After enduring the check in and boarding process at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport – the Tenth Circle of Hell – and weaving between the folks depositing their carry-on and sundry gifts for friends back home into the overhead bins, I found my seat, 27A, in the front row of the rear Economy section of the Airbus A330. I got myself organized and took my seat, immediately subjected to small talk from the business-travel-guy in 27B.
When the attendant came to check on our willingness and ability to operate the door in an emergency, he interrupted her, reciting the required questions she was about to ask, ostensibly to impress her, or me, or both with his innate knowledge of FAA safety procedure. Clearly, he didn’t know who the fuck he was sitting next to. But I digress…
From that seat, I had a front row seat to the parade of passengers looking to use the lavatory. One such passenger was an elderly man, in his late seventies I would guess, wearing a Michigan State Spartans ball cap, nondescript sweatshirt, and khaki pants. He looked slightly disoriented as he wobbled slowly down the aisle, pausing between the two lavatories on either side to gather his bearings. He eventually pushed his way into one in the center section of the plane.
Minutes later, he emerged, eyes wide open – and still apparently somewhat out of sorts. I had turned my attention back to the window when 27B elbowed me, giggling to point out what he saw. I looked up to see the old man standing there, his light khaki pants now bearing a dark circle of wetness radiating from his crotch.
My heart sank. It was a helpless feeling to watch him stand there, confused and embarrassed simultaneously. A minute later, an attendant noticed that he had also apparently had some sort of accident on the floor of the lavatory, prompting them to close it until they had a chance to sanitize it properly after takeoff.
As an attendant sat captive, strapped in three feet in front of us for takeoff, 27B engaged her in conversation to express his disgust. “How could they let him travel?” he started. “He should be in a nursing home, not traveling internationally.”
The attendant just shrugged and smiled politely to avoid agreement or confrontation. Undeterred, 27B continued, “I mean, they don’t even have an extra pair of pants or anything. They did, like, zero preparation for this,” as he turned to me for validation. I just shook my head and turned away – although I don’t think he understood I was shaking my head at him, not with him.
A few hours into the nine-hour flight, the man returned and had a similar – albeit less severe – incident. Since the attendants tended to congregate in the open areas around my seat, I overheard that his wife was trying to help, and he was fully aware of his situation – and therefore understandably frustrated.
I had something packed in my carry-on that might help, so I notified the purser. The attendant passed along the offer to his wife, and she politely declined the offer. Nonetheless, the attendant came to pass along her gratitude, which accomplished the goal of making the guy in 27B realize I was definitely not sharing his view of the incidents.
Still, his absence of empathy surprised me. To see that kind of anger – not just indifference, but anger – directed at a man who clearly had no control over his abilities at that time, it was saddening. Ignoring his plight wouldn’t be honorable, but at least understandable as a symptom of our larger indifference to others. Criticizing, though, required a special kind of ignorance.
Falling victim to the same malady himself someday is a distinct possibility, seeing his ability to control his body as he wishes decline is an absolute certainty. How could he – how could anyone – not see themselves in the face of that old man in that moment? There but for the grace of God go I.
Even amongst those that embrace the elderly, our first reaction is often to treat them as lovable caricatures. There’s no malice intended in that – if anything, the opposite – but it still detracts from their value as adults.
All the problems and challenges we are facing today, they have already conquered. They have lived the same highs and lows as us, and quite possibly survived a more difficult path. If they need some extra time or an extra hand to get by, well, goddamnit they’ve earned it.
Please – take an extra minute, whenever possible, to help our older friends out. Not only do they appreciate it more than you know, that will be us some day – and we can only hope we taught our kids to support us in kind.