‘Can I sit next to you?’

I love random meetings when I travel. Most of the time these moments prove far more memorable and meaningful than the trip one sets out upon, even when one is traveling for a purpose.

In my case, my trip to St. Louis, Missouri, from Sept. 28-30, 2022, involved seeing a very sick family member. It was a heavy trip, and I had a lot to do. At that moment, thoughts of life and death weighed on my mind, so I was in a reflective mood. Perhaps I was willing to share stories with a stranger.

This short cross-country jaunt was also my first out-of-state trip from Portland, Oregon, in more than 15 months. I had booked a cheap flight, which meant I would leave at an early hour.

Because I always prefer to arrive early, I parked my car at the airport extended car park parking lot around 1:30 a.m. and quickly got the shuttle bus without much waiting time. That meant I walked into the nearly empty Portland International Airport for my 5 a.m. flight far before I expected.

It was still the dead of night, when nearly no one was in the facility. Because of that hour, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) staff had not opened the check-through area for the gate I would use. That meant I had an hour to wait and perhaps read my books I had brought for the flights.

I sat in the nearly empty front lobby by the empty check-in area, until the full staff would arrive. Few other travelers were around, and a handful of security personnel walked the quiet space. A few weary travelers had crashed in the lobby area, sleeping on the floor, perhaps waiting for another early morning flight too.

An older woman, who I learned was 81, approached my seating area with four seats. We both were wearing masks. She asked, “Can I sit next to you.”

“Of course,” I replied.

That was the beginning of a conversation that meandered for an hour. I never got her name. I should have asked.

The retired nurse told me she was a widow. Her husband died more than a decade earlier, she said. She now lived alone in an apartment in downtown Portland, which she liked. She told me about her life, like her recent trip to the Alps this past summer to hike with a group. She told me she needed to go on that trip, before she could do trips like this in the future. She loved it, she said.

She then talked about her coming travels. She was estranged from her family, back in Kansas. But now she was traveling to Topeka, Kansas, for an indefinite time. She was going to care for a slightly younger sister dying of cancer. She did not know how long she would be there.

I learned that her oldest daughter, who lived in Portland, was also dying of stage four breast cancer. I did not probe with questions. I could sense it was not going well and would end badly. The pending deaths in her family made her increasingly aware that her days also were numbered, she mused.

Though she said she had left her family decades earlier, it was now time to connect with kin who would be passing. I concurred. I told her it was very caring for her to be so generous to her sister. She nodded, in agreement.

I told her I was seeing my ailing family member, who was not well and living in a nursing home. I told her briefly about my mom, who had died in early 2020 from Alzheimer’s after a seven-year battle. Mostly, though, I was the listener.

Near 3 a.m., we noticed the TSA team had arrived and the security checkpoint was open. We both walked over. That was the last time we spoke. I saw her get a seat ahead of me on the plane. She got off the connecting flight in Denver before me, and I never saw her again.

The encounter, with a stranger I will likely never see again, reminded me why it is good to listen to people and let them share their burdens. We all need to listen when we can and just be kind.