I didn’t love her in the same way I loved my mother, my sisters, or my girlfriend for that matter. This was a different type of love. I suppose you’d call it a mature love. It had been thirteen years since we hugged and kissed and said our goodbyes. We had spoken about three times a year and exchanged cards at Christmas, that’s about it. Nothing claustrophobic, just the occasional phone call. When the call came I knew I had to see her.
Back then I was just a kid of twenty-one, selfish, self-centered. The world was my oyster. Me, with a degree from Yale University, I could do anything I wanted.
The world of my twenty first year revolved around me, my needs and my wants. That is until the captain of my return flight from Ireland to New York announced we had a small problem with a light on the left wing and we had to make a brief stop at Gander Airport in Newfoundland. He lied about the light on the wing. He lied about the brief stop.
We sat for nineteen hours on the plane, parked tip to tip with others lining the vast runway, casually, like a packed parking lot at a mall. Nineteen hours of waiting, wishing the passenger next to me would stop crying. I thought I was hallucinating the whole thing, a bad trip, in more ways than one. After we deplaned, we were processed by customs and immigration, and I stood in the international lounge of Gander Airport, the décor was a throwback to the 60’s and 70’s. But this was Wednesday, September 12th, 2001.
Before cell phones, before Skype, before Twitter and Facebook, I spent my last few dollars, now Canadian quarters, calling my parents. The towers were down, the Pentagon had been hit, and a fourth plane had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
Through tears and bursts of screams my mother thanked God that I was safe, far from home, but safe. I knew things were bad when my father told me to stay put. I had no choice anyway. All I could muster in that telephone conversation was one word questions and answers.
–“Are you alright, son?”
–“Where are you?”
–“Have you been told what’s happened?”
–“Don’t be afraid now. You’re safe where you are.”
–“Your mother is in a panic, but now that we know you are safe,” and here he gulped and swallowed a feeling, the sensation of tears coming. And then he started again, “Now that we know you are safe, we can breathe easy. Do you have money left?”
–“We’ll wire you some.”
Then it hit me. I might be here for a long time.
–‘What if war broke out? Is this going to be world war three? Would I ever see my family again?’
–“Dad, how long do you think I’ll be here?”
–“I don’t know son. But that’s the safest place for you now. Stay put.”
My money ran out, the phone call ended.
It was at the legion hall in Gander that she took me by the elbow and turned me to face her. That was when I realized I was crying. I just wanted to be home with my parents and my sisters. Life was not supposed to stop like this, a full stop, with people wondering what was going to happen next. I wasn’t supposed to be here, broke and stranded in a strange place.
I looked at her, but I looked through her. I didn’t see her, but I saw her. Her eyes followed me, I could feel her watching me.
“You’ll be fine, darling,” she said, and she stood still as a tree, holding my elbow. This tiny woman, trying to draw me back to reality with reassurances.
“I want to go home,” I said, still not looking at her, but seeing her.
I looked around. Flickers of panic made my thoughts skittish and jumpy. Did I know anyone? Surely there was someone? That man who sat beside me on the plane!
“You can’t go home, not yet. But you will, and until then you’ll come stay with me,” she said, and I looked down into her face. She nodded at me. “You’ll be alright,” she said.
She brought me to a table covered in trays of sandwiches and pots of hot tea and coffee.
“Eat something. You’ll feel better. Then we’ll head back to my house and you can call your family and let them know you are alright.”
My skin felt cold and itched like hell. My baggage was still on the plane. We were only permitted to take our carry-on luggage. I had none. I had been wearing these same clothes now for over twenty four hours. Feeling scruffy, cold and dirty, I wanted to rip at the flesh on my face. The stubble was driving me mad.
“You’re over-tired,” she said, and filled a Styrofoam cup with coffee.
The hall was crammed with people. Mother’s hugging their children close. Men wearing confused looks suggesting they shouldn’t be here, they should be at work. I searched the crowd. Hundreds of people, like me, stunned that we couldn’t go home because home wasn’t safe anymore, and with that was the realization that our family and friends were not safe anymore. Again I scanned the crowd.
