A Deep Dive: Carrying Grief With a Stranger On a Plane

On the way to #BlogHer15, I was irritable. Aidan and I were halfway through our journey to New York, and our second flight was delayed. We were stuck in an airport between a frenetic gaggle of 10-year-old girls and a woman with perfume thick enough to taste. I had taken to writing passive-aggressive Facebook updates about airport etiquette.

I was relieved when we finally boarded the plane, because I could get away from the migraine-inducing perfume lady, but a couple of minutes later a man with strong cologne sat down next to me. Fuck me, I thought as I tapped out another Facebook update on my phone.

He made a couple of chatty comments across me to Aidan, so I shoved my earbuds into my ears to signal disinterest. The cologne was bad enough. I didn't want to have to deal with the person who was wearing it.

A few minutes later, though, once the plane had ascended and levelled off, he touched my arm. I didn't want to be pulled out of my bubble, but he looked right at me. He looked at me in that way that collapses the divide that makes us strangers. I pulled my earbuds out.

Without waiting for any agreement from me, he started telling me stories about the last 34 years of his life. He told me that he was visiting his nephew in New York. He told me about how he and his wife had moved to Canada from Jamaica over 30 years ago. He told me that he didn't go back to work after 2013. It felt like he was tracing out the edges of a story, but I couldn't put all the pieces together. I think he was testing my commitment. I asked him why he hadn't gone back to work and leaned in.

He told me that his wife had had cancer, and by the time it was diagnosed, it was quite far along. They tried chemotherapy twice, but neither attempt worked, and then she was too weak for anything else. He quit work to be with her while she died. He felt guilty now, because he wondered if she had lied to him about how sick she was, about how long she had known. I told him that if she had lied it was probably only to protect him, and he figured I was right.

Then he told me that this was his first trip without her, and it was for his nephew's wife's funeral. She had died within minutes after fainting during an evening meal. Her heart was weak.

It all came together then. He was a widower on his way to grieve with another widower, and his wife's death was new again. It was palpable. His grief filled him. I could feel it inside him like a second body.

He told me about the cruise he always wanted to take her on. She hated the water, but he wanted her to see the ocean he loved. They put it off. Now he imagined the cruise they could have taken every day. He told me this story twice in a row with almost exactly the same words and cadence. I wondered if he recited this to himself when he was alone.

"We were together for 34 years," he said. "We weren't two people."

He asked me about myself, so I told him about my own experience with cancer, about Aidan and I and our love together, about how good it was to hear his story, even if it was a hard one. I thanked him for the telling.

"One day, one of you won't have the other person anymore," he said. "Take a cruise."

I've never wanted to take a cruise before, but now I do. I don't like the ocean much, either, but I think I could.

And then, just like that, our flight was over. The old man and I left the plane without ever asking for each other's names. Aidan and I found our luggage and plunged into the world of demented cab drivers, rush-hour traffic, and #BlogHer15. It was a pace and a sensation so different from that dim spot on a plane where I and a stranger pressed arms as we carried grief together, bound with each other under the veil of a reading light. I became keenly aware of the deep dives we do into our stories, both the ones we tell ourselves and the ones we tell others, each one a diving bell bearing within itself its own clear truth.