To Hold A Hand

“See you later,” I waved, “Hope it all goes well.”

My brother waved back and made his way to where the eye technician was waiting. His look belied his true feelings. I knew how nervous he was. His eyes were pretty bad, scarred years ago from a rare form of glaucoma. There’d be a lot of tests over the next two hours and the end result was be this: Would he be able to continue to drive or not?

A moment later he was taken into the inner catacombs of the eye care clinic. Now it was just Beth and I.

“Where’s Tim?” she asked, less than a minute after he’d left us, “Where’d Tim go?”

I tried to reassure her, “It’s all right, Beth. He just went for his eye exam. Remember, we talked about this. He’ll be in there for an hour or so.”

“Oh. Okay.”

Shit. I shouldn’t have said, “Remember.” I felt like an idiot. Beth is in her seventh year of dealing with Alzheimer’s. She’s still able to live at home, and Tim does an admirable job of caring for her, but still…you’ve got to stay on your toes.

I’d brought the two of them here last year for the same tests and the entire time Tim was away from us Beth asked every five minutes, “Where’s Tim? Where’s Tim? Where’s Tim?” She had been pretty agitated. I’d reassured her each and every time by saying, “He’s just getting some tests done. He’ll be back soon.” But, that’s how it is with memory loss; you forget.

I was ready for the same scenario this year. After Tim left us, I made sure Beth was settled and at ease. “Do you want something to drink? Some water? Tea?” A blank look and then a shake of the head. No. “Are you comfortable? Not too warm or too cold?” A blank look, then a nod of the head. Yes. “You’re okay then? A another nod. Yes.

Okay, good.

Beth was wearing all black today: black slacks and a black turtle neck. Our Minnesota winter was winding down, but it was still cold out, so she had on her black winter coat and black boots. Black is, was, and probably always will be, her favorite color. Today it set off her short cropped, white hair which framed her angular face. Around her neck she wore a heart shaped, polished piece of obsidian on a black cord; a gift years ago to her from my brother, worn today to, as Tim told me earlier, “To make her look pretty.”

I opened my magazine, a publication put out by the Minnesota Department of Natural Recourses. The lead article was about an artist who did plein air painting of northern Minnesota scenes, specifically of the land around the boundary waters and lake superior. They were well done, in my estimation, and I had brought the magazine along to show Beth. At one time she was well-known regionally for her elegantly exact paintings of flowers: peonies, lilies, hepatica and many other types of native plants. She called her work “photorealism” and it was not only beautiful but highly sought after. Over the course of her life she’d won many awards, and her work is still featured in galleries in the upper Midwest. She hadn’t painted in over ten years, though, not since the onset of her disease.

“Beth,” I said to get her attention. She turned a sleepy eye to me and I pointed to a scene of waves crashing against a rocky shoreline near the Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior, “What do you think about this painting? Do you like it?”

She looked at the colorful watercolor: the myriad shades of blue, azure, cyan and teal for sky and water, the tones of brown,russet, amber and chestnut for the trees, the feldspar and olivine minerals of the igneous rocks, and the soft vanilla white of a nearby birch clump dotted with shades of summer green for its leaves. I gave her time, wondering what her reaction would be. In years past, she would have had an opinion, lots of them. In fact, she used to write art reviews and commentary for a local newspaper. But that was a long time ago. Today, she pondered the painting for maybe a minute before looking at me, shrugging her shoulders and silently shaking head to the negative, indicating, I guess, she had no thoughts on the subject.

“Do you remember that you used to paint? I asked, not wanting to let go of the moment, “Both you and Tim did.”

She gave me a long look. Would she remember? She had produced nearly seven-hundred and fifty paintings over her lifetime. More than enough, to my way of thinking, to remember some of them, or least one or two, possibly her particular favorites. But, no, another shake of her head to the negative.

“I don’t remember,” she said, and sat back. Then she closed her eyes as if exhausted by the effort.

“That’s too bad,” I said sympathetically. I thought for a moment, not wanting to give up on helping her to retrieve a portion of her memory, tiny and fleeting though it may have been. I leaned over and said, “They were really good.” I’m not sure if she heard me. Probably not. I watched her eyes darting under her eyelids, moving rapidly, engaged in a world all of her own design, her own creation. Entranced, I watched and wondered, “What could she be seeing? What was she envisioning?” After a minute, though, her eye movement slowed, and her eyelids went still. Soon her breathed deepened as she dozed off.

I spent the first hour reading, checking my phone and making sure Beth was doing all right. She was. She dozed a bit and was awake a lot. I was happy that she was comfortable and not agitated like last year. Once when I asked how she was doing she said, “I’m fine. I like watching the people.”

I didn’t blame her. This was a big outing for her. Usually she and my brother stayed home and spent the day together, their only break being an occasional walk in their quiet, tree lined neighborhood. Outings like the one we were on were becoming fewer and farther between, what with his failing eyesight and her increasing memory loss. It occurred to me that getting out like this was good for her. She hadn’t asked where Tim was except for that one time when he’d first left.

Into the second hour, I was reading and, to be honest, kind of dozing off a little myself, when I felt a stir to my right. It was Beth. She was awake. I glanced at her and smiled and she smiled back. I went back to reading. Suddenly, softly, I felt her move again and in a moment her hand slipped over the arms of each of our chairs and into mine. Her left hand into my right hand. It was cool to the touch. She gently interwove her fingers into mine and with her right hand, leaned over and covered them both. Then she patted them. She and my brother had been together for over forty-one years and in all that time, I doubt she and I had ever even touched, and certainly never held hands. Even to shake, “Hello,” in a way of a greeting. We were not what you’d call a physically demonstrative family.

I was shocked, yet, at the same time, curiously touched by her action. What would cause her to do something like that? I turned to her and smiled, “Are you doing okay?”

She smiled back. “Yes. Yes, I am.” She was silent for a moment and then added, “Thank you for being here with me.”

