He was the last to board the plane as we prepared to leave the Las Vegas airport where I had spent my first layover on my return trip from CA to VA. The minute I saw him, I knew he would be finding his way to the empty window seat beside the middle seat I occupied. He was an interesting looking young man with his little white hat, glasses, beard and long shorts. And he looked a bit agitated. But then again, plane travel these days can be quite stressful, so that was not jumping out at me as odd.
Sure enough, he was to be my travel companion for the 4 1/2 hour flight and I was thankful that the flight appeared to be devoid of crying/screaming babies (they seem to be drawn to me.) No sooner did this young man flop down in his seat than he began to cry. I saw him try to control it. I heard him try to be discreet, but he was in full breakdown mode and within a couple of minutes was sobbing. He turned his head toward the window and struggled for composure, but composure was not his for the asking at that moment.
I felt, somehow, like an intruder, a voyeur of sorts, and wanted with all my being to give him the privacy he so desperately needed in order to collect himself. As the flight attendant instructed us to pay mind to the safety briefings, I was aware that my young travel companion was falling deeper into his grief. But I said not a word, trying to focus my attention on the exit doors and the oxygen masks...and how to act in the event of a crisis.
As the instructional video wrapped up, I could not shake the notion that this young man had been seated next to me for a reason, and I had to engage him, try to connect so that he would know he was not alone, for alone was how I felt he must feel. Quite out of character for me, I spoke to him first. I simply asked if I could help.
The next two hours of our flight were spent with a young man, a little younger than my own children, sharing with me his overwhelming emotions of having spent six months abroad -- for the first time away from home in his entire life. And he shared with me his most recent experiences, most of which were wonderful ones. Most of which other young people would be jealous, and yet here he sat sobbing. At the core of his angst was that realization that he cannot control even his own life, really, but certainly not the lives of those he loves -- his parents, his brother, his friends. And the realization that when he "needed them" they were busy with their own lives.
And I recalled my own discovery of these facts of life, though I was a few years younger than he when this cruel reality introduced itself to me. Still, I could relate to him and we talked. Somewhere around the one hour mark, he thanked me for taking the time. He was amazed that I had been able to calm him down, and that he was going to be able to face his next hurdle with a bit more assurance that "someone knew...someone cared."
I was taken by his candor and by his obvious need to just have his hand held (figuratively), to connect with another human who was willing to take a few minutes out of an otherwise busy life, and I realized I could not have been the one to do that a week ago. A week ago I would have, very likely, kept my mouth shut, believing his need for privacy outweighed his need to be heard. But this past week I too had a need to have my hand held. And someone was there to help me past the overwhelming moment...connect with strength, trust, and understanding, and at the time, I just thought it was a caring friend, putting up with moody Judy. In the wee hours of this morning, as I sat beside the young man in the white hat, I understood that I was simply part of a chain, a chain that connects us all and through which compassion flows.
And I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I was meant to be on that flight and in that seat for a reason. This morning, as the plane landed and we both awoke from an in-flight slumber, the young man thanked me again and asked for my email address. He asked if I was a writer, which I thought amusing..."no, not really," I assured him, "I just journal a little."
Mike was not just another crying baby ... no, he was a lesson to me of my connection to this thing we call humanity.