She stood before me, about two feet shorter, and held the sandwich wrapped in a napkin and the cup of coffee aloft. I looked at her again, and looked at the crowd around us, not heaving, not pushing, not struggling, but a zombie-like herd, quietly shifting in one direction or another, needing to be told what to do next.
On the outside I appeared passive, indifferent almost. Beneath the surface I capped my emotions and wondered which one I should set free first: Anger at the loss of humanity? Or sadness at the loss of lives? Fear at the loss of security? Or depression at the loss of hope. I was cataloguing my emotions, sorting through each one methodically and triaging them. Which should I liberate first?
It happened involuntarily; I felt my body hunch over and my face dropped into my hands, muting the scream. Hunkered down, amidst a crowd of stranded strangers, I screamed into my palms and then cried. I bawled, uncontrollably. She pulled me up by the shoulders and guided me through the hall, into the parking lot and into her car. I cried all the way to her house, and when the anger gathered in my throat like acid, I yelled at the blue sky beyond the car window and at the green and grey rocky fields.
“I’ll kill the fucking bastards! I’ll fucking kill them!”
Thirteen years and three tours of Afghanistan later I had kept my promise. But on Wednesday, September the 12th 2001, the day that I almost lost all hope in humanity, this small grey haired old woman showed me that humanity still existed in quiet secluded places like Gander, Newfoundland.
When I woke up, I was in a room, on a double bed, covered by a patchwork quilt. The radio was playing what sounded like Irish music, and it drifted in from the kitchen into my bedroom, creating the illusion that I was still on the farm in Portumna, County Galway with my Uncle and Aunt.
I pulled my hands down my face and dragged the sleep out of my eyes. For a second I wondered if I had dreamt the whole thing. Just for a second I was at ease. As I absorbed the strangeness of the room, the smells, and the hill outside my window, the rocky terrain– I knew that it wasn’t a dream.
I headed into the music lilting from the kitchen. She sat at the table reading the newspaper.
“There are fresh towels in the bathroom,” she said, pushing herself up to standing with the help of the table. “And the phone is in the hallway. You’ll have to dial 001 and then the area code in the US. I’ve written it down beside the phone for you anyway.”
The accent was a blend of Irish and Canadian, it was nice to hear.
“My son’s clothes are in that wardrobe there, in your room. He’s away at university right now, but ye’d be the same size I’d say, or close enough anyway. Did ya sleep alright? Ya must be starving?”
She rounded the table and then stood before me. As if reading my mind she said, “Yes, it really happened, and no you didn’t dream it all up. I am so sorry.”
Then she hugged me.
“You probably feel raw inside,” she said, and stood back to look at me. “Sure yer only a lad. God help us! Call your parents first, like a good man. Stay on with them as long as you want. Let them know that you have a place to stay, food to eat. Your mother must be worried out of her mind about ya! The poor soul. Then you can shower, change into fresh clothes, and eat a bit. I’ll start a fry up now.”
The world stopped that Tuesday, September the eleventh. It stopped, for me, for her, and for millions of other people. The one thing that failed to stop was kindness. That day ended my self-absorption. The days that followed restored my faith in humanity.
In bunkers, surrounded by soldiers in fatigue, in dark nights with skies alight with bursts of gunfire, in deserts of sand and stone with death hovering around me, I recalled her kitchen, quiet and still and calm– a safe harbor.
So I had to see her one last time. I had not been back to Gander since September 2001. The airport was still the same. It was strange to think that this place would evoke fond memories despite the reason for being here in 2001.
When I met her son I realized that we were close in age. He was her only child. She’d lost her husband to cancer when her son was young. She’s raised the boy on her own. I’d wondered why she and so many other Newfoundlanders acted so compassionately towards stranded strangers on that dark day.
“As far as she was concerned you were another mother’s son,” he said.
“If we all thought like that,” I replied, “This world would be a safe harbor for everyone.”