In my line of work, I travel far and wide to meet people from all walks of life. Some are funny, others are intensely intriguing. Those, and everyone in between each end of that spectrum, have things to teach, lessons to impart, and memories to imprint. Being introduced and sometimes immersed in someone’s story is by far the greatest benefit I reap from traveling the world. The foods are always mesmerizing, the cultures are interesting, but the people – the people are so incredibly fascinating to me. Sometimes I feel as though my travels aren’t random happenstances but rather a purposeful itinerary that is part of a grander design to be at the right place at the right time. In a strange fit of irony, the more people I meet the more I learn about myself.
On a recent trip, I found myself stuck at a layover that was originally supposed to last fifty minutes but ended up lasting just over four hours. Being stranded in an airport terminal for extended periods is usually excruciatingly boring, but on this particular day I had the great fortune to meet someone who had a profound impact on my window on the world. Had it not been for that longer-than-usual delay, I would have missed a guidepost designed to keep me on this seemingly pre-ordained journey of self-discovery.
Her name was Katherine Dolby. She was 90 years old. I knew this because she recounted that fact several times as we sat together in Terminal C while a maelstrom of travelers swarmed all around us with places to go, bags to claim, and rides to catch. We didn’t care, though, we had nowhere to go and had nothing but time to spare. She had a very regal appearance and didn’t have a single white, wavy hair out of place. Katherine was a very proud woman impossibly full of history and folklore. I looked just like her son Edward – another fact that one could not escape as she repeated it many times. It never got old though, because when she spoke it was very clear she was holding court and you could feel the gravity in every word.
She and her husband Robert, the love of her life, brought 10 children into the world. She still lived in the same house that they moved into on their wedding day in 1937. She and Robert were both 17 years old. On this day in Terminal C, three quarters of a century later, she had survived them all. Two daughters passed from ovarian cancer years ago. All eight sons served their country in the armed services and paid the ultimate price of freedom. Robert had passed three years ago from Alzheimer’s disease. Katherine understood loss. Lesser people would have been bitter, depressed, and angry at their lot in life. Not this woman.
She told me story after story within those four hours that depicted a life filled with love, laughter, faith, tears, and hope. Each of them was a great account that served as testament to never giving up in the face of great adversity. You just couldn’t come away without witnessing the unfathomable strength of the human spirit. People always tell you that everything happens for a reason, that you are never given circumstances that you aren’t strong enough to deal with, and that when one door closes – another one opens. Katherine not only understood this, she personified it. I never felt so humbled to be sitting there with her and listening to her song.
When I gathered up enough courage to ask her how she found the strength to carry on after having experienced so much, she just looked at me with clear eyes that smiled and said, “Life is thickly sown with thorns, and I know no other remedy than to pass quickly through them. The longer we dwell on our misfortunes, the greater is their power to harm us.” After a few moments, I replied with “Voltaire”, having recognized the quote. Her face beamed that I would know it, and she followed on by telling me that she felt blessed to have lived this long. If she was meant to live another few years, she was grateful for them. If her time came today, she would also be grateful because she had a rich, full life. It was the most eloquent characterization of a win-win scenario I had ever heard. With that, she quietly excused herself to the ladies room to freshen up. She never returned. She passed away in Terminal C that day. I said a prayer, but shed no tears because Katherine Dolby had accomplished so much – not the least of which was to teach me that adversity enhances this tale we call life. My struggles seem rather insignificant in the wake of a life well-lived. Never give up – life is gift.