I walked up to my gate at the Atlanta airport and took out my Kindle. When I glanced up from my reading, I saw a little old lady sitting in her wheelchair. She was alone and looked a bit nervous. She was rubbing her hands together like both of my grandmothers use to do when something wasn’t quite right.
There weren’t many people at the gate yet so I decided to move closer to her. Maybe she had to use to the restroom? It was lunchtime, was she hungry? Thirsty?
“Hi, I’m Sarah,” I said, leaning over my chair to talk to her. “I saw you sitting here and thought I would seeif you needed anything.”
“Excuse me?” She pointed to her ears as if to say she had issues with her hearing.
I got up from my seat and kneeled down close to her face.
“My name is Sarah and I just wanted to make sure you’re ok. If you need anything, I can help you.”
“Thank you, my name is Mary. I’m fine for now," she said, looking down at her hands. She looked up at me slowly, "Can you make any sense of that sign up there? I don’t think I’m at the right gate. That man over there has me confused. I’m going to Panama City and I can’t miss my flight. My son will worry." Mary frantically started looking in her bag. "I can’t find my phone to call him.”
“Mary, I’m going to Panama City too," I said in a reassuring voice. "I will make sure you don’t miss your plane. We still have an hour and a half before we start loading. That sign says we are on time and this is our gate." I looked down at her bag. "We need to find your phone. Have you used it in this airport?” I asked.
“I don’t really remember. Everyone was rushing me,” Mary said, as she wiped a tear from her eye.
I wanted to bend down, give her a hug, and tell her it would be okay. I opted to grab her hand instead.
“You’re okay now. I’m going to stay with you and make sure you’re on the plane. Now, let’s find your phone.”
I moved her towards me so we were face-to-face. I slowly pulled her belongings out of her bag and put them on her lap. A jacket, a notebook with a pen, a written note from her son about her itinerary, her wallet, a small photo album, a letter that looked very old.
“This here is a love letter from my husband. I treasure it. I’m so very broken hearted.” Mary starred at the letter and then brought it up to her chest. “He died three years ago. He was my very best friend until the very end. We were married 75 years.”
What do you say to those words? I just paused a minute and looked at Mary. Her facial expression was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Something between devastation, feeling lost, but grateful for all of the years.
“I can’t imagine what you’re going through. Wow, 75 years?" I asked. Had I ever known anyone who had been married that long? "I had an old family friend that I wrote to that was married in the upper 60’s. That’s the longest I’ve ever heard of. Wait, how old were you when you married?” I asked, perplexed.
“I was just 16. We were so in love,” Mary said, with a smile.
I got down to the bottom of the bag and found her phone.
“Are you sure you don’t want anything? I need to go to the restroom real quick. Do you need to go?” I asked.
“I’m fine, honey,” Mary replied.
When I came back, Mary was sitting there all alone and nervously rubbing her hands together again.
“Oh there you are. Can you make sense of what is happening?” Mary asked, anxiously. “That gentleman said something and everyone left, so did he.”
“They moved our gate. Lets get going now. We still have a half hour before we board.”
We got to the gate with time to spare. I checked Mary in and we had plenty of time to talk.
“My husband was in the military and all three of my sons followed after their daddy. They are all retired now,” Mary said, with pride. “My husband stood right up next to Eisenhower every time he went out in public. Eisenhower trusted my husband with his life. We lived in Paris and parts of Germany. I was always so proud of him, and I am to this day.”
“So it looks like you’re married,” Mary said, while grabbing my left hand. “How long has it been?”
“Brent and I have been married for 7 years but together for 13. I can't speak for him, but he's my best friend." I thought a minute about our relationship. "I thank my lucky stars that we found each other. I would be broken and broken hearted without him."
Mary looked at me with a straight face. "There is a difference between broken and broken hearted. My heart is broken because I lost my husband, the love of my life. A broken heart will mend." Mary was still looking straight at me. She grabbed my hand. "When you are broken, your life stops. You can't go on living. My husband wouldn't want that for me, and neither would yours."
"Is that why you travel?" I asked.
"There were a few reasons I wanted to travel. Initially, it was to get my mind off my husband." Mary paused to think for a moment. "I would sit in my condo day after day and do nothing but cry. I didn't want to live the rest of my years like that."
"I suppose not," I said.
"I wanted to prove to myself I could travel on my own, alone, without my husband. I did it, I visited my sister for two weeks," Mary said, sounding proud of herself. "Then I decided to take some trips to places I've always wanted to go. Last year I went to Alaska."
"By yourself?" I asked, in amazement.
"Why yes, by myself." Mary looked at me like she thought I was crazy for asking. "My boys weren't too happy, but I told them that's what I was doing and that was that."
"Wow. How wonderful. I'm so glad we met, you've made my day." My eyes teared up a bit.
"Thank you for your kindness. Can I pay you? Or buy you a Coke?" Mary asked.
"Oh no, but I do need a new pen pal," I said.
"Let me give you my address. And I'll give you my phone number too. When you're in town next, you can stop by." Mary reached in her bag to find a pen.
"Ok, expect to hear from me very soon," I said, as she was wheeled down the terminal to get ready to get on the plane.
On the plane I thought about how Mary must feel about losing the love of her life after 75 years. Then I started doing the math. She was 16 years old when she married, married for 75 years, and that was 3 years ago.
Mary is 94 years old.
I thought, what an amazing life she has led. To be married to her best friend for 75 years. To have traveled the world and seen so many places. To watch her sons grow up just like their father did, with the same accomplishments. To be brave enough to travel at the age of 94. To have her loving son waiting at the airport to take her home, and to check on her daily.
I never miss a chance to talk with the older generation. The amount of knowledge they have is unbelievable. The lessons they teach, the stories they have, the wisdom they possess—I never miss one word. It's all so intriguing to me.
The lesson on this day was: Don't stop living. There may be hurdles in the road, a broken heart, a stumble, a crossroad, but you can't let yourself break. We decide how our future ends. We must make the most out of every second of everyday.
Thank you, Mary, for teaching me that above anything else, life must go on.