When I was a kid, I made a silent promise to myself – never get old and grumpy. It’s not that I thought I could ever hold off aging, but it was the combination – old AND grumpy that I had seen in others and was trying desperately to avoid.
I’d say I did a pretty good job of it, for a few decades anyway. But recently I’ve noticed that the frown lines are growing deeper in my cheeks and my forehead “thought lines” don’t just come and go, they’re pretty permanently stacked in an expression of consternation. I have less tolerance for parking my car at the grocery store, bad service at a restaurant or a wind that blows a little too cool for my preference.
Long story short, I’m kind of getting old – and grumpy. I guess that’s what happens when you are middle aged. (Even just typing that makes me cringe. By all accounts at 45 I might even be past middle age. But I’m shooting for a life that extends into the mid-90s so…
Back to my point: Last week I was on a plane traveling from Venice to Toronto, and from there I would fly, eventually, to Chicago where I’d hook up with my plane to Aspen. I was dreading the 25-hour-plus journey. On top of it, somehow United managed to book me on a discount airline overseas with no TVs, and therefore I would be forced to do the things I always say I will do on a plane – work and read – without the beautiful distraction of watching all the art house movies I had missed so far in 2019. I had stayed up almost the entire night before, trying to preemptively kick myself back onto American Mountain Time (this is my jetlag super trick), had left the hotel at 6 a.m., and this was multiplied by the anticipation of no TV. So, to be perfectly honest, I was already grumpy when I got on the plane.
I boarded the aircraft to find my window seat had already been taken. In my place was an older man, who was adjusting his things and placing a magazine in the back pocket. I didn’t ask him to move, but I also didn’t say hello or smile kindly at him either. Instead I dropped into the aisle seat, put away my things and took out my earplugs and sleeping mask. The man was moving and grunting slightly in his seat and talking loudly enough to himself that I peeked out of my mask. He was playing solitaire with a set of unusual and old looking cards. I pulled down my mask, the plane took off and I went to sleep.
I don’t know how long I was out before I felt a nudge. You know when you hear the drinks cart coming through but you are kind of sleeping and you try to ignore it because you think you can sleep through it? I was right there, on the edge of drowning it all out, when I felt another, heftier nudge. Outwardly annoyed, I pulled up my mask and the man next to me said: “Your food, you will eat, right?” This was the full realizing of my grumpiness. “Ugh, no!” I shook my head violently and crumpled back into my seat. Who eats the plane food anyway? I made a show of taking off my mask, removed the earplugs and gave up all hope of sleeping my way to Canada. I glanced at my neighboring passenger’s look of, was it disappointment or shock, at how rudely I reacted, and my heart contracted.
For some reason, in that moment I caught an outsider’s perspective of the person who I appeared to be – a middle-aged grump of a woman whose life must have been a struggle to be acting so distastefully. Was that me? God, no. Somehow, I had begun to believe that at my age, I didn’t always need to give strangers a chance, to try and be kind, or that my blatantly indifference to those around me would go unnoticed, or unchecked.
Later, the man next to me returned to his game of solitaire.
“I like your playing cards,” I said. And that’s all it took. For the next eight hours, give or take a snack and a walk up the aisle or two, I came to know Gilberto – a 79-year-old, native Venetian, who had transplanted to Canada more than 50 years ago. He was returning to Toronto from a two-week visit to the Veneto region to visit his living relatives. In his rich accent, and grand gesticulations, he told me of life in Post-war Italy, how much he missed his father who had died from a heart attack when he was young and what life was like as a man nearing his end of days – watching as the people he loved fell slowly away from his life.
He told me of his living family, the Italian wife he had met in Canada, the children they raised the grandchildren they loved too much today. “I had to go to Canada,” he told me. “As much as I love my people and my home, there was nothing for me there. In Canada, all my dreams came true.”
He used his facial expressions in the way only a movie might represent an Italian man, he spoke loudly with spirit and when the “ding” of the plane’s notification system rang multiple times an hour, he would sing loudly, “a-thank you!”
He taught me solitaire, a few words of Italian and reminisced about the days of his youth in the ’50s and ’60s in Venice, the floods, the old neighborhoods and how much he enjoyed the golden years of his life, even if he knew there would be only a few more to enjoy.
When the plane landed in Toronto, I almost asked for his email address. He seemed to be the grandfather I never had and always wanted, ready to impart his wisdom, joy and the life lessons of life he learned along the way. But I realized, I was old enough to be his daughter, not his granddaughter. I was a woman who should have been imparting wisdom of a life well lived to someone else. I had the chance to not be the old grump, but this charming Italian, savoring every moment of his life as it was his last.
Before we deplaned, Gilberto described what his afternoon in Toronto would look like: His children would be there to greet him at the terminal and whisk him off to a family barbecue. He smiled and kissed his fingers. He thanked god. It was simple, and it was perfect.
I’m not sure there is a great lesson to this story except to say, we all have choices — how we will treat people, how we see people and listen to people that we meet along the way. Some people come into your life for mere hours on a plane, some we have the chance to share decades if we are lucky, but we have the choice to close ourselves off behind cynicism, sleeping masks and earplugs, or we can take off the blinders and open ourselves to the world.
Grazie di tutto, Gilberto.