A Christmas Change

Trip Start Sep 26, 2010
Trip End Jul 26, 2011

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Flag of United States  , Texas
Wednesday, December 15, 2010

My Christmas Story

 The baggage check line at American Airlines looked like it was going backwards. I showed up two hours early for the 9 a.m. flight, and found myself standing in line for half an hour with 44 pounds of luggage on my shoulder. I hadn't slept in twenty-four hours, and all I wanted was for the ticket agent to call me to the counter. But she looked right past me, refusing to recognize my place at the front of the line. Was I dreaming? my sleep-deprived mind wondered.

Then I realized why the ticket agent was ignoring me. An elderly American couple were being ushered to the ticket counter. The husband, in his eighties, slowly limped to the counter and handed his cane to an airport employee pushing his wife in a wheelchair unlike any I had seen. It had large rubber wheels, straps around the armrest and a brace to keep her head straight. The woman wore white shoes and a red Christmas sweater.

 The ticket agent asked for her documents, but the woman just stared into the distance as if lost in some deep thought. Her husband pulled out both of their passports and tickets, explaining that he handled her affairs. The agent apologized to the old man, realizing that his wife was both mentally and physically disabled.

I watched from my perch in the front of the line wondering what this feeble and disabled couple were doing in Panama and why they were now going to Chicago. Was this their last journey on earth... a final visit to celebrate Christmas with sons and daughters before its too late?

I snapped out of my speculation when the man nearly lost his balance, narrowly avoiding a fall by grabbing hold of the ticket counter. He searched for his cane, but didn't notice that it was leaning on his wife's wheelchair. He was too busy dealing with the ticket agent, who was explaining what documents they needed to pass through immigration. The wife didn't say a word, but somehow realized her husband needed his cane. She grabbed the handle and attempted to lift it, but failed. I lifted it for her, and handed the man his cane. As I stood by, the ticket agent explained to the old man that the airline would have to charge him an additional fee to transport his wife's wheelchair.

The old man was stressed by the news. He argued against the fee, but reluctantly, he acquiesced. Shifting his weight from his leg to the cane, he pulled his wallet out of his back pocket to pay the extra fee. While doling out payment for the wheelchair, the old man looked back at his wife as if to check on her. The lady behind the counter didn't notice his protective glance. She handed him two more documents, saying he had to fill them out to get through immigration. I watched the stressed old man fumbling with the papers and glancing at his wife, wishing I could do something to help.

Suddenly, he looked back one more time, thought for a second, and set down his pen. Ignoring the rushed ticket agent, he turned around, limped over to his wife, leaned down over her wheelchair and kissed her tenderly on her forehead. Her eyes riveted on her husband, as he told her, “I was just thinking about how great its been to be married to you for the last 50 years.”

His words elicited no outward reaction. But in that second before her husband returned to the chaos of the ticket counter, I saw a twinkle in her eye that expressed a love no illness could tear apart. This moment I suspect will remain lodged in my mind forever. It helped me realize how grateful I am to return home to America for Christmas, if only for a short while, to be with my loved ones.

Going home for the holidays was as big of a surprise for me as it was my family. I planned to spend Christmas in Colombia, after taking a boat from Colon, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia through the beautiful San Blas Islands of the Carribean. But the torrential rains in Colombia and Panama-- that have killed hundreds of people from landslides and floods-- made it too dangerous to pass by water on an affordable boat. The flights to Colombia were simply too costly for a one hour trip, and it is impossible to pass by land. For five days I sat in limbo, along with a group of Aussies and Brits, trying to find my way to Colombia, hoping the weather would subside. But it never did.

My Aussie buddy, who I had met once before in Guatemala then reunited in Panama, mentioned the idea of going home, telling me that I'm in a unique situation being from Texas, and so close to home. I mentioned the idea of going home to my Mom, and that night my sister offered me a free flight using her miles. Regardless, I didn't want to go home. I was on a 10 month journey of self-discovery, and home remained out of the question-- I could surely find a way to Colombia by Christmas.

 That night I stayed up late in a deep discussion with a German named Anna. We discussed our travel plans, touched on world affairs, and learned each others story. By 3 am the discussion turned to family. She told me how much she would like to see her Mom for Christmas, and that I have a rare opportunity as a traveler to go home for Christmas and spend time with friends and family. She added that you never know if it might be your last Christmas together. I rejoined that I had told myself I was going to be away from home for a year, and felt going home could take away from my trip. “But think about the opportunity your sister is giving you by flying you home,” she told me, “That right there should show how much she loves you and wants you to come home.” 
I still wasn't sure if going home was the right decision. The last thing I wanted to do was disrupt my ambition to travel through every country in Latin America, before returning to the Air Force Academy. I had told everyone I wouldn't be back until I had satisfied my quest. But at 5 am I called and woke up my sister to ask her to make the arrangements. Two hours later, still without sleep, I stood in the front of the line at the American Airlines ticket counter. I was ready to go home, but still uneasy about my decision. That's when my unexpected gift appeared before me.The old man and his bride, still deeply in love, opened my eyes to what makes Christmas Christmas: They showed me that love is extraordinary, enduring and everlasting, and to cherish every moment we have with our loved ones here on earth, no matter the sacrifices you have to make.

 Merry Christmas!

In Loving Memory of James William Richardson,  02/11/1925 - 12/24/2010
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