I finished teaching a four day class in Portland and headed to the airport on the light rail.
The woman who checked me in at the United counter was chatty. She glanced down at my tickets one last time before handing them back to me.
“Hang on,” she said.
That’s not good.
“Uh oh,” she said.
That’s not good either.
She told me my first flight was going to be delayed. That’s ok, she explained, the flight that was supposed to go out an hour ago is going to be three hours late so it will leave when your original plane was going to leave.
She put me on that flight.
An hour later that flight was cancelled.
Fortunately, I’d used miles to join the United Club and the woman there came over to tell me the bad news and to hand me a ticket on my original flight. It was now a middle seat but it was still a seat.
I was trying to get home in time to leave for my next trip – nuts, I know. But both flights were on United so I figured we could work things out if need be. I’d brought my passport with me just in case.
I called United. Fortunately, when I would call back later I would get a kind, empathetic person. This one was neither. She tried to explain to me that weather and runway construction isn’t United’s fault. If my plane didn’t make it out tonight and I missed my next trip from Cleveland that wasn’t really United’s responsibility.
But, I said, instead of flying me back to Cleveland and then from Cleveland to Washington DC, why don’t you fly me from Portland to Washington DC. It’s fewer legs, there’s plenty of room on the flight.
I’ll spare you the next ten minutes but the upshot was that this woman was where she needed to be and didn’t really care about getting me to where I needed to be.
Fortunately, this was unusual. Most of the United people I talked to were nice and tried to be helpful.
I check with Maggie. She says when I call back I should get angry.
I’m not going to get angry.
She says I could cry. Sometimes that works.
For the moment there was nothing to do but wait and see if I got on the flight to San Francisco in time to catch the flight to Chicago.
I look down and there’s a text from Maggie. It says “Cry.”
I nod at the guy opposite me. He smiles and nods back. It turned out he was a tall Chemistry professor originally from Zimbabwe. He asks me where I was from.
“Cleveland,” I said.
“Cleveland,” he smiles, “the mistake by the lake.”
Sigh. Is that really all he knows about Cleveland.
Nope. It turns out he wants to talk about the Indians. He doesn’t want to talk about them starting the new season with three wins. He wants to talk about game seven of the World Series.
I mention the Cavs.
He nods but wants to talk about the Browns. He remembers red right 88, the drive, and the fumble.
He went to school in Boston but was a Browns fan.
I tell him I went to school in Boston too. I tell him I went to Brandeis.
“Me too,” he says.
“I graduated in ’81.”
“Me too,” he says.
He was a chemistry graduate student while I was an undergrad. He has been on the board of trustees and is active in the local chapter.
The woman behind the counter waves me over so I excuse myself.
The plane has left San Francisco for Portland but our flight back to Portland won’t get in until after the flight for Chicago has left and there’s no room on later flights.
I call the mileage plus number again.
This time I get a woman who wants to help me but it’s a challenge because I have two different bookings. She works really hard to get me two options. I ask her if she would mind hanging on a minute while I text my daughter to ask her what she thinks.
Kim used to do that for me. It was probably unfair to put Maggie in that position – she hates being responsible for decisions like that – but it was helpful to run it by her. I decided to fly home, spend the night, and then fly on to Dublin through DC.
The woman puts me on hold and works to book the flights. I get a confirmation number while I’m on hold. The United themed version of Rhapsody in Blue repeats and repeats. I think it’s so that you’re so grateful that the agent has returned to the call.
We check the itinerary together and chat a bit. She says something about knowing how stressful travel is and she just wants to help if she can.
I thank her.
And then I tell her about Kim.
I don’t know why. It’s just that if Kim were with me all this would somehow be less stressful. We’d go through it together. We’d have each other.
The woman tells me that her husband died suddenly a few years ago.
We trade stories about our marriage. Like me and Kim, she and her husband had had a great marriage that was only getting better. The years before he died had been particularly good.
We trade stories about life since our spouses died. She has four kids in the same age range as Maggie.
I know she’s got to go back to work and I’ve got to retrieve my bag and find a hotel but I just feel so much better after talking to her.
She’s used the phrase “meant to be” several times and I don’t tend to believe in that but somehow this conversation feels like it was meant to be.
This person I don’t know and will never talk to again has unlocked something in me that helps me see that so much that I’ve experienced in the past seven months is normal in the face of Kim’s death.
I hang up and take my bag tag over to the woman behind the counter to see if she can have them pull my bag so that it doesn’t go on the flight. During my phone conversation she has brought me over the newly booked tickets.
I ask her for suggestions for hotels and I start calling. There’s nothing.
Some sort of convention in town and after a half hour I still haven’t found a hotel.
The plane to San Francisco is boarding. The man from Zimbabwe comes over.
“Excuse me,” he says not smiling, “did I overhear you to say that you lost your wife?”
“Me too,” he says.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“She died of AIDS in 1998.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. It’s not much but it’s all I have. “Is that why you studied AIDS?” I ask.
He had told me he studied AIDS before switching to his current line of study.
The woman behind the counter is nodding too. “I understand,” she says, “my boyfriend died as well. He drowned.”
“i’m sorry,” I say.
It feels inadequate every time I say it but I do feel it and it’s all I have.
I guess it’s our club’s secret handshake when we greet each other.
I’ve met three other members tonight. Perhaps I was meant to be here tonight. I don’t feel better but I don’t feel as alone as I did when I walked in the door tonight.