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.