Saturday, January 15, 2011

bringing it home

In all of my travels I have never chosen to sit in the first row on any airplane. But with Southwest's "open seating" policy I found myself spontaneously sitting in the first row on the short flight over the Cascades to celebrate my friends birthday.

At first glance they were easy to miss. The set of lifeless legs seated next to me. From the waist up his strong build carried the look of a rugged cowboy. Mid 40s with a full head of fine blonde hair, trimmed tight, a sharp line disappearing behind each ear. A well manicured mustache that appeared almost fake had the color not been so perfectly matched to his hair. His eyes, one badly blood shot, damaged I imagined doing something on the farm, gazed down with shades of dark blue when he spoke, unable, or more likely too painful to turn his neck. His red collared shirt would have seemed like business casual on its own. But a clay colored vest embroidered with NFPB (National Federation of Professional Bullriders) pushed it into the realm of formal farm wear.

I rarely initiate conversation on flights. "How are you doin' today" I said just before take off. Casting his gaze on the open middle seat between us, he paused for a split second, interlocking his hands like one does when giving a leg-up to a horse he slid them under his thigh and readjusted the position of his right leg.  "Not bad, and yourself?" he said in a low, raspy voice still holding his head down and to the right.

For the next hour, we shared thoughts on life. He spoke about his two daughters, his wife, his medical supply business. I told him of my recent travels, my buddies birthday party. We traded bits of banter about sports and cars and the inland northwest. I could feel a childish temptation to ask how he had become paralyzed. But I didn't. I told myself "don't be that person."

The plane dropped low for landing, "Well, I'm the last one off so enjoy your party?" he said with a chuckle and half smile. It was then that we discovered we were scheduled for the same return flight the following day. "Doug, I hope we'll see each other tomorrow."

I arrived at the gate eager to find Doug. A few minutes past before I spotted him wheeling towards me, his carry-on suitcase strapped close to the front of his thin legs. "Doug!" I said with a big smile. Both of us started trading stories like old friends. A women approached us a few minutes later, "Doug, right?" "Thank you so much for volunteering in my PT classes." They laughed, reminiscing for a few minutes about how some students can't handle all that is associated with assisting those who are paralyzed. In the dull light of the airport terminal I noticed the small halo traction scars left behind by the screws that they drilled in between gaps of his hairline and eyebrows.

Everyone began boarding the plane. Not surprisingly I found myself back in my same seat next to Doug. The topic of women jumped onto the runway while the plane taxied for takeoff. Somehow I got this crazy cool cowboy talking about love and the heartache that comes with it. We were having some good laughs along with serious discussion about the subject when I leaned in and asked him my favorite question whenever I come across someone who seems to be, for all intents and purposes "happily married".

"Doug, if you dont mind me asking, how did you know your wife was the one you should marry?"
A big smile comes over his face, glancing down at his legs he says "you know, that's not the question I often get asked on these plane rides." I hadn't realized how my introduction to the question had the appearance of going down a different direction until he looked at his legs.

"I knew her for six months before I asked her to marry me, I was 25. It sounds crazy and I'm sure you've heard it before but you just know, I knew I wanted to marry her. We had been married for three months when I was hit by a drunk driver. I was within an inch of my life, my wife was with me every day for the six months in the hospital. And we've been married 20 years now."

A moment past without either of us saying anything. Then, laughing a little before he leaned in, his neck still just as stiff as a starched shirt, "Sorry to ruin your question about love with that heavy answer." I hesitated, "You didn't ruin it, you brought it home."

I sat in my chair, the cabin dark with the night sky, thinking about how an answer to a single question can capture so much about life and living and loving. As the plane touched down in Spokane, Doug added "We live in a disposable society. Often we cut and run when the going gets tough. Relationships are no exception. But I was lucky enough to have found someone who stuck by me. Well, I'm the last one off, take care Brad."

There will never be another flight where I will not look to see if Doug is sitting in the front row.


The above fore-mentioned. said...

On my flight home on Friday night there was no one in either of the seats beside me or even in the row across the aisle. Your story was wonderful. Sounds like you had a great flight and great company. Hope you see him again.

Travis said...

Loved this one. Miss you bud. Coffee and workouts. See you soon.


Lisa Myers said...

I was reminiscing about your blog, Brad, and went back to this post - one of my favorites. Now I'm crying. I can't help but appreciate all that you captured here and all of the important opportunities to gain perspective and joy that we may miss by hoping for empty seats next to us on planes or putting our earphones in and thoughtlessly drifting through the world. Thanks, Bradley.

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