It was a chance conversation between strangers in the departure terminal of Logan Airport in Boston the Sunday following Christmas. Waiting for their flight, an Island mother and her two young girls sat next to a man returning to California, carrying an unseen burden of grief.
They boarded the same plane. During the flight the children each handed Bruce Bailey a note that he tucked in his pocket unread. The plane landed, and they went their separate ways.
Later, at home in San Diego, Bruce Bailey read the notes. As the weeks passed, he wanted to contact the girls to let them know how their words and simple, unadorned kindness had eased his grief over the recent loss of his wife and had affected his outlook on life.
He knew from the notes that the girls were named Kaya and Grace. He recalled that the family said they were visiting relatives. He knew they lived on Martha’s Vineyard but little else beyond the bare details of mutual loss they shared in conversation while waiting for their plane.
A lawyer by profession, first in private practice and now for the city of San Diego, Mr. Bailey called the Vineyard Haven post office. Perhaps, he thought, the postmaster in a small community would know a mother with two children named Kaya and Grace.
Postmaster Joe Massua did not. He recommended Mr. Bailey call The Martha’s Vineyard Times.
A late evening call
Two weeks ago today, Mr. Bailey called The Times office. It was late. He caught a reporter on his way out the door. Mr. Bailey asked him if he could spare a few minutes to listen to his story.
He explained that eight months ago his wife had died of pancreatic cancer. “Judy and I had been married for 39 years,” he said. “I met her in law school at the University of Toledo. She was one of three females in the class.”
It had happened quickly. On March 9, his birthday, the doctor delivered a grim prognosis. “Two months and three days later, she passed on. Excuse me,” he said as he paused a moment, “I’m still getting over this.”
In December, Mr. Bailey decided to travel East for one week, a trip he described as a memorial tour. He visited New York City where through a stroke of luck he was able to get into a sold out show by trumpeter Chris Botti. Three years earlier he and his wife had seen Chris Botti together.
He spent Christmas with his relatives in Marblehead. “It was healing for me to get away,” he said.
He left for the airport early that Sunday, anxious to avoid a snowstorm that was expected. The terminal was crowded as he waited for a Southwest Airlines flight to San Diego.
Mr. Bailey said he still attends counseling sessions through Hospice. “One of the things that I am getting through is not only the grieving process but where I can talk to people without crying,” he said. “And I am getting there, I’m doing fine.”
A woman with two children sat in the only empty seats, next to him. “I started talking to mom, and I don’t remember her name. I know she was Italian and just a wonderful lady.”
She was traveling with her daughter, Kaya, 7, and stepdaughter, Grace, 13. He thinks they said something about traveling to Carlsbad.
He learned that the woman’s first husband had died suddenly a few years earlier and she had remarried a man who had lost his wife, Grace’s mom, five years earlier.
“Grace was sitting on the other side of mom so I had to look around mom to say hi to Grace. And Grace said to me, ‘You know, Mr. Bailey, my mom died of pancreatic cancer too, and that was five years ago.’ And I said, gee you were eight years of age.”
“We talked about it just briefly,” he said.
The conversation was casual despite a few tears as the older man, mother, and children shared the details of their lives. After about 40 minutes, they said goodbye and boarded their plane.
“Before the plane landed in Phoenix the two girls came up and said, ‘Mr. Bailey, here,’ and they handed me two notes.”
He briefly looked at the notes and placed them in his pocket. Later, he caught a glimpse of the family across the luggage pickup area.
“I didn’t have a chance until I got home to read them and understand what they really were,” he said. He said they were both lovely notes, but Grace’s in particular struck a deep chord. “That an eight-year-old who loses her mom and who is now 13 could write a letter like that to me — I was just floored by it.
“Grace’s insightfulness has given direction to this 65 year old dealing with his grief,” he said.
Mr. Bailey made copies of both notes and he carries both with him. He placed the originals in a memorial booklet dedicated to his wife.
Mr. Bailey, a partner in a private law firm, was in semi-retirement when he decided to take a job with the city of San Diego, which is engaged in litigation against several major companies in connection with a series of devastating wildfires.
He said he loves his new job and the direction it provides, and he wrestles with the loss he feels. But he is quick to add that he is getting through it. “I am so blessed,” he said.
Asked what he would want Grace and Kaya to know when they are older, Mr. Bailey said, “What I would like them to know is that even at their young age they can help the world be a better place, and I’m a perfect example of it. They have helped me immeasurably in my outlook on getting through grief. That’s what they should know.
“And if I never reach out to them, they’ll never know what those simple little 40 minutes that they spent with me and their mom, and then their little notes — they’ll never have an idea of how much I want to thank them and let them know that I’m making great steps forward thanks to them.”
Editor’s note: Mr. Bailey hopes to hear from the family. The Times will forward contact information to him.