I love watching people on airplanes. All kinds of different people, with different stories, converging on a moment in time, in the air, headed to a destination where their stories will diverge again.
Today on the first leg of my trip to Boston for the URJ 2017 Biennial, a man in the center seat in front of me looked totally out of place. He was very large, heavily tattooed, and it seemed as if he had never been on an airplane before. I saw him struggle to get in and out of his seat, I watched him try to figure out the different plugs and buttons on the seat and monitor, and I noticed that he was extremely friendly and kind to those around him. He texted his mother a picture of himself before take off with, “Of course my big @$$ got the middle seat,” which struck me as coming from a person with a sense of humor, and with a connection to his mother.
When we landed in Chicago, like everyone, he turned on his phone and saw a message, checked it, and seemed stunned. He called someone, saying, “Where’s Mama? Let me talk to Mama,” and listened silently until he said, “What do you mean he’s dead?”
After hanging up he said, to no one in particular, “My dad just died....”
My heart fell. While passengers filed off the plane, a few people turned to him and offered condolences. I chased him off the plane. He froze once he was clear of the gate, and I put my arm around his shoulder.
“Excuse me,” I said, “I heard what happened, and I want you to know that I’m a rabbi, and I might not be able to help you religiously, but I also lost my father suddenly. What do you need right now?”
He looked stunned. “I don’t know, I have to get out of here.”
At that point, another man walked up, who was sitting next to him on the flight. I asked if he had a connection, and he shook his head as he picked up his phone to call a friend. I started walking him out toward the exit, and asked if he had any luggage. He shook his head again. When he got off the phone, he said he couldn’t believe what was happening. I told him I know his world was crumbling in on him right now, but if he holds on, we’ll see that he gets to his friend. The other guy nodded.
I asked when he last spoke to his father. “Just this morning!” He answered, tears forming in his eyes, “We were laughing and everything!”
I don’t usually go theological on the mourning, but I took a risk. “Thank God you got a chance to say goodbye on a happy note. He knows you love him, and you know he loved you.”
“Yeah, I even told him I loved him.”
At that moment, we passed my gate, and I asked the other man if he could take care of our friend from here. He said yes, and I gave the big man a hug, and turned and let them walk on.
Then I sat down and cried.