As readers of e360 may know, I travel a bit – about 100,000 miles a year to be specific. In traveling this much, I have learned the survival skill of going on what I call “autopilot” mode. I can do the flight check-in, security screening, and boarding process without a thought, emotion, and in my sleep if necessary. Think George Clooney from Up in the Air; obviously without the good looks.
In this pack, fly, and drive life of mine, it is easy to get detached from humanity as you temporarily interact with many strangers while going from one place to another. Thankfully, last week I was feeling a little travel fatigued having come off back to back weeks of travel to Washington DC and The Hague respectively (another e360 post to follow regarding my trip to Holland). I say thankfully because the fatigue snapped me out of autopilot mode which allowed me to meet someone I would have otherwise not taken the time or interest to do.
His name is Earl.
Earl is a shoe shine attendant on the D concourse of the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport – CLE. At first glance, you would likely guess that Earl is in his late 70s or early 80s, a small slender man. I first suspected he was relegated to the D concourse because of his advanced years and slower pace, which would be ill-suited for the much busier C concourse. Regardless of the reason, I was happy to see someone at the stand ready to restore the shine of my well traveled shoes.
I can't tell what Earl’s first impression of me was, but he would have been justified in thinking I was a bit of a nut for I immediately launched us into a conversation about how shoe shine attendants are assigned to specific stands, how our increasingly less formal culture was diminishing demand for attendants, and how the entire travel experience has devolved into herding of cattle. He politely listened to my self-righteous complaints of flying mostly on express jets, which really negates most benefits of platinum elite status.
My brain must have caught up to my mouth right about then as I concluded the voice I was hearing must certainly have belonged to a pompous jackass. Embarrassed by that realization, I turned my attention to the slight elderly man restoring some credibility to my appearance by polishing my shoes. And so it was that I noticed Earl is not a healthy man.
The visible jaundice of his eyes was the product of 15+ years of dialysis. His body had long stopped removing toxins on its own and Earl was being kept alive through the medical miracle of dialysis; which apparently can also hasten the appearance of aging as Earl is only 63 years-old.
Now thoroughly interested to learn more about Earl and ignoring any semblance of privacy, I pressed him further about career, family, and friends. He proudly told me about his two grown children (parents themselves) and expressed gratitude towards his ex-wife for having raised their children well. And as he shared with me a routine he enjoys from time to time, a Sunday evening meal with friends (an occasion to dress up). At that moment I noticed that this man, this stranger, was chronicling his life to me as one might if coming to the end of life’s journey. It was then I asked Earl if dialysis was the only medical treatment he was enduring.
With a chuckle he replied, “well … no, I have stage four pancreatic cancer,” he replied with a smile.
After picking up my jaw from hitting the floor, I asked him what treatment protocols he was following to deal with this dire diagnosis. “Nothing. The cancer has spread so far there really isn’t anything they can do anymore,” he said; again with a chuckle. When I pressed him on how he could speak of this with a light-hearted laugh, his answer (again) amazed me.
“Because when they told me that bit of news, they also said that I would only have about 90 more days to live … and that was 126 days ago,” he said most emphatically, pounding the shine stand with his fist.
Incredulously I asked why on earth he had chosen to spend his few remaining days in an airport shining the shoes of strangers. But then my own insecurities gave way to acknowledge that each of us would deal with such news in whatever unique way one might, and that would need to make sense for no one other than the affected individual.
Earl told me that when he knew the time had come, he would simply stop the dialysis and slip away via an induced coma. He felt that was better than hospice and pain medications. I am still gripped by the plain and matter of fact way that he said this to me. Selfishly, I implored him to be more proactive in his life extending measures that he politely (if not disingenuously) said he would consider.
I can’t understand why Earl chose to keep shining shoes, but I am thankful and humbled that he did. He reminded me that in this crazy paced life of ours, we would do well to experience more and autopilot less. Incredible stories and life lessons are all around us, if we would just open ourselves to see them. So to all my travel warrior friends out there, if you should find yourself in concourse D of the CLE airport, swing by and see if Earl is working. If you are lucky enough to meet him, you will be richer for the experience.
Thom Ruhe Director of Entrepreneurship The Kauffman Foundation