On boarding a long-haul flight from Amsterdam to Vancouver, I found my aisle seat and sat down, waiting to see who my companions would be. Two 70-something Dutch women walked in a few minutes later, looking at me with some suspicion and what I thought was judgement. “They must be racist,” I thought, not realising I was guilty of the same.
We pointedly avoided each other over the new few hours. They chatted in Dutch and I put on The Iron Lady on my screen. Then, something happened. The end of the movie made me cry and made me dwell on depressing thoughts of losing my partner, of family versus ambition, and growing old.
My tears humanised me. Suddenly, I looked at my companions with new eyes. What lives must they have led? What deaths must they have faced? What wars must they have battled in their heads? All thoughts of ‘the other’ faded, and my heart melted in a sense of oneness. I went and got a Mentos from the kitchenette and offered it to them with a smile. They warmed up to me and we began chatting, asking about each other. And what stories I learnt!
At 73, the woman next to me (we didn’t ask each other’s names) was a widow, a former bookkeeper, a mother of two, a grandmother of three and an avid traveller. She’d met the other woman on a trip three years ago and they’d been travelling companions ever since. She told me tales of her children, her daughter-in-law’s difficult pregnancies, and how they had home births in the Netherlands. I asked her about her early years during WW-2. She said her mother was a braveheart: “Even when the bombs were falling, she was out there hanging the clothes to dry. She used to say, if the bomb is supposed to fall on me, it will. That’s the kind of faith she had.” Her father was forced to work in German factories and the family barely had a loaf of bread to eat for days. “We got a quarter slice of bread every meal and it was okay. We were fine. If one person has less and watches another one having more, it really hurts. But if everyone has less, then it doesn’t seem so terrible,” she explained. “We were happy despite everything.” She told me about her country’s rebuilding, and its current standard of living. She told me about her work and asked me about mine. She liked the story of my journey, and used a Dutch word for ‘salute’.
Then I asked her, “What was the happiest time of your life?” She shook her head and mumbled, “No, no,” and I thought she hadn’t understood the question. Then she said, “No particular time was the happiest. Every stage has had its happiness and challenges. I am happiest right now, but I was always ‘happiest right then’ at every stage of my life.” She looked at me with warm, crinkled grey eyes and I could see the deep contentment that comes from a life well-lived.
“And what was the most difficult?” I probed.
She sighed and her eyes became sad. “The years after my retirement at age 60 were the worst. I had to look after my brother who was mentally ill and an alcoholic; my mother, who was also ill but who yet was determined to be there for my brother; and my husband, who was diagnosed with cancer. My brother died in May 2003. In September, my mother lost her will to live and left the earth too. In January 2004, my husband of 44 years passed away.” Her voice became heavy with the pain of years gone by. “The first two years after his death were very, very difficult. I could not get over his loss. Then my children and friends made me realise that it was better to count my blessings than mourn my losses. I became thankful about simply having had him in my life. In any case, I would not have wanted him to suffer any more than he did in the last few days.” She found meaning even in losing her dearest ones, and went on to living up the last years of her life, travelling around the globe by herself or with her newfound friend, learning and discovering new places, cultures and people.
The friend, who spoke very little English, still managed to share bits and pieces of her life too. At 76, she is a serious gardener; she showed me stunning pictures of a huge, lush, gorgeous garden at her home that she’d tended with her own hands. “But this winter was so cold, all my plants died,” she mourned. “So this month, for my birthday, I asked my family to only gift me one plant each.” She is also a biker, and thinks nothing of driving half an hour to pick up the groceries. Her late husband was a skier, and she shared an incident while telling me about the various ski festivals in Holland: “It was so cold coming down one particular route that he nearly gave up; his face was freezing. But just then, his dad gestured to him from the crowd to keep going, because at the next turn, the wind would be behind him, and would become an asset. So he stuck it out, and sure enough, he finished the race.”
To think I would have missed being enriched by all these stories had I continued playing the snob! Judging people by their appearances or even from our past experience is debilitating and a missed opportunity. When we open our hearts, we open to love and a lifetime of memories.