7-years ago this week, my 7 and 1/2 year old (the half is important!) daughter met her best friend on a Southwest Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I had just miserably failed to win the ultimate prize on the TV show Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? Yes, the actual show in front of a live studio audience. It was humiliating. The worst part, it was a dental/medical question, and I was about to start medical school only 5-weeks later. I would never live it down. But that is another story.
I was sitting in an isle seat with my then 6-month old on my lap, and my wife next to me. The gentleman seated across the isle gave me this look that screamed, “Oh great, another baby that is going to cry for the next 3 to 4 hours.” She ended up not muttering a sound the entire flight, but on a few occasions when the mystery man looked over she would smile back at him and it caught his attention. Eventually he asked me if I was in the military (the haircut gave it away) and then we began to exchange stories. After a little while it was if we had been friends for years. He was 73, I was 30. He a retired military officer, I myself with 10-years of service thus far. He was now a professor at the same university my wife had graduated from. One of his daughters a prior Navy physician, and I myself about to become one. He was on his way to visit his daughter and grandkids that had recently moved to Wisconsin from California. We had just moved to Wisconsin from California as well. Many things were lining up.
As the pilot called for the flight attendants to prepare for landing, this man handed me his business card. A simple gesture. But then he asked me if he could hold my little baby girl once we got down to the baggage claim area. My wife immediately gave me this stare of death. An old man wanted to hold my baby, and I was actually considering it. What was I thinking! He said he wanted to show his wife that he is an excellent grandfather. So I let him hold her. His wife remained in the car at curbside, so she never saw him holding her. My baby pulled away, but never cried. The perfect amount of stranger anxiety.
Over the next few years we would set up quick visits whenever he and his wife flew into town to visit their family. The Milwaukee airport was our rendezvous point. The friendship grew rather quickly. Our new surrogate grandparents. We had lacked “real” ones to offer our baby, so this was incredible.
The next 6-years would be such a joy. We would fly to California and stay with them when the schedule allowed, and eventually we would move back and it would be only a short drive between our homes. Then January 2017 arrived. Some reflux and then a piece of chicken caught in the throat, would eventually reveal Esophageal Cancer. The big “C” word. A word often synonymous with “cancel” as in to cancel one’s LIFE. One of the worst types of cancer with an 85% mortality rate at 5-years.
These past 6-months have been quite a journey – a real PROCESS. My 7 and 1/2 year old has not been smiling. Sadness has overtaken her. But today she got to see Grandpa again. He showed her his feeding tube (she had lots of questions), he told her a few stories, and he gave her a big smile. They were not outside chasing one another and kicking trash cans, but they were happy. Smiling with joy. 80-years and merely 7, generations apart, yet the best of friends. A smile had never meant this much to me ever before. What will you smile about today?