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.