"You are not alone."
"Sorry?" I said quizzically as I removed my right ear bud and glanced up at the old man.
"You are not alone," he said matter-of-factly.
I quickly realized that he was not making an existential statement but rather referring to the Air Force sweater I had just slipped on over my black t-shirt. I noticed his Air Force cap and my cheeks began to redden.
"Oh, um, I'm not actually in the Air For--"
"You're going to have to speak up!" he said.
"Oh, right. Err, I was just saying, I'm not actually in the Air Force. I just work with kids on bases over the summers."
"I bet you didn't know I am 93-years-old," he spouted out, completely changing the subject. "And I just love it."
I laughed and the tension eased.
By his tone, I could tell this would not be a short conversation, so I took out both ear buds and paused my latest Netflix episode of 30 Rock. He continued in his non sequitur manner regaling tales of life on a South Dakota pig farm, daring dramas of rescues as a US Air Force pilot, his summit of Mount Kilaminjaro (at age 65, no less) and the ins and outs of his most recent endeavor, tai chi lessons.
I didn't get a lot of time to share back to him, but it's just as well, I suppose. He's lived 93 years and I, only 22. That means he has lived over four times longer than I have, so naturally, he should have at least four times as much to say. That's how I see it anyway.
We talked for a good 30 minutes before an official-sounding voice came over the loud speaker and started calling for military personnel and passengers with babies to board US Airways Flight 1731. The old man paused and reached into his pocket for a crumpled boarding pass.
"Where's your seat?" he looked up and asked me.
"18-C," I answered glancing down at the ticket in my lap.
"Well, how 'bout that! I'm 18-D! Isn't that something!" he smiled and shook his head. "I tell you what... If you live a good life, good things come to you!"
I felt as if the joy received from hearing that statement might bubble up and start spilling out my ears. To some, traveling alone can be an utterly uncomfortable, mundane and confusing time. But, my random jaunts across the country, engaging with complete strangers, seems to suit me perfectly. Few things fill me with such a sense of love as intently listening to the words of a stranger who is eager to share.
As the old man and I stood in line to board, I suddenly realized that I didn't even know his name.
I stuck out my right hand and said, "Hi. My name is Audrey. What's yours?"
"You can call me Ted. Ted Gourley. It's nice to meet you." I smiled and he grin wryly as the airline attendant took our tickets. I waited for him as he thanked her genuinely, and we walked down the loading ramp together.
The stories kept flowing as we sat on the runway, braced for take-off, and ordered apple juice once the plane reached cruising altitude. With each story, Ted got more animated and revealed more and more of his amazing story.
He spoke of his wife with the most beautiful honesty and candidness. They were childhood sweethearts and he courted her for seven years before getting married at age 22.
"She was never the adventuresome type like me, but we sort of balance each other out," he sighed. "My adventures have slowed down the past seven years though. She got Alzheimer's, and most of my energy went into caring for my bride. She died seven months ago."
The corners of my mouth turned down and my eyes saddened, but he quickly snapped at me, "There's nothing wrong with that at all! We were married for 71 years, and that's all we could dream of!"
I smiled. "You're right. That's so incredible. What an honor," I replied.
That is the perspective of a man with far more life behind him than in front of him. (But then, who's to say we all haven't already lived most of our days?) He lives such a life of gratitude and it permeates his very being. You don't see that much these days.
Our conversation faded with the altitude as the plane began to descend. Our eyes drifted out the window to the patchwork of fields and country homes transitioning into a smattering of baseball fields, swimming pools and parking lots. Skyscrapers towered in the distance.
As the plane's wheels brushed the runway at Chicago-O'Hare, Ted suddenly turned to me and leaned across the aisle from seat 18-D. In his softest whisper he looked me in the eye and said, "Time and age is an illusion between you and I," and just like that, settled back into his seat.
Water filled my eyes. Here is someone that actually gets it. He has lived an extraordinary life, but most importantly, he knows greater things are yet to come--in this life and beyond.
As the other passengers started to gather their things, Ted scrawled his address into the first page of my new journal. He had me promise to write to him about my upcoming trip to Rapid City, South Dakota, and my adventures beyond. He, in turn, promised to add me into his biography.
As I waved goodbye to my new friend and we turned to go our separate ways in the busy airport terminal, I couldn't help but smile and shake my head as I thought about how much God's hands are all over my life.
This is what I want: to surrender more and more of my life, my schedule and plans, and my expectations to His will and cherish whatever comes my way. I want to be earnestly grateful for my life lived and my life to come, but most importantly for where I am right now.