The old man in seat 8A

I was on a flight heading to Florida to speak at a conference. The plane was full. As I approached my row, I noticed there was an old man already sitting in the seat next to mine. I noticed the newspaper in his hands was shaking slightly. I said hello.

When the stewardess told him she needed to store his cane for takeoff, I assured him I would get it if he needed it. When he dropped his newspaper, I picked it up. When he was struggling to open up his bag of pretzels, or figure out how the folding tray worked, I helped him. He seemed embarrassed, but I told him it was tricky and only looked easy when you knew how.

He was worried about forgetting his cane. He told me that his son had driven him to the airport, and it was only after they had traveled 20 miles that he remembered he left his cane back at the house. “Do you really need it, Dad?” his son asked. They drove back.

“I was just glad he wasn’t mad,” he said. “I felt bad but he didn’t get upset. That was really nice of him.”

I couldn’t help but think of my own parents. Of how I reacted to their infirmities with impatience, to their limited education with visible shame, even disgust. I had more empathy for a total stranger than for the people who made my life possible.

My father died in 1986. My mother in 2003. I wanted to reach back in time and tell them “I’m sorry!” I wanted my younger self to be the kind of son who says “It’s okay, Dad. I’ll help you.”

I sat quietly for a while, silently wishing I had done things differently. Silently committing to doing things differently in the future.