Community Is How We Endure
I’m back, most of me anyway. There’s a piece of my heart in Central PA that remains affixed now and forever. I’m so grateful I had the chance to see my dad on his road to recovery. The fact that he’s feeling a tad bit disappointed that he might only be able to play nine holes golf this season, instead of eighteen, is nothing short of miraculous. That we had time together to reminisce, go out to dinner and talk about better days is part of that miracle.
It was hard coming back to Sweden, hard because United cancelled all my flights (more on that later), but hard emotionally to say goodbye. What got me through, and what gets me through even now is knowing that a community of people in State College love and support my mom and dad. Every day I was home, someone called to wish him well, sent a get-well card, or dropped off food: homemade bread, plates of cookies, even authentic Swedish meatballs, cooked and delivered by my childhood Sunday School teacher, I love you Shirley—they were delicious!
There was the day when a cop car pulled into the driveway, a police friend stopping by to check on dad. “The police are here!” Maggie exclaimed from the window, as if a robber must be near by. Another day a dear friend came over to help clean, dust, and make mirrors sparkle. If you’re ever wondering, what can I do for a friend who just spent a month in and out of the hospital? Don’t ask, just CLEAN! It’s so lovely to have fresh linens, vacuumed floors and the faint smell of Pine-sol in the air.
In short, I was heartened by the gestures of kindness from friends, reminded that what goes around comes around and that good people abound everywhere. Community is how we survive and endure.
Though it was tough getting to State College, I’d do it all again. But honestly, I tell you, the journey there was at times surreal (I mean in a Salvador Dali melting clocks sort of scary surreal.) Maggie and I left on a Thursday from Stockholm, journeyed three hours to Frankfurt then boarded a plane to Dulles Washington where we’d been scheduled to take a commuter flight to State College, our arrival time 11:00 pm. But the State College flight was cancelled–weather to blame. Maggie had never once slept on the transatlantic flight. She was beyond exhausted. Her whine was reaching pitches I’d never before heard.
With a lot of prayer and a little gumption I made my way through the winding custom’s queue, got our two suitcases (45 minutes of waiting in the claim area), then found the only United attendant on duty upstairs at the ticketing counter to rebook our flight. Waiting in the growing queue of angry flyers, Maggie conked out on the luggage and slept while I rebooked our flight for the next morning. I used the desk phone to make hotel arrangements (my Swedish cellphone no longer worked in America) then somehow managed to haul Maggie (still sleeping on suitcases) outside to a taxi stand.
Relying on adrenaline and whatever energy I could muster, I carried Maggie and the suitcases to our room at the Reston Sheraton, hoping to get a few hours of sleep before we had to return to the airport by 6:00 am. The man at the United counter had left me with two warnings: “Get here early, there’ll be a lot of flyers with cancelled flights to get through security,” and “there’s no guarantee your flight won’t be canceled tomorrow, but we’ll hope for the best.”
With that bit of encouragement, I didn’t get much sleep. What would we do if the flight were cancelled? Would the weather clear? It didn’t seem all that bad anyway so what was the real hold up? Meanwhile my asthma decided to kick in; my lungs didn’t like the cold, the dry airplane air or the change in environment. Between my coughing and fitful sleep (looking at the clock every few minutes), I didn’t get much rest. At 4 am I showered and dressed, took a couple of puffs of albuterol then woke Maggie up to a breakfast of leftover airplane crackers.
We headed to the lobby, hopping on the 5:30 am shuttle to the airport. We weren’t alone. Four other travelers had missed their flights too, one was a graduate student from India trying to get to Penn State. It was only his second time in the country. What a time we all picked to fly.
Back at the airport, I dropped my bags with TSA and proceeded to security with boarding cards in hand. Extra security personnel were on detail; the wait wasn’t bad. As it turned out Maggie and I had plenty of time to sit around and eat a bagel while waiting at our gate. But as the minutes ticked by, cancellation after cancellation appeared on the electronic scheduling board, flights to Toronto, Pittsburgh, and the Carolina’s all cancelled. Our flight was delayed. We waited another thirty minutes and then the word “cancelled” appeared on the screen. Not again! I told Maggie the news and she broke down crying.
She’d been so happy too, even with only a few hours of sleep. She was so excited to see Grandma and Grandpa and I’d promised, if you’re good we’ll see Frozen. I knew if didn’t get this girl to a movie theater soon she wasn’t going to last. With irrational hope I looked outside the window. The sky was as blue as a summer’s day; the only thing stopping the flight was the freezing cold air. No snow. The roads were clear. I’ll drive.
We followed the masses to the United counter, now hundreds of people long, my mind debating my choice. It looked to be at least a four-hour wait in line. In four hours I could drive to State College. My decision made, I started to leave when I noticed the guy I’d met briefly on way over from the hotel, the student going to Penn State, waiting in line. I maneuvered toward him. “Hey,” I said on impulse, “I’m not going to wait any longer. I’m driving. Do you want a ride?”
What did I just ask? He knew exactly nothing about me. His eyes studied mine. Was I for real or not? “I’m from State College,” I quickly assured him, adding that I had made the trip before, (granted Cooper always drove). “The distance isn’t bad,” I said. “I can get us there if you want to come along.” He looked carefully at me and then at Maggie and then down at his iPad. Nope, Siri can’t help you with this one. He adjusted his glasses and stared at me again.
