King Mountain

I flew to Phoenix this week for work. It was a turn-around trip in one day – some 19 hours door-to-door.

This is the new bar for exhaustion. The standard used to be post-marathon. Or at least post-time zone/hemisphere/continent jump. Alas, with a plantar still fasciating and a passport gathering dust – the occasional back and forth commuting adventure drains me dry.

I plopped into my airplane seat home, already 15 hours after I’d left Nelson, ready to catch up with podcasts and review notes for the next day. Instead, I quickly found myself in a lengthy conversation with the man in the middle seat, who’d arrived in a cloud equal parts nicotine and sorrow. His eyes prematurely creased, teeth stained, hands and face spotted by his age-old habit.

And then, just as I was about to roll my tired eyes back in my head, turn up the iPod and try to ignore the smell of stale cigarettes permeating our area, I noticed he was crying. Gentle tears flowed down his cheeks as he studied the ticket in his lap.

“Where are you from, sir?” I said quietly, reaching out for the calloused hand of a laborer.


“Ay, si? Cuba? Cubano! Que parte?”

We continued for an hour while, coincidentally, stalled at the gate — the plane’s fuel cells were being repaired. He left Cuba 30 years ago after serving as a merchant marine. He’d sailed around the world. But today, his journey was from Tucson, via Phoenix, Denver, Charlotte and Miami to attend the funeral of his mother.

She’d lived a good life. A long life. She’d escaped Cuba too. He’d see his siblings and several of his adult children when he finally arrived. He was certain she would be proud of him for making the trip. But…

I waited. He reddened with embarrassment, coughing up so much of his life to a stranger. Yet, he rattled on like a boiling pot.

The trip was such a luxury. He felt guilty for the money he’d had to borrow to get the flights. And here he was without any money for food or any way to buy flowers for her service. But his heart truly ached because the one person he wanted sitting next to him was instead in Sonora, Mexico. Deported. His mujer had been swooped up in an immigration raid. She’d left behind her 16 year old American-born daughter, who he was now caring for.

“I drive her to school every day. She’s not mine, but she is mine.”

Now somewhere over northern Arizona at 30,000 feet, I simply nodded. I gave him what I could – my full attention.

And in a moment of grace, the woman sitting next to him on the aisle spoke up – hours after the confessional began.

“Señor,” she began with an accent I recognized as Mexican. “Señor.” I wondered if she was calling him, or God? She took his hand, looked him in the eye, and began to pray for his family and comfort him. A business owner in Denver, her grandparents were from Chihuahua. She knew the sorrow of having family spread across the world and not always being able to put the pieces of life together the way one wished.

The next hour involved the three of us discussing life, love, sorrow and faith. By the time the landing gear dropped, she’d opened her wallet and given him money for those meals and flowers. I passed off a bit of food I’d been given for the flight. His tears dried and slowly, a smile revealing missing teeth emerged.

Looking at a sea of amber lights shining from the city floor below, I found comfort. Refueled. Full of grace.