Yesterday I made an international flight and due to traffic en route to the airport, the run to the plane was nonstop. Taking my seat I was aware that there was something unusual about the man sitting beside me, but I wasn't sure what it was. At some point during the flight I realised that he'd been staring at the same page of a magazine for a very long time, his eyes open. My feeling was that he seemed lost, and my thought was that he was grieving. Twenty minutes from our destination he suddenly turned to me, grabbed my arm and demanded to know, "What have you done with my wife?!"
A sense of calm and compassion washed over me and without reacting, I looked him in the eyes and said, "She'll be right back. Let me go check on her for you." He instantly let go of my arm, gently smiled and said, "Oh, thank you."
Appreciating that I had an aisle seat, I walked to the front of the plane to speak with the head flight attendant. Facing the people in the front row as I knew he was looking at us, I told her what was happening and she said that they were aware of his 'challenges', early stages of Alzheimer's, but had been assured that he was fine to fly and his wife was waiting for him at the gate. We agreed that the stress had proven too much and when she said she'd come back and talk with him, I assured her that was unnecessary and inadvisable.
Returning to my seat, I sat down, smiled and touched his arm saying, "I found her. She'll be waiting for you at the front of the plane when we land. Everything is okay."
He thanked me again and was fine for the rest of the trip.
This experience was a powerful reminder about how empathy defines our humanity.