The Man in 8C

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.

Traveling

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32 Comments

  1. laney

    Mesmerizing description of an existential moment in time…similar, perhaps, to one we all have ahead of us.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Laney,
      Thank you for reading this and then commenting. You’re correct about “one we all have ahead of us” though let’s hope and live into the idea that we will show grace and dignity regardless of how those moments unfold. The man in 8C had dignity, grace, and acceptance in ways I hope I can emulate if and when that time occurs for me.
      Good to hear from you,
      Roger

      Reply
  2. JoAnne Kurman

    Brought tears to my eyes and truth chills over my body. A beautiful telling of a profound moment in time, encompassing so much of life and the journey we all take through the spectrum of time.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Jo Anne,
      You are kind and your words much appreciated. Those moments seek us out when we least expect it.
      Thank you,
      Roger

      Reply
  3. Rick Neu

    Beautifully written. As one who is frequently climbed over, the tenderness of this description brought a tear to my eye. Thank you!

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Rick,
      In the pantheon of folk who often get “stepped over” you are on the summit. Thank you for your tears and inspirational example.
      Roger

      Reply
  4. Carmen Apodaca

    I once read this and it has become my mantra. “Do not regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many.” Hang on Roger, in a few years you won’t have to take off your shoes at the airport. I work at embracing my aging process as I look at the wrinkles that appear in the mirror. I go to the gym and don’t act my age as some fifty year told me. He complains often of his age. As the arthritis sets in and energy gives in to an occasional nap, I pray I will age gracefully.
    I admire the youth and intelligence of my children who help me with cell phones and computers.
    How lucky that gentleman was to have such an attentive and caring wife. Not an easy job but a great show of true love. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Carmen,
      Thank you for the reminder that “it is a privilege denied to many.”
      Roger

      Reply
  5. Gus Jordan

    Roger, you capture this moment with such tenderness and care. So often in these situations I’m tempted to look away, mind my own business. You remind me that stepping in, gently and unobtrusively, can bring an unexpected richness and texture to the ordinary challenges of daily life.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      gus,
      There was richness and texture, and I too wanted to run, but at 37,561 feet I had nowhere to go–on the ground I might have split. Thanks for reading, commenting and reminding me that richness lies in taking choices often less traveled (Scott Peck).
      Roger

      Reply
  6. Rich Hope

    Roger
    I believe you forgot in your self description the parts about being a challenging sort of fellow and also funnier than hell!
    Thanks for your very meaningful story of how to move forward in life, listening and learning from our youth, respecting those around us and being aware and open to the profound gifts we are given each day.
    Thanks.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Rich,
      Life is equal parts challenging and funny, God laughs and cries [I hope], and the mix of the two often leaves me catty wonkus–but I know I’m in good company. Thanks for reading and commenting.
      Roger

      Reply
  7. Thomas Nola

    Having the strength to accept, recognize and gracefully embrace what life “throws at us” is a challenge.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      My intrepid friend, Tom…you have always embraced the challenges life has thrown at you. You say it is because of the USMC–yes–but I know it is because you are Tom the Intrepid.
      Roger

      Reply
  8. Giny Chandler

    Well done.
    Cheers,
    Giny

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Giny,
      Thank you, and cheers to you!
      Roger

      Reply
  9. Roy M Carlisle

    Thanks Roger, it was very well said, and it did make me more gracious with my own struggle with GERD and the pain it causes with my running. But I am still running!

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Roy,
      You struggle with GERD, run through pain, resist the temptation to quit on yourself. You are an inspiration to me. Thank you for that, foremost, and for reading my words and commenting.
      Roger

      Reply
  10. Mary

    This is a beautiful vignette, symbolic of the journey we all take. Tears don’t necessarily mean sadness. For this man to encounter a kind, empathetic stranger willing to find an NBA game on his television, I think these were sweet tears of happiness. Sometimes just having humane contact with another person can be the high point of your day. It is the little things, isn’t it? Not to mention the valuable memory you gave your daughter. Extraordinary writing.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Mary,
      Thank you for reading this piece, the kind comments, and bringing your thoughts to this “forum.” I wonder how often we miss “humane contact with another person” that might be a high point of our day–I certainly do. Yes, it is those little things. When I cross paths with a stranger I often give a “cool I’m a stud” nod rather than say “good morning,” “hi,” or in some way personalize the encounter. My daughter has autographed my soul, but so too in a brief moment, did this stranger in 8C.

