Mashed-up Cheerios are dribbling down my shirt. My daughter Esther is in an infant carrier strapped to my chest as I push the metal luggage cart I paid $7 for up and down the baggage check-in line. Two overweight suitcases (that I’ll soon pay $80 for although I don’t know it yet), a stroller, and a carry-on bag are piled precariously on top of each other. There’s a giant sweat spot forming on the front of my shirt where my 25-pound child sits.
The Turkish Airlines check-in agent takes my bags and my credit card and tags the stroller and the carry-on. My daughter is getting antsy in the carrier and I know the Cheerios aren’t cutting it as a meal. I bounce up and down at the desk waiting for the agent to come back with my card and passport. I sweat some more. Maybe if I look as desperate as I feel, I’ll get a pity-upgrade to business class. She hands me back my passport with a ticket to the U.S. tucked inside.
After getting checked in, I need to regroup and move my daughter from my carrier to the stroller despite her protests. We’re both hot and hungry. People from all over bustle by, lost in their own worlds. I get her situated and pull at the front of my shirt to circulate some air. It’s hot. Did I mention that? Also, I’m alone with a baby traveling 6,000 miles.
He should be here, too is all that bounces through my mind as I push the stroller back and forth. I shouldn’t have to do this by myself. I’m overwhelmed but trying to keep it together until we’re home. Home. What a strange concept. I have two, each an ocean apart from the other.
We’ve got time before we need to head through security (another big ordeal but again I don’t know this yet). So I take a moment to breathe and crouch down to look at Esther, really look at her. What a crazy life you and I have. Who would have thought?
I think of my husband, who’s displaced, carrying the title of ‘refugee’ for the last eight years. My husband, who should be here, too—who wants so badly to be here, too—but cannot due to the country listed on his expired passport, due to the visa he doesn’t have.
I think of how so much of the world is experiencing displacement, how so many people are finding themselves pushed out of their familiar, forced to navigate new and disorientating places.
Esther is now munching on a Lara bar I had packed for myself but it was the easiest thing to reach for in the diaper bag. She looks at me from her stroller. She doesn’t know the layers blanketing this trip, the conflicting emotions threading through my mind. She doesn’t know a life of displacement like her dad does. She only knows her two homes. She’s lucky in that way.
We look at each other as people continue to flow around us.
…then she snorts.
Yes, like a pig. And laughs, her mouth open wide showing all her teeth and the bits of fig. She’s trying to get me to laugh, too. I realize this and I realize that maybe she does understand. Maybe I underestimate her sometimes—her emotional depths, her perception, her empathy. Maybe she holds more than I realize.
We laugh together. We’ll get through this together.
On the other end of the flight, in another airport, in another country, 14 hours later, we survive. We get through it, relatively unscathed, only slightly limping.
We land in Chicago where we need to reclaim our luggage before a night in a hotel and a quick plane ride to my family’s home in North Dakota.
The orchestral sounds of beeps and dings and announcements over speakers clash with the sleepy movement of passengers disembarking our transatlantic flight. Altogether, we look like a yawning river making our way to our bags amidst the bright lights and sounds of the airport. For us, it’s the middle of the night (I think). But here, the day is well underway.
A woman sprints over, leaving her two school-aged boys at the baggage carousel.
“You look like you could use some help.” Before I can respond, she lugs my suitcase onto the metal luggage cart. Do I look like I need help? Is my hot mess that obvious? I try in vain to help her but my daughter is once again strapped to me and the folded stroller she refused to sit in is under my arm. Jet lag and weariness make their way somewhere onto my body, too.
The woman readjusts my carry-on bag and stroller as they balance precariously on top of the suitcase. I’m struck by how intimate her act is: physically touching my belongings, taking a moment out of her traveling to tangibly help a stranger.
I give her a nod of thanks but before she leaves she makes sure to catch my eye and says, “What you’re doing is really brave, you know?”
Those last two words—you know—were spoken not so much as a question but in a way that made me think this stranger wanted me to make sure she saw the work I was doing.
It’s true, there are no trophies for doing the things required in parenthood. But traveling alone with a baby is hard. Traveling alone internationally with a baby is harder. Traveling alone internationally with a baby during a pandemic while your husband has yet to receive a visa is on an entirely different level of hard. A tiny trophy would maybe be nice. The woman’s unprompted but wholly appreciated kindness did just that.
The quick interaction in the O’Hare airport reminded me of one of the Old Testament names for God: El-Roi—the God who sees. It was spoken by Hagar, the first and possibly only person in Scripture to speak to God by name. It was in Hagar’s lowest, most sorrowful place where she has a true encounter with God and discovers she is not alone.
Like my daughter who made me laugh 14 hours earlier, the woman who helped me with my bags at the airport didn’t know the weight sitting on my shoulders. She didn’t know how he should be here, too chanted in my mind as I maneuvered airplane bathrooms and passport control lines and x-ray machines—alone. She didn’t know anything about the indignation we have felt when facing injustice square in the face, the powerlessness to change anything for our family. But she chose to enter into my story and help anyway.
Here’s what I learned while crossing the Atlantic by myself with a baby in tow: El-Roi is found in a stranger’s simple act of kindness. El-Roi is found in the silly baby breaking the tension. El-Roi is found in the wilderness, where things seem impossible and all seems lost.
And this: the unseen work matters. The grief no one sees matters. The invisible things we carry matter. They are seen and known by a God who fiercely loves us, a God who can take those moments and redeem them.