Every person you encounter in your life is a reflection of yourself; I have learned this over the course of my lifetime, especially in the past few years. I had a much needed reminder in 2010 when I boarded a flight from LA to Bangkok, about two weeks after my ex-wife told me it was time to go our separate ways.
I found my seat: 47B. On a 17-hour flight, I made sure to take an aisle seat. I was greeted by a man in 47A, a short 50-ish Indian man wearing bright yellow Bermuda shorts. His eyes sparkled behind big gold-rimmed specs, and his mustache stretched across his face as he smiled.
We didn’t introduce ourselves, but we exchanged our stories. He was a businessman working in the textiles industry in Southern India and was returning to Asia after some business meetings in Mexico and the States. I was a travel journalist on my way to Bangkok to cover the 50th anniversary of the Tourism Authority of Thailand and Thai Airways International.
Some of the most pleasant interactions I have with people are times when no introduction occurs. In our culture, there seems to be a sense of ease when you know someone else’s name, as if identity is somehow attached to a name. Unless there’s a good chance of seeing that person again, why do we really need that information? As conversations go on, the dis-ease I feel from not knowing the person’s name melts away and I can focus on who they are.
“You know, I’m a businessman, but I’m very creative. I write poetry,” he said to me. During the flight I would see him out of the corner of my eye scribbling in a notebook. We cut in and out of conversation, enjoying each other’s company as much as we enjoyed our own solitude. He was rude to the flight attendants, always making very particular requests (“No, I said no ice”). He burped often. Once, while I was waiting patiently for the bathroom, he came over and knocked on the door. When the lady came out and returned to her seat, I embarrassingly whispered to her, “just so you know, that wasn’t me who knocked.”
At some point — time means nothing when flying across 14 time zones — I made out what he’d written at the top of a page: For Honey Bee. While I distracted myself with an in-flight movie from dark thoughts of my fresh separation, he alternated looking out the window, writing in his book, and wiping tears from his eyes with a tissue.
Somewhere over an ocean, sometime between meals and restless napping, he put his pen down, picked up the paper, and turned to me. I paused my movie and removed my earbuds. “My sister-in-law, my wife’s elder sister…she died last week. While I was away on business.”
“I’m so sorry,” I replied, having no idea how to console him, if that’s what he was even seeking.
“It was a gas explosion. She must have forgotten to turn off the gas at night, and when she went to light the stove the next morning…”
Earlier he’d told me that his wife died three years prior. At the time I’d thought that even though I would no longer be with my wife, at least I could take comfort knowing she was still alive and would one day find happiness again.
“She was like my elder sister. She helped and supported me when my wife died. She was always there for me,” he continued. He pushed his notebook into my hands and asked me to read his poem. It started on the right side page, had some words crossed out, arrows to change the sequence of some lines, then continued on the left half of the book.
“Honey Bee. That’s what I called her.”
His vulnerability moved me; his sharing of real human emotion with a stranger. I was still in shutdown mode, perhaps trying to convince myself that my relationship would recover. If I didn’t talk about it, it wasn’t real. He had begun his process of healing, and he was teaching me a lesson right there in those less than comfortable seats.
“It’s beautiful,” I told him as I handed it back. He smiled that mustache-stretching smile and then turned to look out the window.
I put my earbuds back in and pressed play.