When the people who had already boarded the plane (they had seemed so lucky a few minutes ago, already sitting and with their luggage in the overhead bin long before those of us in later groups were still worrying if there would be room left for us) started to exit, and the airline’s counter agent announced that there would be a delay because they needed to investigate an issue with a door, there was a universal groan and words of complaint. Those of us who were at the Phoenix airport on a summer Thursday afternoon hoping to get to Eugene, Oregon, in just a couple of hours, dreaded the thought that we would become another sorry group of stranded airline travelers.
I turned to the man standing next to me and voiced my frustration. And he, responded that he really needed to get to Eugene that day to bury his brother who died the previous day.
Quite a conversation killer—or starter.
In our case, it was a starter. We stood there, amidst impatience that was tinged with hope, since it was still so early in the delay, and talked. He told me about his three brothers: the one who had died the previous day and the one who died the year before. He told me about his parents, old-school farmers in rural Oregon. And then he told me that he was dying of cancer, that he was given nine months to live, but hoped to live past the one-year anniversary of his brother’s death, not wanting to burden his parents with so much sorrow so quickly.
Again. A conversation killer—or starter.
After a few more, “still checking” announcements, we were told that our plane needed more work than could be done at the terminal and that they were waiting to see if there was another plane they could get for our flight. At this point, I was glad that it was only mid-afternoon and that we were at a large airport, hopeful that we would be on our way, as some point today.
The man I was talking to kept our conversation going, and not on the morbid side of things. We next got into, sort of, politics. He told me that he was a redneck but that he was not all that one assumed from that, telling me that his daughter-in-law was Black and that his granddaughter was biracial. I told him that I was from New York City, to which he nodded. We further indulged each other in saying the things that we believed in—the things that were similar or adjacent, as we like to say these days. And I said that I was Jewish, just to make sure that he knew the extent to which I was originally from NYC. And since I wasn’t in a classroom where I had to watch what I said (or even going back to a classroom in the fall, so I don’t need to watch what I say here), I talked to him about abortion and the devastation of Roe being overturned. And we kept talking and listening to each other.
He told me that his name was Randy. I smiled and touched his arm, saying that when I was visiting my older daughter in Las Vegas, where I had just flown from (he had flown to Phoenix from Tombstone, AZ), I met a friend of hers, named Randy, who casually said that we should hang out, but he never followed up on that. I told this Randy that he was the Randy I was meant to talk to. Funny how you can find meaning in coincidence; funny, too, the meaning that you can find in a random conversation that seems less random the more you think about it.
He was wearing a “I'm Not Retired, I'm a Professional Grandpa” hat. I commented on it. He said that his grandfather could never wear a hat like that and he seemed proud that he broke a cycle. He was beloved. I wondered if he was thinking about the legacy that he would leave for his children and grandchildren, so soon to come.
They announced that they found a plane for us and the new gate number. I needed to take a walk before I would be shut into a plane, so I said goodbye to Randy, overwhelmed by the encounter, the connection that we made, and my sadness for him.
It was a short flight from Phoenix to Eugene. He sat toward the front of the plane, since I said “Hi” to him when I passed him and kept walking back to reach my seat. I wanted to see him before I went off on the next leg of my trip, this time visiting with younger daughter. I felt that we were missing something—another moment of connection.
As I was walking out the doors of the small airport, he was coming back in. We both smiled and hugged without a moment’s hesitation. Not a quick, barely there hug, but a hug that you give a friend you haven’t seen in a while and want them to feel that you’re there for them. He smelled like cigarettes; I guess he went out quickly to have a smoke. No comment on what he may be dying of. (Oh, those hard-dying assumptions).
My heart goes out to Randy and his family who are dealing with so much grief.
My heart goes out to us—all of us—who don’t find ways to connect to each other, no matter how different we may be, even though it’s the easiest thing in the world.