Well, I never…What do you say to something like that? Well, obviously, “You’re welcome,” which is what I said. I paused a beat and then added, “I’m glad to be with you.” She didn’t say anything in return, she simply smiled back at me. We were both quiet. Then I had a thought. I went ahead and seized the moment and asked her something I’d been wondering about for the last few years, “Beth, I have a question for you. Do you know who I am?”

She gave me a long look, still holding my hand and said, “Nooo. No, I don’t. I’m sorry, but I don’t remember.”

“Do you know who Tim is?”

“Oh, yes,” she smiled happily and perked right up, “I know Tim.”

“Well, I’m Tim’s brother,” I told her, “I’m Jeremy.” She stared at me. Another blank look. I added, “Like Dennis. You know. You’re bother.”

“Dennis?”

“Never mind,” I decided not to push it and make her uncomfortable about not being able to remember who her brother was. I shifted gears and asked, “So you’re doing okay, Beth? Should we just sit here?”

“Yes.”

So we sat together. I went back to my magazine and read. I held it in my left hand. Beth continued to hold my right hand while she watched people come and go from the waiting room. We were quiet with each other, but comfortable being together. It was a good feeling.

Fifteen minutes later when Tim came back and saw us he smiled, “I guess you guys are doing pretty good. He pointed to our hands, still interlocked, “Beth likes to do that sometimes. It gives her a sense of security. I’m glad you were there for her.”

He sat down on the other side of Beth and she immediately released my hand and took a hold of his. By then both her hands were nice and warm. Tim and I talked for a while about how his appointment went before we all got our coats on and left. We went out to lunch, and then I dropped them off at their home. “See you next week,” I waved good-bye. I liked to visit with Tim and Beth on a weekly basis. It was good to stay in touch. Then I drove the half hour drive west to my home in Long Lake.

I don’t know if I’ll ever forget that morning with Beth and being with her in the waiting room; being there when she needed someone to give her comfort and a sense of security; being there to help fill in for my brother; being there as a friend. I’ll tell you one thing, though: I was glad to do it, glad I was there.

Oh, Tim passed all of his tests. He can still drive, but with restrictions, and has to go back  next year to be tested again. I guess, now, it’s a yearly thing for him. He wants to know if I can drive him and Beth. I told him I’d be happy to.

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Crazy Old Wilbur

The two old friends, Becky Johnson and Maggie Jones, were among last ones to stop by Wilbur Smith’s estate sale. Dead now for two weeks everyone in the small town of Long Lake had wondered what was to become of the house, or Crazy Old Wilbur’s place, as the small stucco home on Lakeview Avenue was referred to.

Wilbur’s wife had died twenty years earlier and she’d been sixty-five. Wilbur, everyone guessed, had been around the same age as she was back then, putting him at eighty-five or so now, this year of his own demise. Anyway, he’d been retired when Edith Smith had passed, that was for certain. What he’d been doing in all those years as a widower was anybody’s guess. Becky and Maggie had their opinions, reinforced by what they’d seen wandering through Crazy Old Wilbur’s place that bright spring afternoon. The day of the estate sale. The day when everything the old man owned was on display for all to see.

“No children, I guess,” Becky said to Maggie, pawing through a table full of old men’s and women’s clothes.

“I heard that they had kids, but they were all dead,” Maggie said, picking up and quickly discarding an old bra of Edith’s. “Jesus, this thing has to be fifty years old. Didn’t that crazy old coot ever get rid of anything?” She took out a handkerchief and diligently wiped off her hands.

Becky looked around, hands on hips, surveying the tiny living room jammed with boxes of old clothes and tables full of every kind of piece of junk one could imagine being accumulated over one’s lifetime: kitchen ware, old lamps, furniture, magazines, newspapers, etcetera, etcetera. And then there were the tools; boxes and boxes of tools, mostly gardening related. Wilbur had been a gardener, that was for sure, and he had the tools to prove it: trowels, hoes, hand held claw shaped things that looked dangerous to the uninformed; all kinds of gardening paraphernalia, hoses, shovels, pitch forks, wheel barrels. Tons of stuff, really.

The two friends picked through the boxes, more curious than anything, before finally deciding that no, not today, thank you very much. They didn’t need any of Crazy Old Wilbur’s junk. Not one little bit. In fact, what they really wanted to do was to spend a solid five minutes with some soap and warm water getting cleaned up.

“Let’s get out of here,” Maggie said.

“Lets,” Becky responded, “Why don’t you come over to my place. After we wash up we can have some tea. Maybe a nice cup of Chamomile?”

“Sounds wonderful,” Maggie said and checked her watch, “It’s nearly five. They’ll be closing soon, anyway.”

The two old friends made their way through Wilbur’s lifetime of debris and went out the front door. It was early May and the sun was low behind the back of the house, bathing the front yard in golden late afternoon light. It was a yard planted from boarder to boarder and meticulously cared for. Right up until his passing, Wilbur had continued to maintain and improve upon the gardens he and Edith had begun planting when they had first moved into the little cottage style home on Lakeview Avenue over fifty years earlier, back in the mid sixties. Even though Wilbur and Edith were reticent by nature, gardening was their passion. Throughout the years they had dug up the lawn and planted flower and vegetable gardens in both the front and back yards. They were gardens that neighbors had not only enjoyed the sights of, but even begun to depend upon, looking forward every year to new displays of gladiolas and hollyhocks and whatever else the quiet couple decided to plant; the same gardens that Wilbur continued to nurture and maintain even after Edith’s passing, the old man carrying on their floral tradition in spite of the death of his wife.

On this day, bright tulips of yellow and orange and mauve and red were blooming in profusion. Mixed in were white narcissus, yellow daffodils and even some tiny blue cilia. Maggie and Becky paused on the front steps to take in the colorful scene.

“What’s going to happen with the gardens?” Becky asked.

“I heard someone bought the house and they’re going to tear it down. Bulldozer it to the ground and build one of those big new ones. I’m assuming the gardens with go, too. I guess it’s supposed make everything easier.”

“A brand new house?” Becky looked up and down the street; a quiet, tree lined block of predominately one story bungalows built a hundred years earlier. “It’ll look stupid here, won’t it? A big, huge house. It’ll look out of place.”

