As a rule, I usually try not to talk to strangers on airplanes.
But when I sat down next to Marty today I could tell right away that she was going to be a talker. She was a sweet older lady in her early 80’s with a bright smile, and she seemed to look genuinely pleased and interested that I sat down next to her on the plane. We made some small talk about the mountains out the window and the pilot’s announcements (“He is such an excellent pilot!” she exclaimed.) However, I was pretty exhausted and I wanted to avoid a long conversation. So, it was with slight reluctance that I put down my book during the final hour of the flight and finally took up the conversational bait she was throwing my direction. And I’m truly glad I did.
Marty opened with a bang. She told me that Dan, her husband of 30 years, had recently died. She was on her way to visit a friend in Austin because she just needed to get away from home for a while. “It’s really, really hard to be alone now,” she said, “I feel lost in my own home. I don’t know what to do with myself.” She told me that even though her children lived nearby, she couldn’t expect them to fill the gap for her. “They have their own lives. I need to find my own life for myself again.” I asked her what she loved to do. She said loved playing the piano, but she had given her piano away years ago. She loved sewing, but she had given her sewing machine away too.
She told me all about her husband Dan, 16 years her senior, who recently died at the age of 95. He was a minister, a musician, and “a great man,” she said. He was also an amateur pilot, and had served in WWII as an army chaplain on the front lines. He even served in the Battle of the Bulge, where he was responsible for finding the bodies of those killed in battle and collecting dog tags and boots from the feet of the deceased. Dan had also started one of the first army bands during the war and played the saxophone. I imagined that he was really Danny Kaye in “White Christmas.”
Marty and Dan met later in life after her first husband John (to whom she was also married for 30 years) died. John had been in the military as well, and she showed me a picture of a handsome man that she had “seen the world” with. She and John had lived and traveled in cities across Europe, Asia, and the US. She told me about how wonderful it was for her to discover that the world was bigger than the town where she grew up, and what a precious gift that travel was to her children at such a young age.
But now that her second husband Dan had also passed away, Marty knew that she needed to move toward “finding her own life” again. The friend she was going to visit in Austin was a man named Paul. “I’ve known Paul since I was 12,” she smiled. Paul had urged her to buy an open-return ticket to Austin and told her that she could stay as long as she wanted. I asked her if she had plans for sightseeing adventures, and she laughed and said, “Oh, I’m sure Paul has lots of plans. He still acts like he’s 20 years old.”
She told me how Paul (now 84) had come to live with her family one summer when she was 12, when he was employed as the church pianist. They kept in touch for the next 70 years, and they were still good friends. “He’s a musician, and a writer,” she said. I asked what kinds of things Paul wrote. “Oh, he’s written everything – novels, and some of the most beautiful poetry you’ve ever heard. He has such an incredible way of expressing himself with words.” She told me that she was bringing some of his poetry with her. She showed me a color photo of she and Paul in their 20’s or 30’s on one of his visits to see the family. She said she couldn’t wait to get off the plane, get some dinner, and listen to Paul play her a serenade on the piano. He was on his way to pick her up at the airport. “Paul is a man of his word,” she said. “If he says he’s going to do something, he’ll do it.” She paused, “There aren’t a lot of men out there like that anymore.”
Call me a hopeless romantic, but I very nearly cried quite a few times during our conversation. Marty had seemingly lived many lives in the past 80 years, and she willingly admitted that she was having a tough time with the recent death of her second husband. However, it was apparent that she had decided not to let it get the best of her. Coming to Austin was her first step toward starting over. And interestingly, was her 70-year-long friendship with Paul on the cusp of romance? Or was their timeless bond of friendship just as strong and deep as love already?
Regardless, what a fascinating and remarkable woman. I hope that I’m just as resilient and full of life at 80. I hope that I too have invested in important, 70-year-long real friendships. Marty’s honesty with a complete stranger like me was somewhat shocking, but at the same time completely and utterly refreshing. Her life story seemed to say, ‘Sure, life’s tough. But it’s not over until it’s over. There’s always another chapter. Carpe Diem!’