In Flight

We have boarded in Rome.  He is already seated in his leather Business Class reclining window seat, a glass of champagne on the little pull-out table. I have the aisle seat and nod to him, offer a brief greeting and busy myself with settling in for the long trans-Atlantic flight. The flight attendant comes around and –it being only 10:00 in the morning –opt for orange juice.  My companion, probably in his 50s, leans forward and takes a second glass of champagne. The attendant pauses, looking intently at him, and says, “Weren’t you just here yesterday?”  Oh, those business fliers, I think, back and forth, up and down.  No wonder he needs two glasses of champagne before breakfast.  He nods at the attendant, who is poised to offer a snappy reply, and says softly,  “My mother has died – while I was flying to Rome.  I got the message when I landed.  I have to go home– right away.”  The attendant, visibly jolted, takes a couple of beats and offers her condolences.

On long flights I don’t like to talk much.  I prefer to keep in my own world at least until the final descent. But this time is different.  I turn to him and say, “I am so sorry.  This is very hard.”  I imagine the long hours ahead for him, flying alone, filled with thoughts of the past, of a future without her in his life any longer, of regrets, things said/not said. “She was a wonderful woman,” he says. “She had a good life.”

He stares at the seat ahead. “Was it unexpected?” I gently ask.  He nods. The effects of the champagne are taking hold and, as we taxi to the runway, he begins to tell stories.  I listen – it’s what I do. As we climb to cruising altitude and head toward France he talks.  He orders a glass of wine.  A professor, he teaches in an international program at a well-known university.  This was to be his Rome semester.  But right now his professional concerns recede rapidly into the background. Right now he is a mother’s son, the 10-year-old castigated yet again for coming into the house, slamming the screen door; the teenager, feeling dejected after failing an exam, buoyed by his mother’s reassurances that a failed exam is not the end of the world. He remembers aloud the ways in which she was a noble soul and how much he will miss her.

The wine continues to flow. The flight attendant is sympathetic and keeps an eye on him. He attempts to dull the growing ache of coming to terms with his loss. Lunch is served. He eats without relish, food merely another way to absorb the pain of grief. He has stopped speaking as the effects of wine and food make him sleepy. We are over the Atlantic now–many hours to go. The flight attendant deftly removes his tray, refills his wine glass. He clicks the overhead light, turns away and settles in as if to sleep. I am thinking about the loss of my own parents. Father when I was 20; mother when I was 37. I’d considered myself a middle-aged orphan, their loss having begun years before they’d died. I was not present at their deaths. Each died suddenly but not unexpectedly. Dad of a heart attack, after years of coronary disease exacerbated by uncontrolled smoking and drinking; Mom of cancer, complicated by smoking and drinking and the years-long grip of untreated depression. She and I had been estranged for some time. My reaction to their deaths–so unlike that of my seatmate, the Professor, was inarticulate and awkwardly expressed.

It has taken a long time to come to terms with my parents’ lives and deaths. I never developed an adult relationship with them. Had little knowledge of and no perspective on their lives before me. I’d never have been able to say, as the Professor did so simply, “They had a good life.” Nor could I have said of my own mother, “She was a wonderful woman.” Clinical depression, medicated by alcohol, dulled her senses, muffled her feelings, kept me from knowing her.  What would it have taken for her to have had a good life, to have been wonderful woman?

The Professor is sleeping now. I am relieved for him. He will have much to do in the days ahead. He will be jet-lagged and grieving and disoriented. And in the weeks and months to follow he will return to Rome, resume his academic life. One day, perhaps, he will find himself stopped in the middle of a task, or while taking a walk, or looking out the window of his office. On that day a memory of his mother will visit him unbidden, taking his attention away from that moment. In Rome, thousands of miles away from the Mid-western town where he grew up, the remains of his mother at rest in the local cemetery, he will remember. In spite of believing she was a wonderful woman, of knowing she had a good life and that it had been her time to go, he will miss her – again and again. No matter how old they are when they leave us it is always too soon.

We are approaching New York where the Professor will change planes for St. Louis.  He has awakened from his fitful sleep and turns to me. “I am so sorry,” he says. I look at him puzzled. “I had too much to drink and I’m afraid I talked too much.” I don’t know how to respond. His suffering had been palpable.  I understood a need to blot out pain, to seek solace in the anodyne of alcohol. I had seen it countless times before. And, as before, I sought to understand, to provide a listening ear. I murmur an assurance that I felt for him.

It is only now, many years later that I understand our exchange had not been one-sided. Not realizing it, he’d given me a gift: the opportunity to reflect deeply on my relationship to my own parents, to my own mother. I imagine the Professor’s mother must have known of his love and appreciation of her. She could rest in peace.  In time he would find peace as well.

I, on the other hand, would spend years after my mother’s death coming to terms with her imperfections, tracing the roots of her unhappiness back through generations, trying to understand how she came to be the person she was. I would accept she was a complicated person. She had a difficult life. We never had a chance to acknowledge that; I never had a chance to say goodbye. 

The Professor pulls his briefcase from under the seat, opens it and pulls out his business card. Handing it to me he says, “Thank you.” I wish him the strength to endure what is to follow. I wish him well. What I cannot articulate is the power of his story and its effect on me. I have three grown sons. Will they say about me that I had a good life, that I was a wonderful woman? I believe I’m doing the best I can. I hope that is enough.

Interconnecting Circles