“The price of progress, I guess,” Maggie said, “Time marches on.”

“Phooey,” Becky spit out derisively, “Maybe it marches on, but that doesn’t mean that it has to go in the wrong direction.”

Just then Jacob Fry, the man in charge of the sale, stepped outside for a cigarette. He lit up, blew a stream of smoke away from Maggie and Becky and said, “Say ladies, I couldn’t help but over hear you talking about Crazy Old Wilbur’s house and garden.”

The two friends both made it a point of waving Jacobs cigarette smoke away. Becky said, “Yes, it’ll be sad to lose these lovely gardens. They’re so pretty.”

Jacob looked at her with interest, “Who said anything about losing the gardens?”

“Well, that’s the rumor, isn’t it?” Maggie said.

Jacob laughed, “It might be the rumor, but it’s a rumor that’s wrong. Wilbur Smith loved these gardens. He’d never let anything happen to them. In fact,” he leaned close, an air of the conspirator about him, “I guess I can tell you,” he winked, “You can keep secret, right?” The two old friends nodded and Jacob continued, knowing full well that what he was about to say would be all around town by the next day, if not sooner. He didn’t care, in fact, he was counting on it. “Wilbur left his land to the city for green space.”

“What?” Maggie and Becky managed to sputter at the same time. They were both incredulous. “Green space? Crazy Old Wilbur? What the…?”

Jacob held up a hand to interrupt the two friends and their sputtering, “Yeah. Although he didn’t call it green space. He said, ‘I want the city to have it. I want people to enjoy the gardens just like Edith and I have. It’d mean a lot to the both of us.’ At least that ‘s the way I heard it from Sam Rickenbacher on the city council.”

“Well, I’ll be…” Becky started to say.

“…damned,” Maggie finished her friend’s thought.

“Yeah,” Jacob said, “It was a wonderful gesture on his part. At least I think so, anyway.”

Then he stopped talking while he smoked, taking his time while looking out over the pretty front yard, bursting forth in a profusion of springtime color. Becky and Maggie joined him, all three quietly enjoying the peace and serenity of Wilbur and Edith’s gardens. They even saw an early arriving bluebird.

When Jacob was with finished with his cigarette, he bent down and ground it out in some soil and stuck the butt in his coat pocket. Maggie and Becky watched and shook their heads, in complete and shared agreement regarding the filthiness of Jacob’s habit. He stood up, looked at the kindly old ladies and said, “He did a good thing, Crazy Old Wilbur did. A real good thing.” He smiled and went inside to close down the estate sale.

Captivated by the magic of the beauty of the front yard, the two friends stayed on the front steps for a while before leaving. It had been a long day and they were both looking forward to that refreshing cup of tea Becky had offered earlier. As they walked past a particularly color clump of daffodils, they both remarked how happy they were that the gardens were not going to be destroyed but would remain into the future for all to enjoy.

A few hours later, the sun had set low in the west casting long shadows over the gardens, gardens that now and forever would be referred to as the Long Lake Gardens and Green Space. Nobody figured the old couple would mind the name at all. Not on little bit. Not as long as the flowers Wilbur and Edith had planted continued to bloom.

Besides, that’s the way the old couple wanted it.

The last words Edith, or Edie, as Wilbur had affectionately called his wife – his favorite name for her for the fifty-odd years they’d known each other, starting in grade school and continuing on for all of their married years – the last words she ever spoke to him were, “Take care of the gardens, Will. Please take care of our flowers.” Then she was silent for a long moment before softly adding, “Please…” It was the last word that escaped her lips with the last breath she ever took. Will, as Edie had affectionately called him all those years, held his dear wife close for one last time. For many minutes, actually. When he finally stood he looked around the room and wondered how he was going to spend the rest of his life without her. A life he’d be the first to admit, if anyone asked (and no one did), was so much more empty now without the love of his life in it. The love of his beloved Edie.

So, years later, when the same cancer took over his body that had taken over Edie’s, Will didn’t protest. He didn’t seek treatment, and he didn’t try to get better. He reasoned it this way: What was the point? He’d lived long enough. It was time to move on. It was time to be with Edie.

He knew what he needed to do. He’d figured it out long ago. He went ahead and contacted the Long Lake City Counsel and told them of his plan. After a few weeks of back and forth meetings, Wilber’s plan was approved in a closed door session. When he heard the news, he sighed in relief. “Now I can let go,” he thought to himself, “Now I can join Edie. Now I won’t be alone anymore.” Two days later he died at home in his sleep.

Maggie and Becky and their friends and neighbors walk past Wilbur and Edith’s gardens every day. It’s mid July, the little stucco house is long gone and the spring flowers have long ago faded Now it is glorious summer and the summertime flowers are in bloom: purple and white phlox, terra-cotta coneflower, blue bachelor buttons, yellow sunflowers and a myriad of other plants and colors. “It’s a riot of color,” neighbors say proudly to anyone who asks. “It’s the best garden in the city, if not the entire county,” they are quick to add. Whether or not that statement is true or not, it doesn’t matter, because for Crazy Old Wilbur’s neighbors, they are as proud of the notoriety of the gardens as if they were their own. Which, in a way, they are.

Though Wilbur has been gone from the world for three months, his and Edith’s gardens flourish. The city has provided jobs for kids from the local grade school and middle school and high school, just like Wilbur had requested. Being young, some of the kids (but not many) need proper supervision, and Jacob Fry is just the person to do that. He’s firm, but kind. The kids like him. So, yes, the gardens are profiting by the meticulous care the school aged children are giving them. Everyone agrees, they’ve never looked better.

Do Wilbur and Edith watch over the city’s new green space? Does the reclusive couple know how beautiful their flower gardens continue to look? Maggie and Becky often wonder. They’ve taken to walking to the Long Lake Gardens and Green Space every day to sit and relax on one of the teak wood benches scattered here and there. Some mornings they even bring along their tea and sip a refreshing cup of chamomile. It’s a perfect way to begin the day, nestled among the pretty flowers, twittering song birds and busy bees and butterflies. Of course, they’ll never have an answer as to whether or not Wilbur and Edith are watching over the new green space, and they really don’t care. What the two friend do know, however, is this: really, when it came right down to it, maybe Crazy Old Wilbur really wasn’t so crazy after all.

