Stranger at the Gate

The second time I saw the aged gentleman was at the gate where my wife and I were waiting to board our flight back east. He had been pushed there in a wheelchair by a muscular sheriff, equipped in full gear and accompanied by a social worker. I could understand the social worker’s presence, but a sheriff’s? Law enforcement did not fit the scene I had witnessed the first time I saw the fragile but well-dressed figure, an hour earlier, standing unsteadily in the queue at the airline’s check-in counter, just ahead of me and my wife.

He was alone and should not have been. Shrunk down with age, he was standing alongside a rolling walker as if he were balancing on thin ice. He would inch a tentative step or two closer to the walker and then slightly stoop to grab support from one of its handle grips. The walker sometimes wiggled on its small wheels as he moved like this. Then as if having second thoughts, he would release his grip and stand as straight as his frail frame allowed, for as long as possible – never for long.

He wore the pained expression of a helpless person deeply disturbed about something. But what? He regularly alternated his gaze toward the check-in counter and then to the nearby, large plate glass windows and sliding doors that offered a view of the drop-off area at the curb. He seemed to be searching for an explanation to come from either counter or curb. But none came.

Although it was 9:30 in the morning, there was hardly a soul in the small airport on California’s central coast. Four ticket holders had arrived before me and my wife, and we had all arrived too early to check in; there were no airline personnel at the counter. The third in the queue was the elderly gentleman. One of the ticket holders talked briefly with him from time to time, but he spoke softly and I couldn’t catch what he was saying. When I mentioned this to my wife later, she explained that he was agitated and kept whispering, Where is she? Why did she leave me here? When is she coming back?

Around 10am, he seemed to give up expecting any help to arrive from the counter or the curb. I was a mere two arm-lengths distant, but by the time I had quit arguing with myself about whether to assist him in the effort, he had labored himself down upon the rolling walker’s padded seat. As if on cue the check-in crew appeared. My wife rushed to assist him and to ensure that a flight attendant got the picture.

In a matter of minutes we had been checked in for our flight to Dallas and ushered uneventfully through the TSA scanners. In the waiting lounge near our gate–an hour to fill, and eager to finish an engaging book–I promptly forgot about the man I would soon know as “David,” whom I had last seen talking with a flight attendant at the check-in counter. A half-hour passed and suddenly there he was. The sheriff had left him with the social worker at a convenient spot near the gate. The two were sitting next to each other but not talking. I had a good view of his downcast face. When we made eye contact, he looked sorrowful.

They boarded him first. My wife and I were among the last. A ticketing issue and a full plane prevented us from sitting together. Never mind. We had been given window seats. As we boarded I followed her profile up the narrow aisle with my eyes until she found her seat, then I looked for mine. And there he was again, in a bulkhead seat on the aisle, the window seat next to him empty, no social worker in sight. He was clutching a wad of papers and a prepackaged sandwich in his right hand. He looked preoccupied and I hated to interrupt him.

Excuse me, I said. He looked up and turned sideways as best he could to make room as I bent to squeeze past him–banging my head sharply on the low overhead compartment–to occupy the seat next to him for the three hour flight. On planes I often argue with myself about whether to engage the person next to me, or to pretend invisibility and disappear into a book. This time I favored the book I hadn’t finished in the lounge. (Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, if you’d like to know.) I pulled it out of my carry-on bag and made sure my seatmate knew what I had planned. I wondered about the sheriff, but felt it wasn’t my place to pry.

Before I could get back into issues of prose structure and style, however, the joke I made about banging my head had brought a smile to his face. We introduced ourselves and made some small talk. He carried a gracious, almost dignified, manner, and seemed keen to tell me something. But I wasn’t getting it. At times he spoke in complete thoughts and was easy to follow. Sometimes he fell silent, leaving a thought uncompleted. Other times he jumped from topic to topic sans any segues that I could detect. Even when I leaned in, it was hard to hear his softly spoken words above the engines. I thought I caught the words “her daughter,” “kidnapping,” and “two women,” but I wasn’t sure, so I let it go.

Do you live in Dallas? I asked. I’m going to Connecticut, he said. Oh, you must have been visiting someone in California, I said, wondering why anyone had allowed this fragile figure to travel across the country on his own. No, he said, I’ve been living in California with my wife.

helping handA hostess locked her cart next to us at the bulkhead and handed out pretzels and drinks. I accepted a cranberry drink and took a protein bar from my carry-on. Papers and sandwich still clutched in his hand, David folded the papers out of the way and began slow work on the sandwich.

Man, you’ve got a long day ahead of you, I said after he’d finished eating what he could of his sandwich. You’re probably not going to get to Connecticut until midnight. My children are in Connecticut, he said. They want me and my wife to live with them there. I’m going to make arrangements. Then I clearly heard “her daughter” and “kidnapping,” and also “two women” and “one-year-old boy,” but for no apparent reason. I wanted to ask why he said this but decided not to.

