7:15am, Monday 29th October, 2012. JFK airport is deserted. Only 200 people wander around, passing through security checks at record speed. We are the ONLY flight to depart today. Hurricane Sandy will be in NY within hours. I’m leaving another country to unprecedented natural disaster. Five hours after I left New Zealand in 2011 a state of emergency was declared as it experienced its worst floods in fifty years. Six hours after I left Fiji in 2012, a landslide hit my resort – 74 evacuation centres were set up and 8 people were killed. The day I departed the UK in 2010 for a Christmas visit to Australia, England was hit by the worst snowfall in over forty years – Heathrow flights were grounded for days. Twenty-four hours after that trip to Australia, my hometown was flooded and a locust plague was followed by a snake plague. My arrival in Australia late in 2011 was marked by a mini cyclone, fires that destroyed thirty homes, a mouse plague and a fatal white shark attack. I can’t work out if travelling with me will keep you safe or put you directly in line to encounter God’s wrath. If my life was a movie, there’d be many scenes with me walking away unscathed, leaving an apocalyptic blaze behind me.
Upon hearing my boarding call, I get on Flight VS026. I walk down the aisle and see a white-haired man in his mid-seventies in the seat next to mine. He rises to let me take my window seat. Once I’m seated and buckled in, he turns to me and holds out his hand for me to shake.
Him (with a strong NY accent): Hi, I’m Robert. We’re lucky we made this flight, aren’t we?
Me (shaking his hand): Simone. It’s amazing. I honestly never thought I’d be flying out today.
Him: No, God’s on our side for sure. And I’m pleased to have a lovely young lady sitting next to me.
Me (smiling): Well I’m not sure I can be described as young any more. And I’m not sure I’ve ever been lovely. But thanks.
Him: Oh everyone looks young to me now. But you are lovely – a wide smile and big blue eyes. You brighten up the plane. Tell me, do you mind chatting for the flight? I know some people hate it, but I’d quite like some conversation. Of course if you want to read or watch the TV, that’s okay too.
What can I say? I’m tired, but he’s a kind man and I think I want to talk to a stranger for a bit too. Anonymous conversation can be cathartic.
For the next few hours I hear his story. He’s a 76-year-old retired architect, proud of his work and proud of his family. He has two children from his first marriage. After a painful decline, his wife died of cancer three years ago.
I keep listening, occasionally agreeing and encouraging.
Him: I’m lonely now and I don’t get to talk to many people for long. My daughter phones every week, and my son about once a month … but that’s about it. I miss Angie. We married late so never had children together, but I loved her so much. It’s hard now.
Suddenly my eyes well up.
Him: Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to upset you with my grief. How long have you been married?
Me (quickly pulling myself together and smiling): I’m not married … that hasn’t happened for me yet.
Him: Make it happen. Love, and being with the person you love are the only things worth being here for. You both become better people for it.
Me (smiling): I know. That’s exactly how I see it.
Him: I’ve been trying to work out if you’re sad to be leaving New York or sad to be going to London?
Me (laughing): I’m happy to be avoiding a hurricane.
Him (laughing kind-heartedly too): You’re a clever one, avoiding my question. I think you’ve got your own little hurricane going on inside you at the moment. I’m old enough to see it. And your eyes are very telling. I think your eyes could kill a man, but right now they show you’re troubled. But I won’t ask any more.
There’s an awkward moment as we shift to a neutral conversational topic. But we manage and enjoy the rest of the flight by covering light-hearted subjects. He’s a gentle, intelligent and interesting man.
At Heathrow we say goodbye. To my surprise he hugs me and says, “Have a good life, Simone”. I smile. The only time those exact words have been said to me were by another 76-year-old. My babysitter, Jillian. I am having a good life, and I’m trying to make it even better.
What a moving story! Really touched by your chance conversation. Someone is seeing you for who you are. And someone is looking out for you too. Glad you got home safely. But for goodness sake Simone… please keep facing forward cos the rear vision mirror of your own life is full of (natural) disasters. And please promise me that you will never ever drive. Ever! 🙂
Oh believe me, there are many reasons I should avoid being behnd the wheel of a car (particularly when it comes to parking …). I’m much better, and happier, being a passenger!
Hi Simone, that was powerful writing…I know sometimes you use ‘artistic licence’, was that all fact? Because that is soooo bizarre!
Yep, it was all true … I either create, or avoid, natural disasters every time I go on a holiday and it’s bizarre!
Oh though the guy was actually 82, not 76 – it made for a better link at the end to make him 76. Artistic licence, as you say 😉
Beautiful post Simone. Your writing makes me feel like I was on that plane with you. Keep them coming!
Sent from my iPhone
Thanks Josefin. It was definitely a surreal flight.
I’m writing frenetically at the moment, so hopefully I’ll have more posts that might be worthy of showing the public 🙂
Loved both “Calm before the storm” and this one. Your ability, throughout life, to be just beyond the real danger whilst actually witnessing the surrounding emotion and tension, is quite remarkble.
It’s getting increasingly bizarre. I’m extraordinarily lucky! And each near miss makes me value my life circumstances even more.
*sob* this is one of the most beautiful, moving things I’ve read in a long time!
Thanks Astrid. I have to say it was pretty moving when it happened so I’m glad I managed to get that across.
Oi! What the hell are you playing at?!?!? You just made me cry! Stop it! Stop it right now!
Sorry, I know you prefer me … um, what was it? “Dead inside/having a black heart/being a cyborg” … 🙂