Incident On Flight 106

The two guys across the aisle from me were big and burly, maybe thirty years old. They wore flannel shirts and blue jeans and their faces were covered in full, curly beads. They each wore a baseball hat pulled on backwards, the one next to me for the Vikings, the one on the other side of him for the Twins. They each held a Smartphone, dwarfed in the palm of their massive hands, and they didn’t even glance at me when I walked up, sat down in 26C and waited for whoever was going to sit next to me. I didn’t have to wait long. A minute later, 26B showed up, a slow moving, little old gray haired lady, bent over like my mom used to be before she died.

“Excuse me, young man” she said politely and pointed past me with a bent (and probably arthritic) finger, “I believe that’s my seat.”

“Sure thing.”

I smiled at her statement about being me being young. At sixty-nine, I was anything but, however, I appreciated the sentiment and was happy to play along. For her part, she had to be at least eighty, maybe eight-five. And she really did remind me of my mom, way back when.

I stood up to let her scoot by and she smiled in return. She seemed pleasant enough, which I appreciated. Sometimes on a plane…Well, you never know who or what you’re going to have to contend with, do you? I try to keep an open mind on such matters, but, man, sometimes you get a talker plopping down beside you and it can make for a long trip. Who needs to be regaled for a couple of hours about somebody’s job selling do-dad’s that no one wants or needs. Or about their family members that you really could care less about? To make it even more mind numbing, sometimes you’re even subjected to a never ending photo montage of whomever or whatever happens to be on their phone. It’s the worst, certainly not for me, and definitely not what I’d call a fun way to fly the friendly skies. When I noticed that the old lady was carrying a book, though, I figured I’d be safe. I, too, had a book. In my mind, readers were good. Readers I could relate to. Most importantly, readers were quiet, kept to themselves and didn’t bother you. A perfect way to fly.

She introduced herself as Gail, I told her my name was Jeff, and we let it go at that. A moment later we were both settled, seat belts fastened, ready to leave Minneapolis and take off for Las Vegas. It was 12 degrees outside on this frigid February afternoon. The temperature in Vegas? 74 degrees. You’d think everyone would be in a good mood, wouldn’t you, and generally most of the passengers were. Unfortunately, for the young lady immediately behind me in row 27, the trip was not starting off well. She had taken up all of the three seats with herself and her two children and the little baby was a fussy one.

I’d noticed them earlier out in the gate area, a young family with the mother probably in her mid-twenties, traveling with a new baby and a seven or eight year old daughter. The daughter was cute, reminding me of my granddaughter. She even dressed like Bryn, wearing a pink skirt with sparkly stars on it, red leggings and a purple sweatshirt with a Hello Kitty character on the front. The thing that caught my attention, though, was how much the little girl helped her mom, especially how she played with the little baby, trying her best to keep the little girl entertained. (I’m assuming she was a girl, what with the pink blanket and all.) But the baby was restless, squirming and fussing and carrying on, and the poor mother and daughter were doing all they could to settle her, unfortunately, to little avail. The people nearby did their best to ignore them or keep a safe distance. Or both.

Flying is difficult for me. I like my routine and air travel puts me way out of my comfort zone, smack dab in the middle of stress city. Back home, especially in February, the cold winter days force me to hunker indoors with my life-partner. She and I make our springtime gardening plans, work on indoor projects, read and venture outside only to run errands or go for the occasional walk. The highlight of the day is building a fire in the fireplace at night and settling in with a favorite book and a mug of hot chocolate. It’s a nice, simple, uncomplicated routine, and it keeps me grounded.

For the last few years, though, I’ve taken to flying to Las Vegas to spend three or four days with my younger brother who lives on the Colorado River in Lake Havasu City, a three hour drive south of Vegas. To accomplish that monumental feat(to me, anyway), I’ve done this: I’ve left the comfort of my home in the quiet, unassuming small town of Long Lake, located twenty miles west of Minneapolis, and driven to the Sheppard Road Park and Ride located near the Mississippi River. From there I’ve taken their shuttle to the airport where I’ve fought the crowds, stood in a long line, taken off my boots and belt and made my way through TSA. Once through security, I’ve diligently made my way through a crowded airport and found the appropriate gate. (I’ve only gotten lost once.) Then I’ve boarded a jam packed, germ infested airplane and flown to the great desert southwest.

Once I’m with my brother, it’s totally worth it. Until then, like I said, stress city.

Three years ago, when I first started flying, my original plan was to withdraw into myself. I figured to do that by reading, a pass-time I truly enjoyed. By the time I was supposed to be boarding my flight, I figured to be deep into a book , trying to insulate myself from the world around me by focusing on the words on the page all the while attempting to ignore the chaos threatening to overwhelm me. At least that’s the way I’d hoped it would be.

What I’ve found, though, is that air travel was not at all like I thought it’d be. Despite my rather reticent, introverted nature, I’ve actually been drawn to the crowds of people around me, fellow travelers like myself: businessmen with their phones stuck to their ears; young people walking quickly, almost jogging, hurrying along from here to there; old people shuffling slowly; parents marshalling two or three or as many as seven children (a record. I’ve kept score.) down the crowed corridors on their way to their gate, unfortunately for them, usually located at the end of a very long concourse.

In short, I’ve found that the airport is a microcosm, really, of the world (at least the world of those who chose to travel by plane), and come to the conclusion that what I thought three years ago was going to be a royal pain in the ass, a chaotic experience which would probably add at least ten years to my life, has turned out to be, if not a pleasant experience, at least an interesting one; one far more interesting than staring at a book, something I could do anytime. (Preferably relaxing next the previously noted fireplace.) So, surprisingly enough, I’ve found that flying has been an acceptable endeavor. I’ve also learned that it’s interesting and fun to pay attention to what’s going on around me and to imagine what people’s lives are like and what their stories might be.

