There are times when a collision with strangers startles you with the secluded mercy of God. I had such a collision in Paris. That summer in Paris, I was on the brink of a season of surrender that would scrape the illusion of control out of my hands. Our family- my husband and two daughters, ages 15 and 12- had been traveling in Europe for three weeks and we were now desperate to get home. Our 15 year-old was acutely ill and we all needed the stability of our medical and support community in Bellingham.
The logistics of travel demand a certain amount of control in order to make space for the variables that are out of your control. The standard wisdom of getting to the airport 3 hours ahead for an international flight is one of those maxims designed to protect you from risking long lines and missed connections. We arranged with our hotel concierge for an 8:30 a.m. shuttle to Charles de Gualle Airport for a noon flight. He assured us that by that late in the morning, traffic through Paris would be minimal and we’d be at the airport in less than 20 minutes.
At 9:15, we were still waiting for the shuttle. When it finally arrived, the four of us piled in and the driver explained in a thick accent that he had another pickup to do before taking us to the airport. We emphasized that we needed to be at the airport for a noon flight. At this point his assurance that he would have us there by 10 a.m. had to be enough.
The van rumbled through the tight, angled streets of Paris. At our first stop we waited for fifteen minutes for the passengers to appear. Meanwhile, the driver got a call for another pickup across town. Leaving behind our no-shows, we drove across town and filled the van with German tourists. Now it was 10 a.m. We assured ourselves that we’d still make our flight if we at least got to the airport by 10:30. Again, a discussion with the driver. And yet we kept circling the streets of Paris.
We stopped at another hotel and picked up two more French passengers. This time our teenage girls moved onto our laps to make room. The shuttle was now overcrowded. And yet, the driver still angled through Paris. Now it was 10:30.
“Sir, we pleaded we need to get to the airport!”
“I have one more pick up,” he countered.
A German lady with a kind face argued “No, these people have a flight. There is no room in this vehicle for any more.” From our crowded place in the back we heard him speak in a hurried tones on his cell phone, in a language no one in the van understood. He then proceeded around the same circuitous route. It was clear we were not leaving Paris but doubling back to the first hotel for the no-shows. Other passengers began to argue with the driver on our behalf but he shrugged and gripped the steering wheel. At 10:45 a.m. we picked up two disheveled tourists in their twenties. They had overslept and called the shuttle back. They flashed hung-over smiles and settled on the van floor.
“You must feel as if you’ve been kidnapped,” the German woman said. In naming our helplessness, she soothed our frayed nerves. As we pulled into Charles de Gualle at 11:05, the lines extended around the terminal, and the acid of anxiety stung in our core. We stumbled in, dragging our luggage, supporting our weak daughter, expecting disdain from airline personnel. This is Paris after all.
Desperate, I went forward and asked a women in uniform to help us. Her open smile and cheerful grace collided with my desperation. The mercy of her kindness and assurance astounded me. Throughout the airport, from ticketing to security, person after person greeted us with gentle assurance and hospitality. “We can get you home.” At 11:55 a.m. we arrived breathless at the gate, the last people to board the plane.
That morning was a forced surrender of control. In our helplessness, we collided with mercy. The memory of the empathetic woman from Germany, the advocacy of the other passengers, the bright assurances of the airport personnel, the relief of being met with assistance after being hijacked by apathy, all served as markers of hope in the battle with illness that we would face when we returned home. In the season ahead I would hear in my head the lyrics to a song by an artist named Sean Hall “mercy walks in the streets and I long to know her” and remember our collision with mercy in Paris. -Kerrie