Over the course of my working life I have accumulated almost 4 million frequent flyer miles. Much less than the character played by George Clooney in the movie “Up in the Air” but a respectable sum. In two decades of almost constant business travel, I have had a variety of interesting seat mates : athletes with Super Bowl and NBA rings, a loser in the Presidential nomination process, a princess, IOC members and Olympic athletes and today, on my second of two flights, the Rev. Jesse Jackson who was traveling to the Democratic National Convention . I have never had a blind seatmate until my first flight today. I realized my new friend was handicapped when she boarded in a wheel chair but since she and her helper (nicknamed “Lightening”) were both wearing sun glasses, I thought maybe they were just typical aging Southern California hipsters getting on a plane at LAX. I watched as Lightening got Maggie settled in seat 1A and then departed for his seat in 24F. I was in 1B.
Flying home from a 13 day, 8 city trip around Asia, I was more in sleep than chat mode. Besides I was finishing watching an episode of “White Collar” on my IPhone so I wasn’t really looking for conversation or inspiration. As I watched my phone, my peripheral vision was attracted to Maggie’s hand movement around her seat. After about a minute of seeing her hands move methodically over her surroundings, I pulled out my ear buds and asked if I could help. “I am trying to find the earphone jack” was the reply to my question. The earphone jacks were in an unusual place for a United 737 so it took me a few seconds to locate it and get her connected.
Maggie mentioned she was worried about her IPhone battery running down. I told her she was in luck because this plane had electric outlets in the seats. She smiled, reached into her purse and held up her charger and then asked if the plug would match her cord. I plugged it in for her, she heard the beep indicating the charging had started and a big smile crossed her face. She thanked me and continued to quietly explore her environment by gently touching the seat arms. She located the Direct TV controller and tried to divine what the seven buttons meant. I wasn’t sure whether trying to help her again was crossing a line or something she would appreciate.
I thought back to my teenage years when I would visit my grandmother who was virtually sightless but furiously independent. Each time I visited her I seemed to cross an invisible line and offer help she didn’t want. Normally I was rebuffed with a loving slap and a verbal rebuke that she was perfectly capable of doing things by herself.
I was more uncomfortable watching Maggie struggle than fearful of offending her since she had already accepted my assistance once.
So I decided again to ask if she wanted help. I explained the control to her. She was surprised and happy that the plane had Direct TV and explained to me how Jet Blue was the first to install it on planes. I was impressed by her knowledge of airline trivia. She said she needed to leave a couple text messages before she had to turn off her phone. I was curious to see her send a text message. She did it by talking into her IPhone. When she was finished she went on to explain that the voice recognition did not always work and sometimes she had to use the keyboard which was much more difficult but “doable”.
The boarding of the plane continued. Suddenly two gentlemen stopped and greeted her. She said hello and told them “Lightening” was in 24F. They told her they would see her when the plane landed in Chicago and continued to their seats. I asked where she was going. She said to Mackinaw Island in Michigan but she was worried about the tight connection. I told her I had an IPhone app that could give updates on her flight and the connecting gate. That was an app she wanted. Soon we were just talking like two average travelers. We took off. Half way through the flight, she needed to use the rest room. She simply excused herself felt her way past me and made her way to the rest room. She clearly had done this before and I guessed the wheelchair was only to speed up getting around airports. The flight attendant jumped up to help but only needed to watch her slow but steady progress to her destination. She returned and confidently made her way to her seat. Conversation resumed.
I asked how “Lightening” got his name. She said he was hit by lightening at 14 and had been called that ever since. She asked about my work and my family. We landed, said our goodbyes and I made my way to the gate for my next flight. In many ways this was a normal exchange between people who happened to meet on a plane. On the other hand, for me this was an amazing experience. One of my greatest fears is losing my sight and, in my mind, my freedom. Over the course of 4 hours, my seatmate showed me that life goes on – she travels, sends text messages, and “watches” TV and Netflix. I boarded my next flight thankful that my sightless seatmate opened my eyes.