On the flight from Chicago to Tucson I met Joe – a forester of 38 years whose tag-line on his current business card reads “working at retirement”. Joe comes from a place called Traverse City, Michigan, which he spent the good part of an hour describing to me. Everything from the house and car that Bruce Willis used to rent when he and Demi would bring the kids there…to the cherry picking festival that takes place each year where you can literally pick pounds and pounds of huge cherries for virtually nothing. Even just thinking about that now makes my mouth water.
Joe taught me all about the wild fires taking place in the West these days. He explained about the laws to protect trees and the ways to prevent fires from spreading. He told me about the most beautiful places in all of America that he had seen when having to travel for forestry.
Then I asked about his family. And he got quiet. “Did your kids grow up in Traverse City too?”
“Yes, yes my son did.”
“Oh, nice! Where is he now?”
His eyes began to swell with tears. “He was living in LA. My son died two years ago.”
There was a pang in my heart. I was lifted thousands and thousands of miles above the ground, and I was connecting with this other human being who I didn’t even know existed 2 hours prior. Crazy world.
“I’d say LA did it to him…”
“What do you mean? Was he in an accident?”
“He was a very successful engineer. He owned his own company and had many employees and many assets. Then the economy tanked. And it was too much. He couldn’t stand letting that many people down. Failing. He took his own life.” His eyes met mine when he said those final words.
“I’m so sorry…”
I bet Joe didn’t know he’d be sharing that story with a stranger on a plane. I bet neither of us realized when we positioned ourselves in row 16 that this would be our conversation today. But that’s the thing about opening up. You learn things and hear things and see things that you otherwise would not have. I’m grateful to Joe for feeling vulnerable enough to tell me his story. I’m grateful to myself for putting down my book and getting to know the person sitting next to me.