Moments before boarding began for Frontier flight # 836 from Seattle to Denver, my name was called through the airport loudspeakers: “Margaret Bernecker, please proceed to the podium, Margaret Bernecker …” Startled, I quickly gathered my things and nervously approached the gate counter. As I walked I made a quick mental checklist–although I’d only purchased my 89.00 plane ticket three days earlier, I had a confirmed window seat, and couldn’t imagine why I was being singled out by an airport page.
The gentleman greeting me smiled apologetically when I said, “I am Margaret …” He asked: “Would you be willing to change your seat to accommodate a family? We can still offer you a window seat…” I smiled, relieved. “Of course,” I replied, and returned to make a few more cellular calls before the next leg of my journey.
When I finally boarded the aircraft the rest of my section was already seated and settled. Arriving at my new row, a young man stood up and grinning at me said, “Hello! Would you mind trading your window seat for the opposite aisle seat?” He pointed to a young woman I would later learn was his future sister-in-law. “Actually,” I replied, somewhat sheepishly, feeling a bit selfish, “I really would prefer the window–I’m ready to nap and still have a long evening ahead of me after we land.” Quickly the young man said, “no worries” and helped me get settled.
After stowing my carry-on and getting my iPod and Bose headphones out–I don’t travel without them–and a water bottle in case I began another coughing spasm–I’d acquired a nasty chest cold–I settled in, closed my eyes, and made a quick review of the past weeks work and travel, and what I was embarking upon, next.
Next to me, the boy and his brother also settled in with their iPods and headphones. A few songs later my seatmate tapped my arm … “pretty cool headphones” he mouthed to me—”I’m not so lucky.” He tapped his brother, “Look, she has the same kind you do.” His brother nodded, and quickly closed his eyes.
I took a closer look at the boy next to me. I’d already guessed he was 18 or 19, maybe a senior in high school, and probably an athlete. He wore a ball cap, new white tennis shoes, had long fingers, sturdy hands, dark chocolate brown eyes, and a bright smile. We laughed a minute, then all leaned back and closed our eyes. A little later, tap, tap, tap on my forearm. “Hey, do you want a soda?” He pointed out the approaching beverage cart. “Thanks” I said. He was already drinking a can of Mountain Dew, and shared, “I can drink this and it doesn’t affect me at all!”
I smiled, remembering I’d never let my teenage son drink Mountain Dew—too much caffeine! “How old are you?” I asked. “18–going on 19 next month” was the reply. Over the next half hour I discovered he was a high school senior, had only two classes in his semester–auto shop and math, and he and his family were traveling to San Antonio, Texas for his older brother’s graduation from Air Force Basic Training.
He shared stories with me of his own fighting prowess, and how he’d broken his femur bone the year before when he’d “wrapped his quad around a tree.” The doctor had told him, “just a few more inches and you’d have been dead.” I asked if he did other sports and he replied “diving and track & field.” I’d guessed it–he was a lean 6’1″. He shared with me, “Before my accident I was the best high jumper in the whole school! And I was only 5’9″ tall at the time!” I smiled, inwardly remembering my own son at nearly 5’9″. I could watch him high jump all day … the few precise steps, then the arm thrown up just so, the long lean boy body gracefully arching up and over the bar, sometimes clearing it, sometimes not. Only four years ago, the memory returned with poignant freshness.
We continued talking, and Bryce (I’d learned his name by now) offered me a choice of crackers and cheese or a granola bar from his stash. Then he laughed and said, “or a piece of spicy beef jerky … it might help your cough.”
Time passed, and he told me all sorts of stories. As the plane began its descent to Denver, I debated telling him how much it had meant to me to be seated next to him and to talk to him. He didn’t know this, but I was going to Colorado to sign documents for the sale of our family cabin where ten years of my favorite family memories were made. I was also pondering driving the AlCan highway with a car I’d left behind two years prior when I’d moved to Alaska. And, I was going back to the town where my own son had died at age 16, a little more than three years earlier. Ironically, it was “Mother’s Day” weekend, and on Sunday I would go to the cemetery and hoped to finally plant a peony or rose on Justin’s gravesite, and smile at the Mountain Dew cans lined on the edge of his grave marker, filled with flowers from his friends.
No, I thought, I won’t say anything at all, just thank Bryce for talking to me, and marvel at the grace that I’d been paged, minutes before boarding, and been asked, “Margaret, would you be willing to change seats …?”
After exiting the plane, when I reached the terminal, I saw Bryce standing with his family. He called out in recognition to me, waving, and said, “Have a great trip!” As he turned back to his family I head him say, “She was really cool.”
As for me, with an inward smile of gratitude, I simply heard “Happy Mother’s Day…”
…So, where do strangers intersect with your life story in unexpected times?