He told me her name was Victoria and that he was trying to make it to California before they took out her brain tumor. He didn’t expect her to survive the surgery.
I don’t always talk to the people that sit next to me on planes, especially not men twice my age, but he had braces, which somehow made him look innocent and friendly. And he was dying for someone to talk to.
Before I got the chance to give off signals that I was feeling introverted, shuffle through my bag for a book, or put on headphones, he asked, “Where are you headed?”
“To Atlanta. I’m going home.”
“My mother’s sick.”
He just came out with it— cut straight to the point.
He told me all of his sisters were already with her. He had been waiting in the airport all day, his flight was changed, and he was scared that when he got to Atlanta he would have more waiting to do and he would miss the moment.
“She’s eighty six. She had a good run.”
I thought about how Grampy passed away at eighty eight, and I knew eighty eighty was a good number.
“I’ll pray for her.”
He was taken aback. “Oh, that’s,” he paused, “awesome.”
He told me about the house his grandfather built and how much his kids love going there.
He mentioned his kids a lot. They are 18 and 16. He told me he’s glad his son doesn’t know what to do with his life, but worried because his daughter says she’d like to be a doctor.
“If she becomes a doctor, like me, she’ll work her life away. She’s a great girl; she has a great personality. I don’t want to see it kill her. It’s killing me. Things used to be different, but sometimes I work from 6:30am to midnight, six days a week, just so we can pay the bills.”
My heart ached. He would probably spend another full day at Hartsfield Jackson. It was Tuesday night, and Victoria’s surgery was Thursday morning.
He showed me how to watch movies on my phone. “My kids love this.”
We sat staring at screens for a while, but as the plane landed I told him “I’m so sorry. I hope you get to see her. I know how important it is to be there. It’s a better way to say goodbye. I’m sorry Atlanta has given you so much trouble.”
He chuckled. “It’s not the first time.” He turned to look out the window, but kept talking to me. “I..I used to live here. I was dating this girl. She was incredible. She just...she was twenty-eight and wanted to get married. I was only twenty-two; I didn’t know what I wanted then.”
He smiled with one corner of his mouth.
I learned so much about this man’s life in only two short hours.
“What’s your name?”
“It was good talking to you, Laura.”
“Good luck, Greg.”
I still think about Victoria and the retro-style house in Northern California — about the oral surgeon with braces who sleeps on a cot in his office — about twenty-somethings who feel lost — about how we get stuck, either waiting on airport floors or deep in fear that we’ll make a mistake.
I don’t want to make it to eighty-eight still looking out windows over cities I abandoned telling ghost stories of the time I missed the moment.