I reached into my purse, looked at my ticket, and checked the flight time again. 9:36 am. My mom walked over to the table with two steaming paper cups of tea and sat down.
“It’s black,” she said, and pushed one of the cups toward me.
“Perfect, thank you. I just got us some egg tacos with cheese and potatoes.” I pushed a checkered paper tray across the table and handed her a napkin.
“I really hope the plane arrives on time,” I said.
We chatted for a while, long enough to finish the tacos and start on a roll of Lifesaver candies. The morning air was warm and bright and the tea was starting to make us both feel stifled and flushed. As I loosened my mustard-colored scarf and twisted my hair into a makeshift chignon to get it off my neck, I considered what a liminal space an airport is. You dress for where you’re supposed to go, not where you are. Your mind hovers over a different destination, while your body remains stationery, your senses acting as weights that trap you in the present.
I started to take out my phone and scroll through Instagram when I heard a voice behind me like a crack of lightning. My mom and I turned around and saw an older man in a janitorial outfit talking to a woman with cropped brown hair and high heels.
His voice woke the clean, sleepy airport like a bird’s sudden whistling. It was pure and bright and sharp. He spoke like jazz music. His words were honey smooth strings of sound that burst in the middle with the kind of bold joy that makes no apologies for its fullness.
“How you doin’ today, miss? You feelin’ 100%?” he asked.
“I’m okay,” the woman said.
“Just okay? I’m 100%. Ya gotta be. Look outside! The sun is shining.”
The woman laughed and said, “That’s true.”
He walked past our table wheeling a cart full of supplies and we said hello. He left his cart in the middle of the linoleum walkway and strode toward our table.
His nametag read “Philip” and he was wearing a charcoal baseball cap and light blue collared shirt beneath his work jacket.
“I like what you said about feeling 100%,” my mom said to Philip. “That’s a great attitude.”
He widened his eyes and leaned forward. “Well, I’m alive! I have life!” he said and patted his chest. Philip held his arm parallel to the ground and kicked his left leg up until it touched his hand. “I can do that!” he said.
My mom and I laughed. “I definitely can’t do that,” I said.
“How old are you?” my mom asked him.
“70 years old,” he said and nodded his head once.
“No way,” my mom and I said in unison.
“What, you don’t believe me?” He asked. “These folks never believe me…” He shook his head and started rummaging in his pants pocket. “Here, here, I show ya. Get out my ID and I show ya.”
He held his wallet—fat and brown, the kind you know is full of receipts and photos and weathered scraps of paper—in front of my mom. “When was I born?” he asked.
“Yep, you’re 70 all right,” she said. “So is my mom. She turns 70 this week so we’re flying out to Salt Lake to see her,” my mom said.
“See, look at that! Ya got family. Ya got health, you’re alive, what more ya need?”
My mom and I looked at each other, smiled, and shrugged. “I can’t think of much,” I said.
“If you don’t mind me asking, why are you still working?” my mom asked. “Do you get retirement?”
He swatted at the air. “Oh, I got my retirement. I got my pension. But I like workin’. I like to move and be social. Get to have nice conversations with people like you—and get paid doin’ it!”
“See now, ya gotta look at each day and see what ya workin’ with. I look outside, the sun is shining, I’m breathing, I got a job, I got kids and grandkids. What more I need?”
It was a rhetorical question. Philip’s voice carried in it an unwavering assurance that rendered any validation or response we could offer futile. So I just smiled at him, happy to listen.
Philip put his hand on my mom’s shoulder. “This your mom?” he said to me.
“That’s her,” I said.
“Look at that,” he said. “You have family, you got someone who loves you.” He turned to my mom. “You do love this girl, right?”
She nodded and held back a smile.
He looked at me again. “You healthy?”
“You got a job, you got a passion?”
“Then that’s it. What more you need?” He tossed up his hands, as though in exasperation, and then pointed his finger at me. “You alive in this world.”
I nodded with a closed mouth and wide eyes, feeling as though Philip had just revealed to me one of life’s greatest unknown truths. I am alive. I held the knowledge in my hand like I would a new shell found at the beach, feeling its weight and inspecting its ridges and flecks.
“And the sun! Oh, it is beautiful. Beautiful. All ya need is a little fresh air to feel right.” Philip adjusted his hat, put his hands on his hips, and stared out the rectangular pane of glass windows that looked out on the runway.
My mom put her hand on Philip’s arm. “You have a beautiful soul, Philip. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us.”
He looked us both in the eyes and said, “My pleasure. You all take care now. And take care of each other.”
“We will,” I said.
Philip started to walk toward his rolling cart of tools and trash bags.
“Have a good day!” I said as he rolled away from us and toward Gate A4.
“I always do!” he said.
I didn’t doubt it for a moment.