Maybe that’s why, out in the boarding area, I noticed the young mother and her two kids; all three of them dark skinned, maybe from east India, a young family traveling from Minnesota to Nevada. What was their story? It was the first question I asked myself as I stood out of the way and up against the wall waiting for the zone 5 passengers to be called. Where did they come from and what was their ultimate destination? Were they traveling all the way from Europe? Or did they live in Minnesota and were they on their way to Nevada to meet someone; the woman’s husband perhaps?

Of course, I had no clue. But I felt for them, the young mother specifically. It couldn’t have been easy traveling alone with a young girl and a baby; managing both of the kids as well as a couple of arms full of baby stuff and assorted pieces of carry-on luggage. It was a lot to keep track of, to my way of thinking. Too bad they didn’t have any help.

Then pre-flight boarding was called, and I watched all three enter the long tunnel that would take them to the plane. They were among the first boarders called, “Passengers with young children.” I watched as they disappeared down the passageway. Where did they come from and where were they going? I wondered one last time. Then they disappeared from view and were gone.

Anyway, they’d caught my attention. I had kids. I had grandchildren. I could kind of relate. I had never flown with my children, but I had certainly traveled with my three boys, taking them on yearly driving trips from Minnesota to each of the coasts, with stops at various national parks and roadside attractions along the way. It was both fun and challenging. But, we’d never traveled on an airplane, and I could only imagine what it must be like. Especially with a baby. My guess was that it’d be difficult and that would probably be putting it mildly. Especially if the baby was as fussy as this one appeared to be.

As I watched the young mother and her two children disappear down the tunnel, I figured I’d never see them again. I was wrong. When it came my turn to board, I stowed my book (unread) in my back pack and made my way down the passageway, onto the plane and down the aisle to row 26, seat C. Surprise, surprise, I ended up sitting right in front of them. I nodded at the young mother as I took my seat, and then a second time after I’d stood to let Gail in. Both times she avoided my gaze, focusing, instead, her attention on her baby. The daughter, however, didn’t avoid me. She was friendly, almost outgoing, and smiled at me both times. She even gave me a little wave the second time. I smiled and waved back.

Nice people, I thought, sitting back down next to Gail. Really nice. Then I pulled out my book, a collection of short stories by a favorite author, and settled in. I figured that since Gail was a reader, maybe I’d go ahead and read too and just enjoy my flight. But that wasn’t going to happen.

I don’t think I managed half a page when the guy across the aisle pointed in the direction of the seat behind me and said to his companion, “What’s the deal with that bitch? Why is she even on the plane? I hope they checked her out good.” He was the guy in the Vikings hat.

“No shit. Her and her ugly kids, too,” Twins Hat responded.

“I’m surprised security even let them in the damn airport,” Vikings Hat continued.

That was only the beginning. They went back and forth and on and on. I listened for a while, getting the drift. The guys obviously had issues and some seriously outdated opinions as far as people different from themselves were concerned. And their language…Man, it was something I never heard among my group of friends. It was hateful and full of vitriolic rhetoric of a kind that honestly made me somewhat sick to my stomach. My guess was they’d been drinking, and even though they were making it a point to try to talk quietly, they couldn’t. They had to raise their voices to be heard over the noise of the engines. I didn’t like their tone, not one little bit, and wished they’d just shut up. But they didn’t. They went on and on and on. Their voices carried, too. As least across the aisle to me.

It was one thing that I didn’t appreciate their language and how they were acting, but there was something else. Right behind me was the young mother. What about her? What about her daughter? It didn’t seem right that the two prejudiced guys could get away with what they were saying with the mother and her young family so close by. I was sure they could hear every word being said about them and it didn’t seem right. I felt I should do or say something, but what? After all, we live in a free country, with free speech and everything, right? Still…They didn’t have to be such jerks.

I glanced over at them again. They were going on now about women in general and immigrants in particular. Their talk was hateful, it was racist and it was difficult to listen to. But, unfortunately, everyone’s entitled to their own opinions, aren’t they? No matter how outdated and mean spirited they were.

So even though I didn’t like hearing what I was hearing, in the end, I decided I couldn’t do or say anything about it. I kept my mouth shut. In looking back, I guess I took the easy way out. (Well, I know I did.) Instead of doing anything, I returned to my book and tried to bury my head in it. I’m not a confrontative guy by any stretch of the imagination. Live and let live has always been my motto so I figured I’d just to try to ignore them. To that end, I crossed my fingers, hoping that they’d just keep their comments and their opinions to themselves, and returned to my short stories. It’d be nice if they lowered their voices, too.

A few minutes later, after we’d been instructed on the use of the seat belt, the plane backed away from the gate and began a long taxi to get into position for takeoff. I cast a surreptitious glance across the aisle. The two guys had thankfully stopped talking and were fooling around with some sorts of game on their phones. Good. Let them be entertained by Angry Birds or Building Blocks or whatever. Hopefully they were finally done with their hateful comments.

I went back to my book. Five minutes later our plane was in the air. Five minutes after that, the little baby started crying. Ten minutes later, she still hadn’t stopped.

You know how you can just tell when someone is getting mad? Call it picking up on ‘Bad Vibes’ or whatever, but that’s what I was getting from the two guys next to me. The longer the baby fussed and carried on, the stronger the bad vibes became. Soon after takeoff, the plane entered a steep accent, climbing nearly straight up and everyone’s ears popped. I’m pretty sure that’s what caused the poor little baby to forgo her general fussiness and whimpering and to crank it up about a hundred notches to full blown off the rails wailing.

After a few minutes of her screaming, Vikings Hat had had enough. He turned and leaned into the aisle, “Can’t you get that friggin’ kid to shut up? It’s making me nuts.” Except he didn’t say ‘friggin.’ His voice was loud and angry. Menacing. He was pissed off and starting to come off the rails himself.

