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A Conversation that Changed Two Lives

by Jim Stapleton

The Holy Spirit at Work

In November 2010, my dear wife, Winnie, lost her four-year battle with brain cancer. During our 57 years of marriage, we raised seven children, welcomed 14 grandchildren and one-great grandchild into our family. We lived in a community of friends who enriched our lives in countless ways on a daily basis.

Pieta' replica in Inverness Jim and Winnie Stapleton at Mount Hood.

Winnie was a remarkable woman. She had an unfaltering faith in God and extended a hand in friendship to everyone she met. She was the glue that held this family together. For the last four years of our life together, I was her primary caregiver, totally focused on her wellbeing. She was my best friend, and her passing left a big hole in my life, one that I know I can never truly fill with anything but the memories of our time together.

In the months since Winnie's death, I have struggled to find my "new normal." The suburban Chicago home we shared for nearly 45 years now holds a lone tenant, and the prospect of a long winter—my first winter without Winnie—was an unwelcome one. One of our sons, who owns a successful business on the West Coast, invited me to spend some time with him in Nuevo Vallarta, a resort town about 12 miles north of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The thinking was that I could use a change of scene to "recharge" my batteries; to trade the view of leafless trees and cold pewter skies for palm trees and sun-drenched beaches. Good thinking, certainly, but I was hesitant to accept the invitation at first. I wasn't sure I wanted A conversation that changed two lives to travel, and I wasn't sure if I was ready. Maybe a few weeks away would do me some good, I concluded, so I made my travel plans and set my sights on some rest and relaxation.

My family put together a nice travel package. I had first-class seating on all three legs of my trip—seat 6A on each flight. After about 10 days of sun, golf and reading (along with, admittedly, a few margaritas), I was ready to get back home and begin the rest of my life. Old man winter, however, had other thoughts. The day I was scheduled to fly home through Dallas-Fort Worth, the United States was gripped by a nation-wide winter storm. Chicago was blanketed by 23 inches of snow in one of the worst blizzards in its history. O'Hare Airport was shut down. The following day, Dallas was expecting its own storm, and as predicted, its airport was shut down as an ice storm glazed central Texas. My stopover flight through DFW was cancelled. With little alternative, I rebooked my flights for the following week, then retreated to a few more days of sun and relaxation. "If you're going to be stuck anywhere," I thought to myself, "this is a pretty great place to be."

As I boarded the plane in Puerto Vallarta to return home the following week, I noticed that I was now ticketed in seat 5A, a minor change from my original itinerary due to my re-booked flights. Upon entering the cabin, I discovered someone already seated in 5A. The flight attendant confirmed this and kindly asked the gentleman to move, but I assured her that it made no difference to me where I sat. Since the gentleman was already settled in, I suggested he remain there and I would take his assigned seat, 6A, my original booking. No problem.

As the passengers boarded the plane, a young businessman settled into 5B in the row in front of me. Looking up from my book, I thought to myself that he would have been someone nice to talk to. Once the plane filled up, the seat next to me, 6B, remained empty. After a long pause, a rather disheveled looking man of Mexican descent entered the first class cabin anxiously looking around for his seat. He was not too well dressed and sported a couple of day's growth of a graying beard, looking very, very tired. Sure enough, he plopped in the seat next to me. I was not happy. I felt I was in for a long flight, with probably little or no conversation between us.

About 20 minutes after takeoff, my seat partner asked me if I lived in Dallas. I told him no, and that I was heading on to Chicago. In turn, I asked him where he was going, and he told me Bogotá, via Dallas and Miami. "Why?" I asked. He told me he had built a new house for his wife on a hill that she really loved. Unfortunately, she recently passed away, and he was selling the house. They were married 32 years.

"She died of a brain tumor," he said. "She died six months after it was discovered."

I closed my book, repositioned myself towards him and said, "You aren't going to believe this..." I then told him about Winnie.

We talked the entire flight, comparing notes and experiences. Our stories were so similar it was eerie. In a seemingly timeless volley of memories and empathy, we talked about doctors, operations, treatments, the affect of our wives' illness on our families, and so on. Before we both knew it, we began our descent into Dallas. I turned in my seat and faced the man. He was crying. He said to me, "Señor, I haven't yet been able to talk about this to anyone. I didn't think anyone would understand what I was going through. I am so very grateful we met."

We shook hands and said warm goodbyes. As he collected his things, I watched him get off the plane. I could see that his face was relaxed and his step was a little lighter. Perhaps as well, his burden was slightly eased.

I learned a couple of things from this experience. I learned the Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways—the winter storm and the seat mix-up, for instance. If the blizzard did not change my travel plans, I would not have been on that plane. If the passenger in 5A took his original seat or had moved to 6A when I first boarded, I would never have met the Mexican man. We wouldn't have had a truly remarkable conversation, and sadly, he wouldn't have been able to unburden himself just a little bit, at least not then. Was this all just a coincidence? My faith tells me "no." I believe this all happened for a reason.

I am grateful that my son invited me to be with him and his wife in Mexico. I am grateful that my family here at home gently prodded me to accept that invitation. I am grateful for the time I took to reflect, to gain some perspective by the change of scenery, to cleanse the palette, so to speak. I am grateful that I was in a better position mentally and emotionally after my time away to help a man whose footsteps were remarkably similar to mine. I am grateful, too, to know that at age 78, I can still learn.

I learned not to judge a person by looks alone. It turns out my seat partner was a wealthy business man from Bogotá and Mexico. After laying his wife to rest the prior week, and enduring many sleepless nights (as I had) before her suffering ended, his personal appearance on that day's flight wasn't his highest priority. He was lost, looking to be found, and he stumbled into someone to talk to who could understand his woes.

And, most importantly, I learned that no matter where I travel, no matter who I encounter, my beloved Winnie will always be with me. Always.

When I returned home I had a much different outlook on life. I was ready, refreshed and anxious to begin the next phase of my life. I will never forget that flight from Mexico, and I am forever grateful that I was in seat 6A that day.

Jim Stapleton has been an active parishioner of Our Lady of the Wayside in Arlington Heights, IL, for over 40 years.


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