The kindness of strangers

Yesterday I came home from Atlanta in a wheelchair.

In my many travels, I’ve contended with pickpockets in Paris and Norovirus in London, lost luggage in Vietnam and countless delayed, cancelled, and just plain scary flights in the bush. But yesterday, while strolling toward the security gates in Atlanta airport, I finally met my Waterloo. I’d bent down to get the plastic bag of liquids out of my carry-on case … and felt as if a knife had plunged into my lower back. I couldn’t get up. As people walked around me, I went down on my knees in agony.

A week ago, I was hiking. In the summer, I’ll easily hike 20 miles a week. I can shovel off a deck covered with a foot of snow, and won’t feel a twinge. I was — or thought I was — superwoman. But there, crouched on the airport floor next to my open suitcase, I couldn’t move an inch without that knife stabbing deeper in my back.

An airport employee noticed me and came over to ask if I was OK.

I said what I never imagined I’d ever say: “Help. I can’t get up.” Yep, just like that TV ad for the Lifeline medical alert button. Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!

Gently she helped me to my feet, took my suitcase, and said: “Sweetie, you need a wheelchair.” Even as I shuffled in pain behind her, I was protesting that no, I was able-bodied. No, I was not going to sit in a wheelchair. For god’s sake, I’d been hiking a week ago! But the real truth? I was mortified. I was too proud to look disabled. I wanted to tough it out, which is my usual approach.

We got to the wheelchair area, where a kindly gentleman saw I was in pain but resistant to the idea of a wheelchair. He urged, in his sweet southern voice, “Honey, just sit in the chair. You deserve to go in style.”

I sat down.

As my female attendant zipped me through security, I kept my head down, too embarrassed to look at anyone. Wondering if other passengers, waiting in long lines, thought I was a fraud. And I understood, really understood for the first time, what it’s like to feel utterly dependent on strangers.

She delivered me to my gate, where I had a two-hour wait till my flight. There, sitting alone, I had time to think about what it’s like to be suddenly incapacitated. What it’s like to need help to do the simplest things, like take off my own shoes. Although I had wheeled my mother through airports in her wheelchair, and had seen what it’s like to be a caregiver, I had never seen it from the other side. How difficult it is to get into and out of a restroom. How a boarding pass dropped on the floor might as well be a mile away if you can’t even reach down to pick it up.

Then I heard the words “Bangor” and “snowstorm,” and I turned to see a group of passengers talking about the weather at home. I said, “Are you waiting for the Portland Maine flight? Is it taking off?”

And just like that, they adopted me. The other Mainers didn’t know each other, either, but they’d already bonded over weather woes. They wheeled me into their circle. They wheeled me to the other end of the terminal when our gate changed. They wheeled me to the bathroom. They offered to fetch food, water, whatever I might need. Complete strangers, yet we were all part of one family. We were Mainers.

My ordeal finally came to an end in a snowstorm, when our plane managed to land in Portland, just as a blizzard moved in. I came off the plane in a wheelchair. Yes, in style. My attendant brought me out to the curb where — thank god — my husband was able to meet me.

Twenty-four hours later, after half a dozen Advils and a night’s rest, I’m much better. Well enough to believe that, yes, I’ll be hiking again in a few weeks. In some ways, I’m thankful that this happened to me. It made me appreciate my usually robust good health. It made me appreciate the miracle of being able to walk, or just to bend down.

Most of all, it made me appreciate the innate kindness of most people. And how it moves in a circle.

While I was waiting in my wheelchair at that Atlanta airport, I saw a distressed-looking Hispanic woman hunting frantically for quarters to make a long-distance call to Ecuador. The pay phones were giving her trouble, and she needed to tell relatives that her flight was hours delayed. I called out to her that my cell phone had an international plan, and she could use it. Afterwards, when I refused the five dollars she tried to give me for the call, I received something much better: a big, tearful hug.

And that was my day at the airport.

9 replies
  1. lindaandtheboys
    lindaandtheboys says:

    A very heartwarming story. It’s good to know that when you are really in need, there is at least an ounce of human kindness left. I think at heart people are really good. They just get so self-absorbed. They need to stop and look around them from time to time. Hope your back is on the mend real soon. Take care. Linda

    P. S. I have gotten so much enjoyment from your books. I had the privilege to meet you once at a book store in Half Moon Bay, CA. Thank you.

  2. caite
    caite says:

    Sometimes we all must rely on the kindness of strangers, but happily, we can then pay it back, and maybe contribute just a tiny bit to making the world a nicer place.

  3. Tess
    Tess says:

    LInda, I hope I’ll see you again some day in Half Moon Bay — one of the nicest little towns in the country.

    Caite, in so many ways, feeling helpless makes you want to comfort the helpless!

    Bernard — will have to look up what an inversion table is. Today, I’m feeling pretty good, but I’m also learning how to use my legs more and not my back!

  4. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    Whenever I feel a twinge on the day-job in my back, I go home and do fifteen minutes on the inversion table. I repeat it every night for about a week and it has forestalled any of the bad episodes I used to get. It realigns your back. When I discovered it I was groping for anything. It was around Christmas. I bought the inversion table. When it came I assembled it and did my first treatment. That was the first night in four days I slept. I put it in the living room put a big bow on it and told my wife get used to it, because it’s staying right where it is. 🙂

  5. talz_harps
    talz_harps says:

    We never really know how much we use others in our lives until an injury or something similar makes us see it. I have dislocated my knee 3 times and my friends, family and even strangers are always there to help me out, either by opening doors, stepping to the other side of the footpath or just carrying something for me. I guess what I’m trying to say is, the world isn’t as bad a place as people make it out to be, there are plenty of nice people to outbalance the mean. The world is a lovely place, you just need to open your eyes and see it. I hope you feel much better Tess, I love your writing, you are sensational. Although I haven’t had the chance to meet you in person, I have emailed you and received a lovely response, so Thank You.

  6. neblotti
    neblotti says:

    Glad you are better. I am 38 and recently had a similar problem. For 2 months I couldn’t do anything for myself. It was horrible. Makes you thank God for the little things. It’s nice to hear so many strangers were good to you.

  7. Veekay
    Veekay says:

    Hello Tess

    Strangers act strangely only till you feel they are strangers. Once you form a part of their group most will go all out to help you. This has happened to all of us. Mostly we are prisoners of our own inhibitions and once we set them free we can move ahead. That also happened with you.

    Love your books and you. When are you coming to Delhi, India

    Vijai Kapoor

  8. PackingPadre
    PackingPadre says:

    As you know, I rarely leave you public comments and even less frequently as a priest, but despite the false heroics, you proved to be the good woman I know you to be. You paid the aid forward by assisting the poor woman from Equador. It cost you a pittance, but gave her family comfort.


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