My heart jumped a little. I was no more than two feet from him. His rage filled the space between us with a violent heat. My first thought was selfish as I said a silent prayer of thanks that his venom wasn’t directed at me. But that thought quickly vanished. What about the young mother? She was all alone. She had a little baby to contend with plus her daughter. How would I like to be in her shoes, having to fly by myself, take care of two children, one of them a fussy baby? It’d be challenging, in and of itself, no doubt about it. And I certainly wouldn’t appreciate some idiot giving me a hard time. Not at all.

I was raised by mom and my aunt to always look out for the underdog. Many was the time I heard the phase, “You watch out for those less fortunate than you, Jeff. Be thankful you have what you have and never be afraid to help out others less fortunate than you are.”

It was great advice. Advice I wasn’t always successful at implementing. But I did try, that was the main thing. Their words have always made perfect sense to me. Now this. Right across the aisle from me were these two big hairy jerks, starting to give the young mother a hard time.

“Hey, you, bitch,” Viking Hat continued, amping up the volume and the rage. He pointed a threatening finger, “I’m talking to you. Can’t you get that little bastard to be quiet? What’s the matter, don’t you understand English?”

He kept on and on, belittling the young mother over and over. I could only imagine what she must have been thinking. Here, all she wanted to do was fly to Las Vegas and get on with her life. It wasn’t her fault her little baby had started crying. And what about her daughter? She was old enough to not only hear but also understand the hatred in the bigot’s words. What about her?

I nervously fiddled with my book. I was extremely uncomfortable with the confrontation taking place within feet of me. The longer Vikings Hat ranted and raved, the more confident he became. After a few minutes, Twins hat joined in. Now it was the two of them, two big guys against one young mother. It didn’t seem right. Someone should do something. My thought? Where was a fly attendant when you really needed one?

Just then, on my left, there was a rustle and a movement. It was Gail. I’d completely forgotten about her. It suddenly occurred to me, “What would she be thinking about what was going on?”

I glanced at her and we made visual contact. I saw a sadness in her eyes I interrupted as support for the young mother. “Why did those guys have to act the way they were,” was what I imagined she was thinking. I pursed my lips and shook my head, as if to say, “Why do some people have to act the way they do?”

Gail patted my arm and said, “Excuse me. Jeff. I need to get up.”

Thinking she had to go to the bathroom I said, “Sure, thing.” I unbuckled my seat belt and got to my feet, putting myself right between Viking Hat and the young family.

Gail moved into the aisle as I stood aside. Her presence caused the two guys to shut up, and they leaned back in their seats. I was glad they did. Their language was getting more and more hateful and it was embarrassing to have to listen to. I could only image what the young mother was thinking. Through it all the baby had continued to cry and carry on, only fueling, I supposed, the bullies racist wrath.

As Gail stood next to me, I glanced at the young mother. I was prepared to smile, if for nothing else, just to show her my silent support, but she was in no position to meet my gaze. She was in the window seat, eyes locked on her little baby, frantically rocking the wailing child in her arms. In the middle seat, her daughter was trying unsuccessfully to shove a pacifier in the baby’s mouth. But the little tyke was a fighter, that was for sure, shaking her head from side to side as she continued to scream, having none of her sister’s placating attempts to settle her down. My thought, as a dad who’d dealt at different times with three screaming little boys? The little baby was over tired and just needed to fall asleep.

Gail must have been on my wavelength. She bent down and smiled a compassionate smile and said to the young mother, “Pardon me. I’m sorry to interrupt, but I was wondering if you could use a little help?”

As the young mother looked at Gail, her daughter touched her on the sleeve and said, “Mommy, the nice lady wants to help out with Kara.”

“If that’s okay,” Gail quickly added.

The daughter and mother engaged in a heated conversation. Back and forth they went in a language I was unfamiliar with. Finally an agreement was reached. The daughter smiled at her mother and patted her on the arm in a show of comfort. Then she turned to Gail and said, “My mommy says that she would be very much appreciative of your help.” She made a movement, and indicated the empty seat next to her, “Do you want to sit down?”

Gail smiled, “No, dear. Please tell your mommy that I used to be a school teacher and that I have had five children of my own. I think what little Kara needs is a little walk. Would you ask your mommy if she’d let me take her?” Gail pointed toward the back of the plane, “I’ll just walk her up and down the aisle. Maybe I can get your little sister to sleep. Then you and your mommy can have a little break. How’s that sound?”

The older girl hesitated just for a moment, then smiled gratefully. She turned to her mother. Again, another heated discussion took place. Finally the daughter sighed with relief and turned back to Gail, “Mommy says, she would like that very much. She also says, ‘Thank you’.”

Gail smiled, “That’s wonderful, dear.” Next to her, I heaved a sigh of relief.

The young mother gently passed over the little child, and Gail took her lovingly in her arms. Almost immediately, the little baby started to settle and began sucking on its pacifier. Gail smiled down at the little bundle and started whispering quietly, all the while gently rocking the baby in her arms. Then she turned toward the tail of the plane. I watched them make their way down the narrow aisle, the area around us now blessedly quiet (except, of course, for the loud throbbing of the engines.)

I was just about to sit down when I glanced at the daughter. She smiled shyly at me and I smiled back, giving her a little wave. She giggled.

I leaned close, “Hi,” I said, “My name’s Jeff. What’s yours?”

“Shaza,” she said, smiling, showing me bright white teeth.

“Shasha?” I asked.

She giggled, “No, silly. Shaaaa Zaaaa,” She repeated, drawing out the vowels.

“Shaza?” I asked, again, hoping I was right, all the time thinking, “What an adorable little girl.”

She laughed again and exclaimed, “That’s right!” like I’d just won a contest. I smiled back at her. Then looked at her mommy. Shaza said, “My mommy’s name is Amira. It means princess.”

“That’s a very pretty name.” I looked at Amira and nodded my greeting, “Hi.” She smiled and nodded back. Obviously, Shaza was the interpreter in the family.

My granddaughter and grandson live in Minneapolis and the school they attend has children from many different backgrounds. I like that my grandchildren are exposed to all sorts of cultures and it felt good right then to make contact with the young family. I’d almost forgotten about Vikings Hat and Twins Hat.

“Hey, pal, move out of the way, will ya?” Vikings Hat poked me in the back, startling me. “I need to use the john.”

