There but for the grace of God…

I had been working for my current employer for about a month and a half when I took my second work trip along with two of my colleagues in early Fall of 2008.  We boarded a little turbo prop airplane headed for a client campus in Tulsa, OK.  Unfortunately I was missing most of the Democratic National Convention festivities, and I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for myself because of the fun events my friends were attending that I was missing out on. But such is life.

The little airplane was only four seats wide, two on each side.  I sat down next to a middle-aged man who looked like he hadn’t seen the sun in decades.  He was bald but had reddish facial hair.  He saw me coming and moved the seatbelt off of my seat for me.  He offered to hold my stuff for me while I put my briefcase in the overhead bin.  He had a very genuine smile.  I smiled back.  I pulled the airline magazine out from the back of the seat in front of me and turned to the crossword puzzle.  The man asked if I was good at crosswords.  I said no–the only time I ever do them is on flights.  I told him I usually complete less than half of them before I get frustrated and put them away.  He said that he was bad at them, too, but he told me that he’d try to help me if I got stuck.  I smiled and thanked him, and that ended our small talk for the next hour or so.

The flight was short…only an hour and 20 minutes. As the pilot’s voice announced over the intercom that we were beginning our descent into Tulsa, I struck up a conversation with the man next to me again. I asked if he was from Tulsa. He said no, he was from Mile City, Montana, but his brother lived in Tulsa. He had made this trip every 3 weeks since June. I inquired as to the reason, and he said that Tulsa had a good cancer treatment center.

“Oh,” I said. And then sat there in silence.

Cancer treatment for him or for his brother, I asked.  For him, he told me.

“Oh…”   ….   “I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. More silence. Is that what I was supposed to say?  It’s amazing how short of words you find yourself when someone reveals to you that they have a deadly disease. Do I ask this stranger questions? Did he just give me an open invitation to talk about it or did I just make him reveal something that he didn’t want to? What do I say now?

I dug for the skills I learned in my practicums as a Clinical Psychology grad student. I knew you shouldn’t drop the topic when someone tells you something that intense. I wanted to let him know that I was listening, and if he wanted to, let him bring the conversation to a close. So I mentioned that I was surprised to hear that Tulsa had a good cancer treatment center. That was the invitation he needed. He proceeded to tell me that he was receiving treatment in Billings, MT, but wasn’t happy with the staff or the treatment there. His brother did some research and they decided to give the Tulsa center a try. I asked how it was going. He said “good I guess. It’s really just about pain management. This one got me. It’s in my spine.”


Oh God. This man is dying. I looked at his left hand. No wedding ring. This man is alone and dying. After another awkward silence I again said “I’m so sorry to hear that.” He nodded his head and looked out the window. I swear an hour passed. It was probably less than a minute. When he turned back to me, he wiped away a tear, and proceeded to tell me the rest of his story. He had taken a new job with an oil drilling company that Spring, and only 13 days into the job he suffered an injury on the job that left him with a broken back. As he was being treated for his injury, they found his prostate cancer, which had already spread into his spine. Had he not broken his back, he wouldn’t have known about the cancer and he would be dead by now. They treated him aggressively, knowing it would only extend his life, not save it. Then his doctor asked if he would be willing to participate in a study on a trial cancer treatment. He might receive the placebo. Essentially his doctor was saying to him “you’re already dying…can we experiment on you?”  That’s when he left the Billings treatment center.

He told me that since he started going to Tulsa, his quality of life has improved, and that was obviously important since he didn’t have much of it left. His pain was manageable now. However, on this particular trip he would receive his last chemo treatment. I didn’t have to ask what that meant. 

We were on the ground at this point, and people in the front of the plane were getting off. We exchanged some cordial it-was-nice-to-meet-you’s, and then he wished me luck with my business trip. I said “thank you…good luck to you too.” I felt dumb saying that. What I really wanted to say was “I’m so sorry that you’re dying. You’re such a nice man. I so badly wish I could change your fate for you.” I didn’t say that, of course, but he could see it written all over my face. He just smiled again and nodded. And he was gone. It was the longest 20 minute conversation I’ve had in a long time.

Today was, without a doubt, the most intense plane ride I’ve ever taken. And I felt like a psychology graduate student again, forcing myself to ride out the silence that is necessary for people to say what they need to say… resist the urge to fill up the awkward silence… or change the subject… or ask too many questions.  Forcing myself to just be someone that allows a grown man–a stranger–to cry if he needs to. It is truly an exercise! It’s SO difficult to be transparent. To empathize but not pity. This is why I’m no longer a psychologist. It’s too much for me. I walked off the plane, wanting to cry. Shame on me for whatever petty grievances I’ve had lately. I have my health, and my life ahead of me.

There but for the grace of God, go I.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Samuel
    Jul 03, 2011 @ 14:58:32

    the gift of listening, and caring, and perhaps 20 minutes of your time, is as much as you could give, as much as he could ask

    and really, its enough.

    just that little snapshot of warmth from another human… can be so golden, so precious.

    I shall leave you with a short snippet o an old poem, author unknown:

    “I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good thing,
    therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow human
    being let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not
    pass this way again.”


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