My wife had a stroke in Florida last year, he said, emerging from silence. She can’t walk. Her daughter got her to move to California. Said she would take care of her. So we moved. But I’m done with her now. Who does he mean? I wondered, now more curious. [Unclear] we never should have done that, he added. [Unclear] worst decision we ever made. We lost everything.

As we flew on, I learned that he was eighty-six and that for thirty-two years he had been an assistant to the headmaster of a large boys’ school in the Midwest, and that afterward he had retired to Florida. That long career accounted for his gracious, disciplined deportment, but it could not hide his distress whenever he returned to “the kidnapping.”

This put me in a dilemma. The journalist in me wanted to probe, question, conduct an interview, get the story. The Christian in me wanted to be a listening ear, to befriend the stranger, to reach out somehow with grace.

I carefully slid from my seat and walked the long aisle to the toilet. Earlier in the flight, David and I had talked about our churches, and discovered we were brothers in Christ. When I got back to my seat, I said I was sorry to hear about his wife and that I would pray for her and the move to Connecticut. Thank you. I’ll say a prayer for you, too, he said. We had a nice house in Florida, he added after a pause. We should have stayed there.

I was learning something. But what? Even though he occasionally repeated himself, I was still missing many of his words. Whatever story he was telling, I wasn’t getting it. Afterward, it reminded me of trying to understand a movie you had walked in on in the middle of. I did catch that the kidnapping had taken place in California. It clearly pained him to talk about it, but talk about it he did.

When he asked if I’d seen the Amber Alert on the news in California, I explained that I’d been on vacation and tried not to listen to the news. They kidnapped a one-year-old boy, he said. Can you believe it? A one-year-old. It was on the news for days. When? I asked. A few days ago, he said. The boy was in protective custody. But they caught them. Her daughter put a knife to the social worker’s throat. Told her she’d kill her if she didn’t let them take her son. That’s terrible, I said, words failing me. They kidnapped him, a one-year-old boy, he said again. Can you believe that? That’s so terrible, I said again. David fell silent, and I wondered who he was talking about.

Will you have to fly back to California to bring your wife to Connecticut, I asked? No, he said. The social worker is arranging that. We’ve lost everything. After my wife had her stroke, her daughter convinced her to move to California so she could look after my wife. So we moved there from Florida. But we found out that she only wanted my wife’s money. Her daughter spent it on herself and her daughter. The social worker told me that after they caught them. Caught who? I blurted out.

My wife’s daughter and her daughter, he said. They caught them in Los Angeles. The social worker told me they think they were headed for Mexico. Kidnaping, attempted murder. Can you believe it? They’ll go to jail for a long time, won’t they? I guess so, I said. My wife is heartbroken, he said. When I told her about her daughter she cried. But the little boy is safe now. But can you imagine him growing up with them?

I could not.

But I could reflect on our conversation, and I had plenty of time for doing that during the four-hour layover after my wife and I deplaned in Dallas, before our flight home to Knoxville. As we said our goodbyes, David warmly shook my hand, said Thank you, and added: Say a prayer for my wife. He was wheelchaired to the gate where he would connect with a flight to LaGuardia. There, his family would pick him up for the drive to Connecticut. I kicked myself for not having asked him for his number so I could follow up. Many times I almost asked, but it never seemed appropriate.

I found a comfortable chair in a quiet area of the large terminal, where I pulled a pen and a small spiral notebook from my shirt pocket and scribbled pages of notes about the last three hours. Who would’ve thought this likable person was suffering so much? I spent days afterward thinking about him, and whether I’d been the right kind of seatmate.

God and AdamThen the penny dropped. He was heartbroken and needed to talk with someone other than with social workers, the police, or even his family about what had just happened to him and his wife. Talking with them, as necessary as that had been, had not been a means to the emotional distance he needed from so much anguish. Perhaps our long, off-and-on conversation had been that means of grace. David had seemed seem calmer, more at peace, when we said our goodbyes.

In a gentle, beautiful book, The Shape of Living, David Ford notes that people who suffer from severe evil and injustice are overwhelmed by it; they suffer alone and need to be held in non-physical ways that bring divine grace. But how do you hold a stranger that way in the middle of an airplane—on a flight across the country?

As I reflect on my hours alongside this kindly African-American gentleman, I remember one of the many things I learned from reading Abraham Joshua Heschel. It’s a line from God in Search of Man: “Something sacred is at stake in every event.” As a Christian, I’ve come to interpret this to mean that when I come into the presence of another human being, especially a suffering one, I can enter into the presence of Christ and it’s no longer about what I want, it’s about what Christ wants.

If I could talk to David again I would of course ask how life was going now for him and his wife, but I would also ask him if he was checking me out early on in our conversation to determine how much he could say to this stranger at the gate. Then I was glad that, by God’s grace, I’d leaned away from the journalistic me and instead leaned in as a listening ear.

©2019 by Charles Strohmer

Images courtesy of Creative Commons: Richard Lehoux; Mandajuice; Waiting for God

This essay as first published on Foundling House, Sept. 2,2019.