“What about our luggage?” he swallowed.
“Our luggage will get there…eventually,” I said, knowing from experience this was generally the case. I’d had delays before, luggage driven to my hotel.
He stepped out of line. I could tell he was committed but skeptical.
“We can go ask about our bags,” I said.
We did ask and tried for forty minutes to get them, but it was going to take hours longer and at that point I didn’t have hours. The clock was ticking and I was getting more and more tired with each minute. I had to leave then or risk being too tired to drive. “Stay here if you want,” I said. “I understand if you need to wait for your bags, but I’ve got to go now.”
We left together for the rental car company. “How much is it?” he pulled out his wallet to pay half.
“I’ve got to go there anyway,” I said, “don’t worry about it.” He seemed uncomfortable so I said, “You can pay for gas.”
I signed the paperwork for a mid-sized sedan, paid extra for a GPS then went outside and got Maggie situated in her booster. This was it. “Can I sit here in front?” he asked politely before getting in.
I was so happy to be moving toward home. The weather, albeit cold, was perfect for travel. Roads clear. Not too many cars out driving. We headed north through Virginia, Maryland and then on into Pennsylvania, talking as I drove.
Ari (not his real name) had traveled extensively throughout the providences of India. He told me, among other things, twenty-six languages were spoken in India, each one distinctive. He knew several of them, but English was the common language—the British had left their mark. Ari described his close-knit family. He was finishing up a graduate degree and eventually he’d work at his father’s company. He was Sikh and loved history, which resulted in my pointing out historic landmarks along the way, places like Gettysburg.
After a while we stopped at McDonald’s. Maggie was thrilled. Ari graciously paid for lunch. As we sat inside eating burgers Maggie said, “The colors of the Indian flag are white, green and red.” Ari’s eyes grew wide behind his glasses, (but not wider than mine.) What did you just say?
“She’s smart,” Ari remarked in surprise.
I was so proud. I remembered Maggie had two friends at preschool from India. Not long ago the class had made “passports” to travel to different countries, India was one of them, she remembered.
During our remaining car ride we talked about cooking, Indian cuisine, which restaurants he liked in America (not many), and movies we both liked (I’d seen a few Bollywood hits). When we finally arrived in State College, Ari made sure he paid for gas and I dropped him off at his new apartment. “Target will have anything you need until your suitcases arrive,” I told him.
Four days later flights from Dulles resumed and my suitcases were delivered. I realized then that if I hadn’t driven, I’d have been stuck in Dulles all that time. I wonder what Ari would have done…he told me he didn’t have a license to drive in America, would someone else have given him a ride or would he have had to pay for a taxi? I didn’t know.
But I did know that it cost me nothing to help and having Ari along for the trip made the drive a whole lot more enjoyable. Yes, I was taught not to talk to strangers as a kid and frankly, asking Ari if he wanted a ride wasn’t my normal MO, but then neither was anything else that was happening that day. I felt it was the right thing to do, so I did it, as simple as that. One of my favorite quotes is, “Never suppress a generous thought.” Sometimes I do, but on this occasion I didn’t and I’m glad.
I can’t help but draw a parallel between the lessons I learned from watching my dad growing up helping others and the natural inclination that caused me ask a complete stranger if he wanted a ride. Community is a learned response. Something I was taught from home. Community, as I’ve learned from living a quarter of my lifetime overseas, is what we make of it. You don’t have to live somewhere for forty-two years to be of service or receive it. You can be a community for an hour or a day or a lifetime. All it takes is the willingness to help, the willingness to see another person and do what you can do.
As the root word suggests, community is a form of unity and purpose. Most of us, at a basic level, want and need the same things: to be safe, well nourished, healthy and loved. Building a community can be as simple as doing what you’re going to do anyway, only inviting someone along—asking friends to dinner, carpooling, smiling at someone as you open the door. Courtesies are like the tiny flowers that line our daily paths. We might not notice if they’re gone, but we sure appreciate when they’re there.
Because I drove to State College, I learned upon checking in for my return flight, ALL of my flights home were canceled, meaning my leg to Dulles, then Newark and to Stockholm were no longer booked. I was shocked. The guy at United counter apologized. He said, “There’s something in the fine print but no one really knows.” Under hushed breath he added, “United does this to save money.” He was able to get me to Dulles but couldn’t issue me boarding cards after that. Everything was booked. My only bet was to, “get to the gate and fly on stand-by.”
On a wing and a prayer, we flew to Dulles (the choppiest flight of my life, even the flight attendant said it felt like a roller coaster.) Sure enough we got to our gate and a very soft-spoken but kind Indian man got us boarding passes all the way through to Stockholm. The only glitch…Maggie and I didn’t have seats together. We’d have to rely on the kindness of strangers to sort it out on board.
During the next two flights people seated next to Maggie were willing to give up their seats, even a window seat—a luxury on an International flight where at least you have a wall to sleep on—so I could be by my daughter.
What goes around comes around. Never suppress a generous thought. And remember, smile because I promise, promise, someone out there needs one.