted, "People don't normally like me right off. It usually takes a few months before church members get to know me, before they get comfortable with who I am." He was glad not to be serving a church any longer.

I came home so impressed with all three of my seatmates, each making their way through a world that has probably hurt and challenged them in different ways. Their stories were poignant and led me to consider how much people can manage and overcome. These experiences made me think about human frailty and resilience, the commonalities we share, the ways we differ, and the companionship we can provide for one another by recognizing one another and sharing a conversation.


Not Quite Grown Up said...

Those were lovely vignettes of your flights. Thanks for sharing them.

Sheri said...

You are such a nice person. I'm a rude b when I fly alone--I nod at my seatmates and then pull my book out as soon as possible. I HATE talking to people on the plane, and I'm not totally sure what that's about. Look what I'm missing.