“Sorry,” I said and made a move to step aside so he could pass. And if that’s all that happened, that might have been the end of the story. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

Gail had taken Kara to the back of the plane, where the restrooms were, and was now slowly making her way back toward us, rocking the baby in her arms. Vikings Hat pushed past me and hurried down the aisle toward her. He was big and it was going to be a tight fit. I watched as he walked right up to the kindly old lady, stopped directly in front of her and got in her face. I could see him leaning in and could tell that he was arguing with her by the way his back was shaking. I looked away from them and back to Shaza and her mother. Their eyes were wide open. They seemed to sense something was happening because they suddenly both stood up and turned toward the back of the plane to watch. When I saw the concern in the eyes of both mother and daughter, something came over me. To hell with Vikings Hat and his intimidating behavior. It’d gone on long enough. I didn’t hesitate or try to talk myself out of my next move even though I had no idea what I was going to do. All I knew is that I had to do something.

With no plan at all, I rushed down the aisle until I got to Vikings Hat’s big, hulking frame. I stopped right behind him to take a moment to prepare myself and then tapped him on the shoulder.

“Everything alright here?” I asked politely.

He turned and sneered, “This bitch is in my way.”

Of the million things that went through my brain at that exact moment, like: “That’s no way to talk to a lady,” to, “You don’t have to be so rude,” what I settled on was, “Why don’t you calm down buddy and cut the lady some slack.” His eyes became wide and he went speechless, but only for a moment. Bullies like him are never silent for long. In the next instant he opened his mouth to speak, but I never found out what he was going to say. Before he could respond, I looked past him and said, “Here, Gail, let me take the baby and help you back to your seat.”

I pushed myself past Vikings Hat until I was standing next to Gail. She took a moment, I’m sure to consider her options, and then handed little Kara to me, “Here you go Jeff. Thank you. Thank you very much.”

We both turned. Now all we had to do was get past Vikings Hat; a formidable task given his immense size. “Excuse me,” I said, holding baby Kara tightly to my chest, “The three of us need to get by.” I was so close, I could see food in the guy’s beard and black hairs growing out of his nose. He looked at both of us like we were nuts and, I might add, like he wanted to kill us. I was aware of my heart slamming in my chest. I was also aware of the sweet scent of baby Kara. Once more I confronted him, “Please. We need to pass. Excuse me. Excuse us.” I made a move to edge by him. I thought he might say something. I thought he might stand his ground and make a scene. Fortunately, he did neither. Instead, he gave us each a withering look and said, something I’d rather not repeat. Then he pushed past us to a vacant lavatory and angrily slammed the door.

Gail and I both let out sighs of relief, “Thank, god,” she said to me.

“Yeah, no kidding,” I said back to her.

We made our way back to our row. Before we sat down, Gail offered to take the baby from me, but I declined to give her up. It had been a long time since I’d held such a small child, and I was enjoying the experience. Especially since little Kara had stopped crying and was peacefully sleeping, unaware of the drama that had been unfolding around her. I leaned over and said to Shaza, “Could you please ask your mommy if it’s okay for me to take Kara?” I indicated toward the front of the plane. “I’ll take her for a little walk.”

Shaza relayed my request to her mother. After only a moment’s hesitation I saw her nod her agreement. “My mommy says that would be fine,” she said, and then added, “Thank you, mister. That’s coming from both of us.”

I smiled and nodded back, “You’re more than welcome.”

I turned and walked down the aisle toward the front of the plane and then back again. When I walked past Twins Hat, he averted his gaze. I guess he wasn’t so tough without his buddy by his side. A few minutes later Vikings Hat came back and sat down. Other than a few pointed stares at me, he didn’t do or say anything the rest of the flight. Well, he did mumble “Faggot” to me once or twice, but I ignored the comment. It was no big deal.

I found out later that the flight attendants had been dealing with a medical emergency in first class, that’s why they’d been absent from our confrontation in the back of the plane with Vikings Hat. Both Gail and I were glad we’d done what we’d done. Who knows what would have happened if we hadn’t’?

The flight to Las Vegas took three hours and fifteen minutes. Between Gail and I and even a few other passengers, we walked little Kara up and down the aisle for maybe an hour or so. The flight attendants didn’t seem to mind. As long as we didn’t clog up the aisles everyone was happy, and, as far as I could tell, everyone was.

Vikings Hat and Twins Hat? If they were still mad, I never found out. They kept their mouths shut never caused us or anybody any hassle. There were no further incidents.

What causes people like those two guys to act the way they did? My guess is that if you talked to a psychologist or a sociologist they’d tell you that answer to Vikings Hat and Twins Hat and their issues wasn’t easy pinpoint, and that there were probably very complicated reasons for their actions. Maybe. Probably. The point for me centered less on the reasons for their behavior and more on Gail and what she did. She cut through their racist rhetoric and got right to the heart of the matter: the discomfort of little Kara and what could be done to help settle her down. In so doing she took the first step toward making the plane ride more bearable for everyone, Amira and Shaza, specifically, and the rest of the passengers in general. Even Vikings Hat and Twins Hat. She didn’t passively sit back and do nothing, she got involved. More power to her.

Me? I was glad to help, but I wonder…Would I have taken action if Gail hadn’t started things off and done what she did? I’d like to think I would have but ,truthfully, probably not. It’s hard to admit, that’s for sure, but I’m pretty sure my assessment of myself is accurate. In fact, I spent more than a few minutes during the rest of the flight owning up to that particular flaw in my personality.

After the flight attendants got the emergency in first class under control, they were very helpful with Shaza and Amira and little Kara. A few passengers nearby stepped up, too, like I said, helping out with carrying the little baby back and forth. It was really quite a cool sight to see. After a while, Gail and I gave over the care of Kara to her mother and sister and sat peacefully in our seats and enjoyed our flight, each of us, I think, feeling good we’d been able to help the young family out. We even got to know each other a little and talked about the books each of us were reading. It turned out to be a nice trip.

