Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Birthday I'll Never Forget

This weekend, I hope to see those of you in Southern California either at the Henri Nouwen Saturday retreat at All Saints Pasadena, Oct 12, or the 11 a.m. Sunday worship Oct. 13 at West Hollywood UCC, formerly West Hollywood Presbyterian.

Last Thursday was my birthday. And I spent it diverted to the Cincinnati airport en route from Atlanta to Allentown, our intended nonstop flight forced to land there for repairs.

Most people would prefer not to work on their birthdays, but I was looking forward to the annual men’s retreat I co-lead at Kirkridge, and it did not feel like a sacrifice. Yet even more people would prefer not to spend their birthdays stuck in an airport, waiting for mechanics and parts to be flown in from Atlanta for an expected two-hour repair job—well, include me in that number, especially when it meant having a birthday lunch and dinner by myself. What began with my 7:30 a.m. arrival at our airport ended with my 11 p.m. arrival at Kirkridge.

What made it more than bearable, even pleasant, was the camaraderie that developed among us stranded but patient passengers, and even with the airline personnel who, instead of being defensive and distant (as is sometimes the case) were concerned and compassionate and communicative with what little information they were given.

One in particular handled people very well, and I told her so, asking if she had been brought in by the airline for this purpose. She was complimented, but explained those behind the desk were working their regular shifts. But, she explained, she too had been a stranded passenger.

I think it was a bid for understanding rather than attention that prompted me to blurt out, “It’s my birthday!” To which she promptly replied with a smile, “It’s my birthday too.” “What year?” I asked, only to discover we shared the same birth year. Then she volunteered her husband’s October birthday and I told her my partner’s October birthday.

Then, looking at her nametag, I observed, “And we’re both named ‘Chris!’” Though she had looked at my boarding pass when she processed my $6 meal voucher for lunch, she hadn’t made that connection. Separated at birth?! She remarked on this with surprise to her colleagues, and then came around the desk and we shared a birthday hug.

I had just reclined on the floor of the airport in an unobtrusive place to make up the sleep I missed the night before when I heard my name called from the airline desk. They were just beginning to issue vouchers to everyone, and Chris wanted to make sure I got mine—a $50 coupon for a future flight, a $6 voucher for dinner, along with an extra $10 voucher as a birthday present!

I had nothing to give her, but I presented her with my card and explained I wrote this blog. She was interested, she said, because she was a cancer survivor, and I gathered spirituality had been part of her recovery.

Plenty of time on my hands, I browsed the airport bookstore and ended up purchasing myself a birthday present, Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I’d been wanting to read it since watching an online video of the author’s patient response to an ignorant Fox news interviewer belligerently questioning whether a Muslim should write about Jesus!

I sat down to read it in Wolfgang Puck’s airport restaurant, taking my time sipping a glass of wine before eventually ordering dinner. (The book is fascinating, and eventually I’ll write about it on this blog.) When I returned to the gate, Chris had saved me a piece of the birthday cake her coworkers gave her. One of those colleagues got on the phone, and soon announced that I was welcome to go upstairs to the Sky Club for a drink. I asked, “Can Chris go with me?” He said “sure” and though she was on duty and could only have a soda, I had a glass of wine and we talked.

I asked what her religious background was. “Roman Catholic and Presbyterian.” “Me too,” I exclaimed, having spent most of my life as a Presbyterian but deeply influenced by Catholic writers. And we ended up talking about the breath of fresh air Pope Francis was bringing the church, Protestant and Catholic. It felt in sync with the ecumenical gathering I was going to.

Though Kirkridge staff and the men of the retreat were very concerned about my plight, I was having a pretty good time! A challenging situation was redeemed by a little mutual understanding and lovingkindness, truly an experience of grace.

The icing on the cake for me was finally walking through the Kirkridge dining hall to my room downstairs and meeting a first-time retreatant who had come, not only because he read my books, but because he shared them with friends.

Everyone should have such a happy birthday!

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