Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Single Serving Friend

He wanted to make a conversation and the fact that I was not interested did not make a difference to him. The flight to Seattle was long and I spent some time watching a movie on the laptop. He kept peering into the laptop and laughed occasionally at the movie. When the laptop battery died and powered down, he had a remark on that. He talked about the weather, Seattle, flights and everything else. I began to quickly pull out my iPod with an intention to rapidly put my ear phones back on. I so had a mood to listen to Velukudi Krishnan. But he wouldn't let me. I was holding the ear phones in both hands and half-way towards my ears and he still showed no signs of stopping. As I began to debate whether a snub would prove costly, he said something.

He said " I just said good bye to my mom! She is dying I'll never see her again".

It changed the equation and the tone of the conversation significantly. I have been meeting interesting people on flight in the recent past but this was different. He was a native of Louisiana and had grown up there all his life, joined the Navy had been to most parts of the world, proposed to his wife after the first date (over the phone from California) and now he is nested in Seattle. It must've been a tough ride for him - this flight to Seattle. How do you reconcile to this fact? Surprisingly I had a conversation with him that I felt was the most profound I had in many years. His mother was 77 and she lived with his 2 sisters and a brother in a single house. He seemed to be the only reasonably earning member in his family. He had left a family in distress with the senior member nearly dying. He seemed to be torn apart by the guilt of staying away from home and the need to be with his new family. And we talked about the trade-offs of staying away from home, the philosophy of building a new family in a new place and then finally death.

I began to open up to the conversation in a unfamiliar fashion. I was surprised by the topics I broached, which I was usually cynical and sarcastic about and didn't usualy speak with anyone, let alone strangers. I told him that I had said a similar goodbye to my aunt when I left India this year. She was 85 and all of us including her knew she would not last long. She was my favorite aunt, a towering personality who always got her way, and had the sharpest memory I have ever seen. She gave final approval for my father's marriage, played commander-in-sister-in-law-chief to my mom! could speak many languages, knew exactly what the custom and ritual was for a given occasion and made one of the best kesari's ever made on the planet. In short a she had the spirit of a wild teenager stuck in a old lady's clothes. It is no easy task to say goodbye to some people. Yes! you say goodbye in railway stations and in airports but this is a different level. I held several conversations with her in the 1 month I was there and she explained to me as to how she confronted the doctor into telling her what a the problem was. Nobody could really evade her pointed piercing questions. Not even the doctor. But there was a difference. She had the spunk. She actually wanted to live. Thats what I loved about her. She asked me if my dad could find a 'spencer rate' doctor who would save her life. When that did not work out, she was dissapointed in a way I would be if I didnt get some job I wanted or didnt manage to get a ticket for my favorite movie.

Although he spoke for the most part in our flight conversation, I mentioned all this to him and told him that I was surprised that unlike all the people around her, who were reconciled to the reality that she would not survive, she didn't take death like a domesticated cow but actually expressed her desire for survival to the best of her ability. He was equally surprised, when I mentioned she was 85. His mother apparently had given up the desire to live and the rest of them had taken that for granted. "The only regret she had was not seeing all her children become successfull" , he said. He was more interested in knowing my aunt's conversations during her last days. I had no idea why he wanted to know. Maybe he was venting himself by having these conversations. My aunt's biggest conversation topic was her regret that she had to endure some suffering before she passed away, she kept asking me "what wrong did I do. Why is this not easy? not overnight? What did I do to deserve this". I was caught in the moment so I narrated that to him - verbatim. This seemed to shake him a lot and he kept repeating "what did I do to deserve this". He was an old man, around 55 and I couldn't believe I was having this conversation with him. 1 hour ago all I wanted to do was avoid him. The 'connection' was amazing. Everything I said seemed to be so relevant to him. I felt that. He asked me "what was the last the last thing you said to her". This conversation was taking dramatic overtones and I hate drama. But I had an answer to this question. I told him I had asked my aunt to be alive until next year. Those were my last words to her and she gave me a sad look in return. I asked him the same question - He said he had said "goodbye" and she didnt reply. He later talked about his family, Seattle and his life. He said something I'll never forget - His family was a family of smokers. For many many years all members of his family, including him, smoked. Then his father died of lung cancer. His son was born "autistic" ( could not talk). And so he decided to quit smoking forever. He hasnt smoked since 1987.

What me laugh was - when we were deplaning - he introduced himself in a broken-arrow like moment. He streched his hand and said "Clyde". I reached out and shook his hand knowing fully well, I would never meet him again. The nature of single servingness seemed all encompassing to me. Single serving friends on a plane, single serving aunts, single serving moms and single serving children. Single serving life overall and lot needs to happen to get it all right in one serving.

*Single Serving Friend - is a term introduced in the movie The Fight Club

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