Seven years ago Bruce sat next to me on a flight out of Nashville. We both changed planes in Detroit and there I frantically wrote down as much of our conversation as I could remember. His heavy southern drawl forced me to listen to him carefully so I could mentally translate what he was saying as he spoke.
I remembered him, but my notes from that day sat unread — until this week when I pulled that notebook off the shelf while shelving last year’s journals. I leafed through and stopped on the page where I had written the heading “Bruce – Flight from Nashville to Detroit”. His story, even his voice, flooded back.
We had done the perfunctory small talk while waiting for take off. He told me he worked in aircraft manufacturing. I told him that I was a mother eight. I stared out the window at the other airplanes on the runway.
“I got me a Cessna,” he said, nodding toward a small plane that was in view. “One time I flew it out of Atlanta. That thang was like a wasp among eagles.”
I liked the imagery and smiled at it. Our plane took off. It’s my favorite moment of every flight — wheels leaving pavement.
“Lemme show you somethin’,” he said, pulling his wallet out of his pocket. He flipped through the pictures and stopped at a well-worn picture of a smiling little boy. “That’s my boy,” he said proudly.
“Very nice,” I said.
He tapped on the photograph. “17 years ago someone ran a red light and hit our car. He was six years old. Died instantly.”
“I’m so sorry,” I murmured, but it felt inadequate.
He flipped to another picture, that of a pretty young woman. “That’s my daughter. She’s a bad ‘un.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said again. I didn’t ask for details and I couldn’t help thinking that 17 years before, she had been a little girl who lost her brother. Life is hard and sad — and we rarely know the other person’s story.
Bruce chatted with people across the aisle and in front of us. He was traveling with several people from his work.
He turned back to me. “You know, I just got done cancer treatments. Thyroid cancer. If I hadn’t taken this new job, probably wouldn’t have found it for a while. They found it on my pre-employment physical — and they still gave me the job.”
“That’s pretty amazing,” I said.
“My father died of lung cancer, you know. So the cancer — it’s kinda scary.”
Talking about his father led him to talking about him growing up. “We was dumb-ass poor growin’ up. Used to go haying with no driver in the pick-up.”
I used to help with haying here in New York, but it was purely for the fun of helping the neighboring dairy farmer. I loved riding in the hay wagon, but someone was always driving the tractor. I tried to picture haying with no driver.
“You know what the Mason-Dixon line is?” he asked. I was worried that he was testing my knowledge as a northerner.
“Didn’t it divide the slave states from the free states?” I asked.
“Nah,” he said. “It’s the line that separates y’all and you guys.”
He laughed like he had just told a good joke. I laughed because I hadn’t expected a linguistics lesson from this burly southerner.
“You like sweet tea?” he asked, but he said it “swait tay.”
“I’m not much of a tea drinker,” I confessed.
“Northerners don’t hardly know how to make sweet tea. I once had a waitress tell me that I could just add sugar to my tea, like she didn’t understand that the sugar gits cooked right in with the tea.”
Frankly, I didn’t know that either.
In Detroit, I wrote it all down — about his son and his daughter and his cancer and his poverty and sweet tea. I tried to write the phrases exactly as I had heard him say them. Our flight had been less than two hours but he had shared so much with me.
I once heard Christian singer Jason Gray tell a story about a mentor that he had. Jason respected his mentor and wanted to be like him. Jason asked him, “How did you become you?” His answer: pain.
The hardships in our life shape us but they don’t define us. Bruce had known deep sorrow and in our brief encounter had shared some of the difficult times he had known, but he also knew how to embrace life.
I’m thankful I got to sit next to him for that flight and listen to his story.