When I was 21, in my senior year of college, I went to Quito, Ecuador to student teach at the American School. I had planned for months, and although I had minored in Spanish, I was exceptionally nervous about being immersed in the language. But I had the plane tickets, the student teaching assignment, and the contact information for my host family, who, I was assured by the director of placement at my university, knew when I was arriving and would be waiting for me at the airport at 11:30pm when I arrived.
Only they weren’t there.
Because no one had told them when I was coming.
And, being a very shy, very tall, very redheaded 21 year old single female in a foreign airport at 11:30 at night where your language is not spoken and you look decidedly different is, well, let’s just say it was not a comfortable situation. At all. So, while inwardly cursing the director of placement and trying not to become a weepy, tall, redheaded, 21-year old single female, I waited…and waited…and waited. And I was very, very scared.
There were a handful of other passengers from my flight from Miami being picked up at the same time and I kept glancing at them, then back at the road, then at the police who were standing there staring at me while holding machine guns. It was then that a woman stepped over to me. She had been welcoming home her son, who looked to be about my age and had been on my flight.
“Do you need help?” she said in perfect English. And, for the first time in about an hour, I breathed. I explained who I was, why I was there and that I was waiting for someone. She confidently took my paperwork with my host family’s name, pulled out her cell phone (this was before cell phones were commonplace) and, just like that, called them and explained where I was. She spoke rapidly and, after a moment, handed me the phone. My host family apologized profusely and explained that they had not received word of when I was coming, but they were leaving the house now and were coming to get me.
I thanked the woman who was helping me and explained that they were on their way. She smiled and she said, “I am not leaving you until I know that you’re safe.” And she didn’t. She stood there with me, introduced me to her family, and explained that her son had been visiting friends in the states. “I am a mother,” she said. “I would want someone to help my son if he needed it. Someday you may do the same thing to help someone.”
My host family arrived after that and we went on our way, but those moments in the airport were the most vivid of the trip.
Last week I went to Chicago on a business trip and when I returned home on Wednesday night Super Dad and the kids were there to greet me. The kids wanted to take a ride on the moving sidewalk before we went to get my luggage, so we did. When we got to the end of the sidewalk and had to turn around, I noticed a boy of about 13, alone, looking very nervous and anxious, glancing at his plane ticket and all around. Before stepping on the return sidewalk, I said to him, “Do you need help?”
He said he needed to find baggage claim and so we pointed to the direction we were going. He thanked me and took off. When we got down to the baggage claim area he was, again, looking around, very nervous and anxious. I asked if he was coming from Chicago as well and he said no, but the luggage from both planes was going to be on the same carousel. He waited near where the luggage would spill out and we stood at the end. My bag came, but he was still waiting. “I can’t leave until I know he’s okay,” I said to Super Dad as we both kept an eye on the boy who looked as though he was going to jump out of his skin with nerves and anxiousness. Super Dad nodded in agreement.
I approached the boy and held out my cell phone. “Do you need to call someone?” He looked around and said that they should be there soon. “It’s okay,” I said. “Call them. Call whoever you need to call. I’m not leaving until I know you’re safe. I’m a mom, and I would want someone to make sure my son was okay.” He gave a small smile and said, “Thank you very much.”
Turns out his parents had gone up the escalator while he was going down on the opposite side and were waiting for him where I had first seen him. He dragged his newly arrived bag down closer to where we were standing and we just waited. “There they are! Thank you!” he said and bolted off toward a couple who had just come down the escalator. And we watched as he and his parents embraced as if they hadn’t seen each other in weeks, maybe months.
And I thought of the mom in Quito, Ecuador on that late night who, despite being excited to see her son and wanting to go home, refused to leave until she made sure I was safe. And I realized how her actions shaped my actions which, I have no doubt, will someday shape that boy’s actions. One small act, 17 years later, passed on. Paying it forward and backward all at once.
Life is good.