It wasn’t the first time I’ve been asked for help. It probably won’t be the last. This last trip, however, I seemed to be a magnet for travelers in need. My first encounter was at the gate in Seattle on my way to Washington DC. An older gentleman walked into the boarding area, moving slowly with his cane, and found a seat. I was standing near him, doing a little people watching, waiting for the process to begin. I hear him asking “Do you speak Russian?” in English. I look to see who he’s asking, and it turns out it’s me. I said that I didn’t but asked if he needed something. He needed help figuring out if he had all the right boarding passes for his trip or if he needed to see the gate agent. I looked at this boarding passes, and he had all 3 of them. He was traveling to Moldavia by way of DC and Munich. We got to talking about his trip and my upcoming travel to Russia. He was a kindly man and a little nervous about flying.
He was also concerned about how to board – when would he know it was OK to go on the plane? I told him to listen for his boarding group number, 4, and get in line then. He was quiet for a while and I could see it was still not clear. Then I suggested he board with me during Group 2 and I would say we were together. It would allow him the time he needed to get on board without feeling rushed. His face lit up and he gladly accepted. On our way to the plane, he said “I prayed to God last night that I would find help today on my journey. He sent me you.” Touched, I said I was happy to help. We went to our seats and off we flew.
On my return journey, I sat in the waiting area near an older man while I answered some email, ate a sandwich and waited to board. They reviewed the process, again boarding by group number, and said we’d begin shortly. I heard him grumble “I always seem to be in boarding group #5.” I commiserated with him, and together we wondered about the logic of boarding the rows in reverse – as part of group 5, he was in row 28. He was sure by the time he boarded, the overhead bins would be full and he couldn’t wait for his bag if it got checked – he was in a rush. I got up to get in line for my group, and it dawned on me – he could get on with me and be able to not worry about the bag. I assured him it would be OK – I’d done it before. We chatted in line and I learned that he was heading to Seattle for a final visit with his brother who was recently diagnosed with stomach cancer that was inoperable. His red rimmed eyes suddenly made sense. He’d started out in New York and was making the long trip west to see his brother one last time. I asked him what he did before he retired and he asked “What do you think I look like I did?” I gave him a more thorough appraisal and said I thought maybe a writer, or a professor – a teacher of something. He said “very good – I was a professor of medicine for 40 years at Stanford University Medical School.” Wow. I told him I was sure our times there overlapped, although I doubted our paths would have crossed. We boarded the plane then and he made his way to the back.
Settling in, I thought I’d done my good deed for the day and was ready to read and hopefully rest a little. It had been a long day of meetings and I would be getting home after midnight eastern time. A mother and daughter arrived and realized their seats were both middles on either side of the aisle in my row. They were very anxious to sit together. I knew the window seat was most likely going to be empty, as I’d checked right before we left. Her daughter moved over right after the doors closed. They were novice travelers, not having flown in a long time. I asked if they were heading to Seattle to see family and learned they were from Georgia and they were actually on their way to Alaska. It was a last minute trip, as she had just found out that her mother passed away. I gave her my condolences and asked if it had been expected or if it came as a surprise. It had been suicide. She broke down then and told me how hurt she was by it. I listened and knew that my time as a helper wasn’t quite done. She needed to talk; I knew how to listen. I told her that my mom had passed away 2 years ago on the 5th and I was on a plane to see her when I found out. I let her talk and in the 6 hours it took to fly west, I learned her heart. By the end, she was stronger, she felt better, and I knew it mattered. She told me that her mom would have been pleased that she sat next to a person like me. I asked her why and she said “She thought the world had become a cold place, full of people who only focused on their technology, who forgot how to be humane to one another. You proved her wrong – you went out of your way to help me when I needed it.” I felt good hearing that and told her that I could very easily have gone into my “airplane bubble” but that there was a reason we needed to connect – it was as much for me as for her. It gave me more time to honor my mom and the relationship we’d had.
I am convinced that when I help others, I am really practicing the ultimate selfishness. I feel good about myself and I enjoy the positive feedback. My altruism is rooted in my own ego, really. But as I look at some of these travelers and I think about my own parents, I always hoped someone would help them when they needed it – and I know that I think of my own aging and wonder if the world will treat me kindly or harshly. I hope that by practicing small acts of kindness today that I sow some good karma for my future. Again, a selfish motive, but an honest one.
In truth, when I give of myself – my time, my ear, my boarding group – it really helps me honor and acknowledge the way I was raised and I appreciate my parents all over again. They taught me well by being great role models and I intend to continue to follow their lead by helping where I can. It’s good for my soul.