I will admit these things tend to happen to me more than others. It could be because I like to talk.
My conversation may seem to be “all over the place” at times filled with constant zigs and zags. I often find myself saying, “Wait, what was I trying to say when I started out?” I would argue there is an advantage to this sometimes frenetic, seemingly unfocused conversation. I find out things, connections that I would never have known. And in the end, I benefit from the experience because I am truly interested and fascinated by people.
I find it amazing that we often pass by people everyday without an awareness of the connections we share. Interestingly, we sometimes encounter people because circumstances have put us together at a particular moment in time. Little shifts in events could have actually prevented the interaction all together.
Recently, I experienced one of these types of events. I was traveling back home from London after a week long vacation. The journey to the airport was stressful with train diversions and delays and to add insult to injury, when I arrived at the airport and tried to check in, I was told the flight was oversold, I had been “bumped” and did not have a seat.
As you can imagine, I was less than pleased and after “freaking out” (just a little) and staring down the attendant, I was assigned the last available seat. I hurried through security to get to the gate in time to start boarding when an announcement came over the intercom that there would be a significant delay in boarding. The joys of traveling.
After an hour and half we finally boarded the plane and when I got to my seat, there was already someone sitting in it. The airline had put us both in the same seat.
I was imagining having to get off the plane at this point; nothing had gone right. Once everyone had boarded this very large plane, I had just about given up hope and the flight attendant came to me and gave me a new seat, and not just any seat but one in Business Class. This was better than I had ever expected. A nice roomy seat, with a pull up leg rest, premium earphones, an actual wine glass and a menu listing my choices for dinner. I had envisioned myself in a middle seat unable to sleep on this late night flight and now lucky me. I can actually try to fall asleep.
I shuffled along with my stuff in tow and arrived at the seat (it was in a row of 2 seats) and my seat companion looked at me struggling to lift my bag and began to help me. He saw I was clearly stressed and I began to tell him my travel saga. He was traveling from Germany and wasn’t even supposed to be on this flight as his earlier flight had been cancelled.
We engaged in pretty typical small talk you make with a stranger who you just met. Except it didn’t stop there. We surprisingly just kept talking and talking, despite the late hour.
The more we talked the more our conversation expanded. We began talking about the world today, millennials and social media and before we knew it had moved into more personal parts of our lives. We talked about marriage, children and our parents. Our philosophy about life began to sound similar as we talked about living our lives intentionally and in a way that stays true to who we are. As we shared our stories, we began to notice many “eerie” similarities. The more we talked, the more similarities we found, and what I thought were coincidences, surfaced. Every story we told seemed to have one.
We both had cancer. My second cancer was breast cancer and his wife had the same. He understood very well what I had been through as he had been through the ordeal as well. Our mothers both had trouble getting pregnant (both tried to get pregnant for exactly 4 years) and we both lost them to awful diseases. Our fathers are still alive. He has a large scar from kidney surgery and my dad has the same scar from similar kidney surgery. Coincidentally, we both talked with our hands and would occasionally tap each other on the arm, the same way.
It became almost comical to me each time we told a story because there was some type of similarity. He found it less comical and more intentional. He was clearly trying to understand why this had happened. How and why did we end up sitting together on this plane?
He shook his head “yes” each time we found something similar, as if to say “of course,” as if he had expected it.
“Have you heard of…how do I say this in English? It is like a family meeting.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. He tried to explain this therapy in Germany where strangers will come together and explore their family histories. For Germans today it is important to come to terms with their past and that helps them move forward. He explained some Germans make peace with their dead, and with past tragedies by learning more about their family histories. It helps them to understand themselves better by understanding their family’s information.
We were having a mini session of sorts, in his mind.
3 hours into our conversation we knew each other better than many of our personal acquaintances and he believed none of this was a coincidence. “What are your ties to Germany?” he asked.
I looked at him. It was in that moment that I realized that even though we were close to the same age and neither of us alive during the Holocaust that I was feeling a bit uncomfortable for some reason.
“Do you have family from Germany?”
I still didn’t answer.
“What is your connection to Germany? I feel there is a reason we met and you have to have some connection.”
“I have a good friend who is from Germany.” I answered.
“No, no that isn’t it,” he said.
“Where are your grandparents from? Is there anyone from Germany?”
I explained my grandparents were not from Germany but from various parts of Russia. He wouldn’t let up looking for some type of connection.
“I am Jewish.” I said.
“You are Jewish?” he said, in a state of disbelief.
“You are Jewish?
This time he said it differently, more accepting and understanding.
He shook his head like in some way it all made sense for him.
There was this unspoken something that made us both feel better. That maybe changed us in some way. I don’t know. It is hard to explain.
We were strangers 3 hours before. Neither of us should have been in those two Business Class seats on that same flight.
We laughed and had some wine and talked about some big stuff. You kind of had to be there to understand. But I can’t help thinking about it.
At the end of the flight we said our goodbyes and as I walked out of the airport I realized I didn’t even know his name. And he didn’t know mine. No addresses or emails exchanged or really any firm details to track each other down. It is highly unlikely our paths will ever cross again. But I can guarantee neither us will ever forgot the night I met this man on the plane.
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