I was on a five-hour flight from Ottawa but like any seasoned traveller, I was well prepared. I had three episodes from the fifth season of the Sopranos on DVD and my laptop in my carry-on luggage.
That’s why I didn’t exchange even a word with the elderly woman seated next to me until the wheat fields of Saskatchewan were rolling under our wings.
My laptop battery died halfway through episode three, so I took off my headphones. She was well into her 70s, I reckoned, and in the last two hours since we took off, she had read the June issue of Reader’s Digest from cover to cover, eaten her omelette and fruit cup but not the bun or the brownie, tucked the foil pack of sesame snacks into her purse for later, and bravely held the hand of the old lady in the aisle seat next to her whenever there was turbulence.
I smiled a hello, and then the two of us stared out into the Plexiglassed view of all that blue sky for a long minute.
It was dead easy to get her talking. All I did was ask her if she lived in Ottawa or Vancouver and was she going to visit the grandkids then, and her story fell out of her.
Eighty-nine years of life came tumbling out of her mouth like laundry bags out of a hatchback parked on a hill.
It was like she had been waiting for years to meet the right stranger on the perfect plane ride, just so she could describe to someone half a century younger than her what it all felt like, to lead a long and quiet life and to suddenly find oneself somehow very old, to wake up knowing that you are right now living out what would soon become the last days of your life.
Her name was Eleanor, and today was the third anniversary of the death of her husband.
He had passed in his sleep after a painful descent into Alzheimer’s disease, she told me, and her two daughters were forcing her to take a senior’s cruise to Alaska.
They had insisted, wouldn’t take no for an answer, and had paid for the whole trip. Eleanor had never flown alone before, and was glad the tour guide was on the plane, to help her navigate.
She was meeting her sister in Vancouver, who was two years younger than her but needed a walker to get around, which she didn’t need as of yet. Eleanor turned 89 last March and her knees trouble her quite a bit, especially in the cold, but as long as the neighbours didn’t let the ice build up on their stretch of sidewalk too much, then she did fine enough with just the one cane.
“You just grin and bear it,” she explained. “What else is there to do?”
She was born in 1917, and married her childhood sweetheart. He wore his Air Force uniform, and she wore the same dress her mother had been married in.
Bert had worked in communications after the war, and went on to do quite well for himself. They were comfortable, she told me, and she had never worked outside of the home. She confessed she had never learned to drive a car, and hadn’t even taken a city bus by herself until things got really bad and Bert had to be placed into the home.
“I had to figure out the buses so I could visit him in the senior’s home. It was a nice place, with good staff, not like some you hear about. I went every morning, and after mass on Sundays. Even though he didn’t know who I was anymore, those last few years, to me he was still my husband.
“Bert had always driven me everywhere in his car, so I just never learned to get around on my own. It’s amazing how we lean on each other for things without even realizing, then one day there you are, and he is not.
“You begin to see all the things you never knew you weren’t doing for yourself, how dependent you were all along. Like a child. An old, grey child with bad knees, learning how to read a map and pay the phone bill.”
She clucked her tongue, as if she were describing someone else’s life to me, someone she didn’t quite approve of.
We got to talking about young girls nowadays, of course, and how different they seem to her-looking older even younger than they did when I was growing up; louder, bolder, bigger, braver.
“I watch them on the bus, you know, and the girls, they’re more aggressive than the boys. So much bare skin and all made up, pressing their bodies up against their boyfriends, broad daylight on a city bus, no less. And the language. No shame at all. Makes you wonder if the pendulum hasn’t swung too far the other way. The things that come out of my granddaughter’s mouth sometimes, it’s enough to curl your toes.”
We talked about what kind of women this new breed of girls would become, and what Bert would have thought about it all.
The Pacific Ocean appeared, the trees turned into city, and we returned our trays and seatbacks to the upright position.
Eleanor held my hand with her left one, and gripped the old woman’s shaking fist with her right as the plane touched down.
“My friends all warned me not to come home from this cruise with some dirty old man in tow. I’ll tell them that I met a handsome young fellow on the airplane, a real gentleman, but I left him behind in Vancouver. It was really a pleasure to meet you.”
She left her hand on my arm until the plane stopped moving.
Eleanor’s friend raised her eyebrow and studied me out of the corner of her eye. I could tell that as soon as I was out of earshot she was going to gleefully inform Eleanor that the nice young man she met on the plane was not as young as he looked, or as nice. In fact, he wasn’t a man at all.
I had not lied to Eleanor, or misled her in any way, but all the way home from the airport I felt lead-hearted and strangely guilty.
Would she have knowingly spilled stories for three hours to a homosexual? Probably not.
Should I have told her I wasn’t what she thought I was? Had I deceived a kind and sheltered woman, using her company and confidence merely to pass the time? What exactly was the truth, and would the truth have made her feel any better?
I knew that Eleanor’s friend would never get it, but the truth is part of me really is a nice young gentleman who loves little old ladies. That was whom Eleanor had met, and that was who had listened to the story of her life. The same young man who will keep her story breathing long after she has stopped.