The true gift was more than a pumpkin roll

Fear of flying was forgotten when a young man on the plane began a conversation.

While waiting to board a plane to visit my parents for Thanksgiving, I noticed a young man walking around trying to engage people in conversation. Nothing about his size or appearance would have troubled the passengers he approached, although it appeared that he had a mental disability that affected the nature of the interactions. Most people responded politely to him; a few ignored him.

After boarding the plane, I noticed that he was sitting across the aisle from my boyfriend, Douglas, and me.

As the plane took off, I began praying. For years, I've feared flying. For a while, I stopped flying all together but eventually, I started flying again. To help alleviate the anxiety, I usually wrote letters or prayed.

That day, during my prayers, I heard the young man across the aisle. "Are you reading?" he asked.

"Yes," Douglas said, smiling.

The young man leaned over and peered at Douglas's book. "What are you reading?" He touched the pages and remarked, "A lot of words. No pictures."

Douglas politely verified the man's observation.

"That is your wife?" He pointed at me.

"No," Douglas answered, "my girlfriend."

"She's pretty," the man said.

I started laughing and then looked over to thank him for the compliment. I could see that he had a warm smile.

"You look like Julia Roberts," he added.

"Wow," I replied. "No one has ever told me that."

The man's directness prompted me to engage in the normal pleasantries: "What's your name? Where are you from? Where are you going?"

His name was Peter, and he lived in Pittsburgh. Peter worked at a Goodwill store. He was on his way to Kentucky, like us, for Thanksgiving with his family. Peter was travelling with a woman who appeared to be his mom. We soon discovered that Peter loved food and wanted to talk about Thanksgiving by listing everything on the typical holiday menu. "Will you eat turkey? White or dark meat? Stuffing? Mashed potatoes? Cranberry sauce?" When he couldn't name any more main-course items, he turned to desserts: "Apple pie? Pecan pie? Chocolate cream pie?"

Then, before I could say any more prayers, we had safely landed. As we got off the plane, the woman traveling with Peter reached in her purse and pulled out something that looked like an oversized pecan roll. "It's a pumpkin cake and cream cheese roll," she explained. "Peter likes to give them to his friends, and he wanted you to have one. He's a fairly good judge of character, so take this as a compliment."

Before leaving the baggage claim area, we thanked Peter and wished him a happy Thanksgiving.

That week, my family and I ate Peter's dessert at nearly every meal. When people visited, we shared more than just a pumpkin roll; we also shared the story of Peter.

On the Monday after Thanksgiving, Douglas and I returned to the airport to catch an early flight. When we arrived at the gate, there stood Peter. He recognized us immediately and gave us hugs before we all boarded the same flight. Peter and I didn't have adjacent seats this time, so I wrote him a letter. I told him how delicious his pumpkin roll had been and how talking with him had eased my fear of flying. After we landed, I rushed down the aisle to hand him my letter.

"Peter," I said, "this is for you."

Peter flashed a smile and took the letter but didn't open it; the commotion of passengers gathering luggage had distracted him. But Peter's mom looked at me and gently nodded, saying, "You don't know how much he'll appreciate this."

"And he doesn't know how much I appreciated meeting him," I replied.

Peter was already walking away down the aisle, clutching the letter to his chest.

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