      Roger

      Reply
  11. Bill Doulos

    Roger, my friend, you so beautifully capture the moment and the privilege you shared with Jade and this elderly couple. I am a few years older than you and I also note the passage of time and the accumulation of memories, and the slipping away of other memories, and the increasing challenges of age. Since deacons in the Episcopal Church have no mandatory retirement age, I intend to move on to the end with as much grace as I can muster, and die “with my boots on.” A friend of mine recently commented that if I had my way I would prefer to die in the midst of an AA meeting. I responded that my preference would be to die as I am processing in to Church, robed and carrying a silver Gospel book aloft, as is my weekly privilege as a deacon. In either case, whether I am surrounded by people in recovery or people of faith, the scenario would be glorious. But recovery and faith are so fragile, and I have lost both at times, I am aware that I might die, in the words of Sam Shoemaker, as a beggar “on cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter,” outside the door that leads to God. Our recovery and our faith both take us inside, Roger, and I hope to see you some day there.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Bill,
      One I am grateful we are friends “with [our] boots on,” who acknowledge the fragility of recovery from anything and the elusiveness of faith–yet we doggedly pursue them both–and hope we live fully and, as your friend said “..die…outside the door that leads to God.” This touches my soul. Second thank you for reading this piece and adding your thoughts. Don’t we all want to script our passage into whatever lies beyond the veil? “Cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter” describes the beggar on the street, but don’t these words also depict the despairing soul–searching for healing? And third thank you for writing the encouraging words “Our recovery and our faith both take us inside…”, and if we listen we find hope.
      Roger

      Reply
      1. Bill Doulos

        Roger, thank you for your words of friendship. The quote from Sam Shoemaker, as you may know, is taken from a poem he wrote called “I Stand by the Door.” Shoemaker was an Episcopal priest at Calvary Church in Manhattan, and later at Calvary Church in Pittsburgh. I never met the man, but he started the “Pittsburgh Experiment” as an evangelical outreach to the business leaders in Pittsburgh. More importantly, he was instrumental in the shaping of the life and the ideas of Bill Wilson in the founding of AA in the 1930’s while he was still in New York. He was not an alcoholic, but was a member of the “Oxford Group” which contributed some of the ideas for the 12 Steps. His poem “I Stand by the Door” sums up my personal concept of ministry. As a “reluctant disciple” myself I can’t allow myself to get too caught up in the intricacies of faith, so I would rather “stand by the door” for the sake of others outside, with one foot in the secular world of disbelief.

        Reply
        1. yourrel4 (Post author)

          Bill,
          You have reintroduced me to Sam Shoemaker’s poem, thank you. Faith in action sums up what I attempt to keep as a goal, but one in which I stumble more often than I succeed–consistent restful faith eludes me, and my actions are too often not faith-based. That said I will keep reaching for the latch, and know that I’m in good company.
          “Sometimes I take a deeper look in.
          Sometimes venture in a little farther.
          But my place seems closer to the opening.
          So I stand by the door.”
          –Sam Shoemaker

          Roger

          Reply
  12. Colette

    Glad you are finally back to writing and sharing after a couple of months respite. Your touching tales always reflect your perceptive observations, participation, and perspective of life’s journey in a way that invites the rest of us into your experience. You allow us to feel our common humanity and destiny. The image of you seated between your young daughter and the frail older gentleman in 8C gives a palpable portrait of where you are in your travels, and gives us pause to consider
    our own. Write on, mon ami.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Collette,
      I write because stringing words together that accurately reflect my thoughts and feelings is more challenging than anything I’ve undertaken. It’s also a practice I studiously avoid because of a fear that I will fail to live fully into the challenge. That said you state the other reason I write–“…and gives us pause to consider our own [travels].” Thank you for reading, commenting, and your appreciative thoughts–they inspire me to “keep at it.”
      Roger

      Reply
  13. Kay Berglund

    Wonderful to see you write about personal feelings about aging and the vibrancy and hope you have for Jade. I have difficulty seeing you as anyone other than a vibrant baseball and people coach who encourages others to maximize vibrancy in their own lives. Fight on Bro!

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Kay,
      Thank you for these words of support, and for reading the post and commenting–special to me, and appreciated. Lewis Smedes has always been a beacon for me–vibrancy lies in acknowledging the beauty and beast, light and dark within each of us, and in so doing, with hope and faith proceed toward maximizing who we’re meant to be. Sojourners like you inspire me–really!
      Roger

      Reply
  14. Bette Rowe Pallos

    “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” Robert Frost ?

    “What lies ahead in our evening of life is an allusive and wondrous mystery.” Bette Pallos ?

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Bette, you and Robert are so in sync–afternoons, mornings preceding them, and the “wondrous mystery” of our evenings–elusive as they may be–oh what lies ahead in our lives whether morning, afternoon or evening. Sometimes I wish the “afternoons” would give me a sneak peek of what is to come only to discover how titillating not knowing can be!
      Thank you for reading and commenting, and bringing Mr. Frost into our discussion.
      Roger

      Reply
  15. Alan

    After having read this post I was sitting next to the woman in 4C who really needed help. I tried and think I was helpful. Perhaps I will someday need the same from someone else

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Your assistance may have and most likely did make a difference for her, the woman in 4C. My take is you just did this without thought that someday I’ll be there.
      Thanks for reading and commenting. Thanks too for assisting the nameless traveler in 4C. Aren’t we all nameless at times and yearning for kindness?
      Roger

      Reply

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