I usually don’t talk to people at airports. I keep to myself. I do look up at the marvelous crowds passing by. Airports are, by the nature of their being, emotional places. The long, sometimes tearful goodbyes. The hugs, the holding of hands, the deep looks of longing. The lovers who will literally count the hours until catching up to their dear ones. The fathers and sons who clap each other on the back and act tough but who secretly want to say, “I love you,” and “I love you too, Son.” The reunions. The joy of returning, of becoming reacquainted. Of looking deep into the eyes of another - into the soul. Sadness, longing, joy, love, relief, indifference. Perhaps I’m kidding myself but I think I can see it all.
When I approach the gate in Charlotte, there are only a few empty seats. I find one with an empty chair on my left and with two old carry-on bags on the right. Next to the luggage is an old woman. Very old. Her snow white hair is thin. I can see her shiny scalp underneath. It is freckled. She is a face of wrinkles. They strike me as happy wrinkles. Her blue eyes are filmy but she smiles at me as our eyes meet. She smiles.
I sit and watch the people stream by. Big man, sweating, puffing, jogging, bouncing, hurrying to catch a flight. Business people with high tech phones wrapped around their ears. Pilots, swaggering, laughing, flirting, in no hurry. They do this for a living. High heels, fingernail polish, real fur coats. Tailored suits, jeans, tight skirts. Whining children being dragged along. Happy little ones amazed by the sights, the crowds, gawking, taking in the bustle, the newness. Teenagers, alone with their music, closing out the rest. Soldiers, homemakers, executives. Tattoos, beards, wheelchairs, baby carriages, boarding announcements, coffee. Ponytails, buns, streaks, braids, hair spray, diamonds, clay beads, leather, silk, cotton, polyester, chinos, khakis, cutoff shorts. Sensible shoes, running shoes, stiletto heels, sandals. You see everything at an airport. But mostly I don’t talk to people. Mostly I watch.
Then this old man shuffles up to the old woman. He carries one cardboard cup of coffee. They will share it. “So expensive!” he almost shouts. Very old. Bald, liver spots, shaking hands. He is wearing a rumpled suit. With a tie. It is stained. His belt is cracked. His shoes are old fashioned - wing tips - and worn out. His socks don’t quite match. One is gray. One is black. He wears his pants very high. His eyes sparkle at the old woman. His eyes, they shine.
He takes the small worn suitcases from the seat between the old woman and me. He places them gently on the floor. The zipper is broken on one. Two safety pins hold it closed. I wonder if it will make the trip without breaking. I wonder if the old couple will.
He turns slowly. Sits down carefully. His knees pop loudly. He winces in pain. Doesn’t say anything about it. He’s used to it, I think. He settles back and puts his right arm on the armrest. The old woman puts her left hand on top of his right. She laces her thin fingers through his. She’s done this a thousand times. A million. They sit, holding hands. Satisfied in each other’s company. There is love. I can feel it. They sigh identical sighs.
There is an announcement. The man cups his ear. “I couldn’t hear,” he shouts.
“We board in ten minutes,” she says.
“We need you a wheelchair.” He gets up slowly. This man knows pain, I think. He puts his hands on his hips. The hands are arthritic, gnarled, large knuckled. He straightens up slowly. He shuffles to the gate.
The woman looks at me. Her old eyes smile. “He takes care of me.” She winks. She grins. Her wrinkles show me that she always smiles.
The old man returns with some kind of attendant and a wheelchair. The attendant is young, soft, balding, sweating. The old man goes to the aid of his old woman. He helps her up then down into the wheelchair. The old man bends slowly and puts the footrests down. The attendant watches. The old man picks up her swollen feet by the ankles. He places them gently in position. Then, slowly he stands and retrieves their bags. He can’t straighten his fingers. She must have been the one to pin the bag shut. He turns towards the gate. They get to board first. The attendant rolls her slowly. She says to him, “Y’all have been so good to us. So good.” The attendant is bored. If he hears her he doesn’t show it.
Then she turns to me. “We are so blessed, aren’t we?” I am not sure if she is talking to me. “So blessed. The Lord has been so very good to us,” she answers herself. Her hazy blue eyes are surrounded by a web of wrinkles. An inner light shines. Something no camera could ever capture. She turns her face forward. They show their tickets. I last see them as they roll and shamble down the hallway to the plane.
“Yes,” I finally answer her. “You are blessed. And so am I.”