At seventy-one, I’m wrinkled, grey-haired, cautious, and calculating, but not wary; agile, but not reckless; I don’t suffer fools, but am respectful; and though “bent,” I’m unbroken—living as fully as possible. Traveling can be an annoyance that tests my character, patience, and chips away my conceit.
TSA screening, a necessary vexation to air travel, is a reminder of truths from which I sometimes seek to hide—being a septuagenarian among them.
On a recent trip from Los Angeles to Burlington, my fifteen-year-old daughter, Jade, was traveling with me on her first trip to Vermont, where I live, an event which felt both exciting and disquieting.
Any illusions I have about being “forever young” were exposed by Jade’s youthful, exuberant presence and the TSA agent whose scrupulous pat-down became necessary when my hip replacements lit-up the screener’s monitor. Satisfied that I wasn’t a threat to national security, he said, “We’re done, sir, you may go.”
Nice enough, I thought, but did he need to say “sir?”
We gathered our bags and headed to the gate area, though not before my daughter grinned while asking, “Are you okay?”
“Let’s go,” I curtly replied, and led the way to our gate and an adjoining row of vacant seats, where we plopped ourselves and our bags down by a window. “I’m fine,” I added with the humor and gratitude her question deserved. She winked, smiled, and pointed toward a group of travelers coming our way. I looked over my shoulder, but failed to see the significance of her gesture. “Look again,” she said in response to my nonplussed expression.
The man was just another face in the LA airport mix of travelers, albeit an older, wheel-chair bound man being pushed to the gate by his companion, perhaps his wife—a slight woman of considerable determination, someone who appeared patient and unswerving in her care.
His head drooped to the side, arms lifeless in his lap, hands helpless to grasp the shawl that slipped away under the left wheel of the “carriage,” a vehicle I imagined he detested despite its necessary purpose.
I retrieved the knit blanket and returned it to the woman as I walked back to my seat overlooking the rain-drenched tarmac.
“The plane’s delayed,” I said as I sat next to Jade, “can I get you something to eat or drink?”
“No thanks, I’m okay,” she said.
We’d checked bags, and when the gate attendant announced our turn to board we slung the allowable carry-ons over our shoulders and proceeded down the gangway and entered the plane. Jade led the way to row eight where she stopped, turned in my direction, a puzzled expression on her face. The aisle seat in our row was occupied by the elder gentleman in the gate area.
Access to seats A and B, the window and middle seats, required navigating past him.
“My husband moves with great difficulty,” the woman across the aisle from him explained—the caregiver I’d watched patiently wheeling him through the crowd in the gate area, “do you mind stepping over his legs?”
“Of course not,” my daughter replied.
We stored our bags in the overhead compartment, and then, once his wife had adjusted her husband’s legs to accommodate us, we carefully took our seats.
After I settled in, I glanced at the woman across the aisle. She reached over to pat her husband’s arm, and made eye contact with me.
“Thank you,” she said in a weary but appreciative voice, “from both of us.”
Once in the air, I put on my headset, and turned on the TV to watch the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament. The screen to my right, in front of the rheumy-eyed gentleman, was haphazardly scrolling from one station to the next.
“Excuse me?” the woman across the aisle must have repeatedly said, because it was my daughter’s gentle tapping on my arm that got my attention. She pointed to the man’s companion in seat D.
“Would you mind handing me the bag at my husband’s feet? He needs to eat something.” I retrieved the plastic bag, handed it to her, and resumed viewing the basketball game.
At one point I picked up the crumb-bedecked bib that had slipped to the floor when he’d leaned toward me to watch my TV. “Would you like to watch the game?” I asked.
He pointed his gnarled and quivering hand at the scrolling screen in front of him. As I adjusted the controls of his TV he reached over and squeezed my hand. Tears had begun to trickle down his unshaven face. Our eyes met, and I was reminded of my deceased father, who in the last months of his life struggled to hold onto any smidgeon of dignity as cancer rendered him helpless and frail, his faith in God bent but unbroken.
Living fully into life’s possibilities isn’t always easy.
I sat back in my seat, feeling a bit nostalgic, and considered the array of wonderful opportunities awaiting my young daughter, in contrast with the indignities the fellow traveler, the man in 8C, was experiencing, and that, seated between them, I was closer to his life experience than to hers. I took in several deep breaths.
The attentive woman in 8D reached across the aisle and tenderly wiped away her husband’s tears as I turned from her, looked beyond my daughter and out through the rain-streaked window.by