My parents have been visiting this week and we’ve had a great time. After sight-seeing, completing a few home projects, and building a fence in the backyard for our new pet turtle, the last day of their visit arrived and my mom insisted on making dinner. I left to run a few errands and when I returned, I was welcomed with the aroma of BBQ and a greeting from my mother wearing an apron and a smile. I paused in my tracks to voice my contentment at such a sight (and smell!) This was the stuff Hallmark commercials were made of.
I don’t know why I have been so lucky in my life. Just four months ago I was on an airplane, heading toward Israel for the trip of a lifetime with the love of my life. Unfortunately, a crowded flight landed me next to a stranger instead of my husband for a ten hour stretch of our longest leg of the trip. A single gentleman sat on my left, and the seats to my right remained vacant long enough for me to salvage hope of Cory being able to move next to me. My hopes were in vain, and the seats soon became occupied by the cutest and most obnoxious 2-year-old and his mother. The little boy was right next to me, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that the next ten hours might feel like 74. He quickly engaged himself with games like, “Pull all the magazines out of the pouch and throw them on the floor” and “How far does this toy go when I throw it like THIS?” After a couple of hours I was minutes away from searching the plane for a doctor with a valium drip when the boy fell asleep. He sure looked cute that way.
Now I am no expert in world cultures, but as I observed this mother there were several indicators that she and I did not share the same first language. As such, I didn’t attempt conversation until she asked me a question in broken English about the duration of our flight. “Ten hours,” I answered. Her eyes opened wide with surprise and I thought to myself, “I know, I hope he doesn’t wake up either.” Nevertheless, I was grateful she had broken the ice. Although the language barrier posed a bit of an obstacle, I was able to decipher the reason for this woman’s trip. After fifteen years, she was going home. “Where is home?” I asked. “Somalia,” she replied. Bit by bit, I pieced together her story. “So much fighting, guns and shooting, people running around…my uncle grabbed me and took me to the border. He lied and said I was his daughter so he could take me to the United States. I have been there for fifteen years and I have not seen my family since.” Her uncle saved her life, but she had not seen her family in all this time. This was her first trip back, with only one of her two children (little Satan, who now appeared much more angelic). Experiences like these make me acutely aware of the blessings I’ve had in my life, but they also leave me feeling completely unsettled about the unfairness of the world. It wouldn’t be the only time on this trip that I would observe that.
Another would come in the form of a woman in the Amsterdam airport. At first glance I noticed her tacky fake braid and made critical mental notes as if I had any credentials as a fashion police officer. Amsterdam was our last stop before continuing on to Israel and we would have 7 hours there to peruse the city. We filled our time with lunch at a sidewalk café and a visit to the Anne Frank house. I had just finished Anne Frank’s diary for the first time and felt compelled to visit what was her hiding place during World War II. Wanting to leave plenty of time for check-in, we returned to the airport – this is where we resume our story with the tacky braid lady. She sat next to us in the second waiting area of what was to be a very lengthy security check. I’m not very social in these situations, but somehow a conversation ensued. “Where are you from?” I asked. “San Francisco,” she replied with a heavy accent not akin to Northern California. Sensing my puzzlement she added, “But I’m originally from Poland.” Two minutes later I would learn that my tacky braid friend was a Holocaust survivor. “I was 9 years old when they took me from my family.” (Tear ducts, engage – Samantha had celebrated her 9th birthday the day before we left for this trip.) Holding up all appendages on her right hand she emphasized, “Five brothers and sisters. None of us together. After it was over, I went looking for my family. I thought with so many siblings, maybe there would be at least one other left. No. I was the only one. No brothers. No sisters. No parents.” “How do you move on from something like that?” I implored, not knowing if it was okay to ask but unsure of how else to respond. She lifted her hand and placed it over her heart and muttered, “My heart...still hurts.” Somehow I felt like I owed her an apology. I didn’t, but again I was in awe of my lot in life.
I realize that there is still plenty of time for my life to turn completely disastrous and cause me pain commensurate to the two women I met on this trip. It’s not what I hope for, and it certainly hasn’t been my experience thus far. But when I hear these kinds of stories I plunge into helpless guilt mode. Helpless because I want to save the world and can’t, and guilty because I’ve been born into the best circumstances possible on this green earth. I’m not always sure what to make of that, but since saving the world isn’t an option, maybe I could just save someone’s day. Maybe I can create a helpful diversion for someone, offer sound advice (it could happen), or lend a listening ear. Maybe I can help my neighbor pack boxes, shovel someone’s driveway, or take cookies to somebody. And maybe 40 years from now I will don an apron, a smile, and some BBQ for the ones that matter most.