When the plane landed and was taxiing to the gate, I had a panicky moment, wondering if there might be some sort of a confrontation with Vikings Hat when we all got off the plane, but there wasn’t. Once our flight arrived at the gate, he and Twins Hat left their seats and made their way down the aisle, just like everyone else. They didn’t say a word to us.

While the passengers disembarked, Gail and I waited patiently in our seats. When the plane was nearly empty, and Shaza and her mother and sister were getting to leave, Gail and I stood up. I asked her, “Do you want to stay with Shaza and her mom and sister?”

“Yes, Jeff, I think that would be a good idea,” she said.

So we did. We walked with the young family through the crowded terminal all the way to baggage claim. Shaza had told us earlier that her father, or “Papa” as she called him, would be waiting for them and he was. Apparently he had recently found work at one of the casinos and saved his money until he was able to rent an apartment and send for his young family. Gail and I stood by and watched their happy and heartfelt reunion, each of us lost in our own private thoughts. From my standpoint, seeing all four of them together was a wonderful sight, and I was glad that their trip had a happy ending.

When we were assured that we’d done all we could for them, Gail said quick goodbye  and parted company. I don’t think I’ll ever forget her, or Shaza or Amira or Kara, either, for that matter. It was an experience that was not only memorable, but, I think, one that changed me. Hopefully for the better.

A few minutes later I found my brother and we set out on the long drive south to Lake Havasu City.

“So how was the trip?” he asked, perfunctorily, merging into traffic leaving the busy airport and getting his sports car up to eighty miles per hour. He loved to drive fast. “Full flight?”

I thought for a moment about what to say since it was still fresh in my mind. Did I want to get into it with him right then about the conflict between Vikings Hat and the young mother? Did I want to start off our time together talking about the vagrancies of human behavior and how poorly sometimes people treated other people? Did I want to set the wrong tone for my visit?

I glanced over at him. He was focused on the road, getting set to pass a eighteen wheeler semi. He was my younger brother by four years and sometimes I wondered… Was he, just a little bit, like Vikings Hat? Did he sometimes have the same sorts of opinions Vikings Hat expressed? Was he more apt than not to get in the face of someone different looking from him? I didn’t think so, and I certainly hoped not, but it was hard to say. We rarely talked politics, preferring safer topics like the weather and which trails we’d be hiking. You know, safe subjects that were non-controversial. A story about a plane ride and a red neck taunting an immigrant mother? Maybe not the best topic of conversation.

But then I thought, Wait a minute. What’s wrong with me? It’s that kind of thinking that allows behavior like Vikings Hat and Twins Hat to continue. Look at what Gail did. She didn’t argue. She didn’t tell Vikings Hat he was wrong. No, instead, she took action. That’s all it took. Action. And actions always spoke louder than words, didn’t they? Right. But sometimes, words were all you had.

I turned to my brother and said, “I had an experience on the plane I want to tell you about.”

“What was it?” he asked, glancing over at me, adjusting his sunglasses and his Arizona Coyotes baseball hat, “What happened?”

“Well, there was this little baby and she was crying…” I began.

He listened without interruption, nodding his head occasionally. It felt good to talk to him. We were brothers after all, and his opinion counted. Besides, I liked him. So I told him about Vikings Hat and Twins Hat and how racist they were. I told him about Shaza and Amira and Kara, a young family traveling together. I told him about Gail and how she reminded me of our mother. I told him how Shaza reminded me of my granddaughter. I told him what it was like to confront Vikings Hat when he was at the back of the plane giving Gail a hard time. I told him how good it felt to hold little Kara in my arms. I told him the story had a happy ending.

When I was finished, he was quiet for a moment before responding. “Well, what those guys did…that just sucks. You did the right thing, Jeff, as far as I’m concerned

“I’m glad you think that,” I told him, “Thanks.”

“No sweat.” Then he sped up, on his way to passing a slow moving van.

I sat back thinking about Shaza and Amira and little Kara. I hoped they’d be okay in their new home and crossed my fingers for them, metaphorically speaking, that life would be as good as it could be for them. I hoped that Shaza and little Kara would go to school and their father would go to work and that Amira would live however she wanted to live and raise and take care of her family however she wanted to. I hoped that conflict with bullies like Vikings Hat would be a minimum for them all, and that they could build a life of meaning and purpose and live a good life with a minimum of conflict. Just like everyone else.

Nice thought, right? But who was I kidding? Because when all was said and done the facts didn’t lie. Shaza and Kara and their parents were different looking and they spoke a different language. Their life was going to be challenging, no matter what. No matter how long I kept my metaphorical fingers crossed.

I sighed and turned and looked out the window as the southwest desert landscape rushed by. The sun was low on the horizon, not a cloud in the sky. It warm, almost hot, and the heat felt good, warming my tired winter bones. In four days I’d be back at the airport, getting ready for my return flight. Who knew what I’d find? One thing was certain, we were living in challenging times. Expecting the unexpected was getting to be the norm with run ins with bigotry and hatred becoming an all too common and everyday occurrence. It didn’t seem right that innocent people like Shaza, Amira and Kara should be subjected to such hostility and contempt, but they were, and would probably continue to be in the future. It didn’t seem right, but there you had it. It was the way of the world these days. Unfortunately.

I settled back in my seat, suddenly sad. The wind wiped through the open window, and I breathed in the fresh desert air. My brother told me earlier that they’d recently had rain and that’s why the landscape was showing swatches of color. Even in this harsh environment, hardy desert plants were bursting into bloom and showing colors of green, yellow, orange and red. I was fortunate for the life I had. I liked my brother and it was good to be with him. However, I couldn’t help but compare the difference between being with him, racing joyfully across the desert in his souped up sports car, to being crammed on a plane dealing with two redneck jerks while defending an immigrant family. Well, there was no comparison, really. The only constant was me. So right then and there I made a pact with myself. Next time, I told myself (because, surely, unfortunately, there would be a next time), next time I’ll be the first one to stand up. Next time I’ll be the first one to confront the jerks. Next time I’ll be the one who will take action. Next time I’ll be the first one to do the right thing.

Next time.