Have you ever noticed how contagious gratitude can be?
I just had the opportunity, thanks to the William & Mary DC area Alumni organization, to welcome an Honor Flight coming into Reagan National Airport. On it were men and women who had served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam who were flown into Washington, DC so they could tour the monuments and memorials erected in their honor.
All I had to do was show up with a smile; posters and flags were optional. William & Mary colors were encouraged. Turns out there were a lot of us who thought this was a great opportunity. It seemed like every other person in the security line was there to meet the Honor Flight. Green and gold mingled with red, white and blue was everywhere.
Patriotic balloon bouquets greeted us at gate 38 as we gathered, and our numbers began to swell. Couples and singles, families with young children, girls and boys, teens and young adults, the middle-aged and older yet all swept into the mix. The chatter among us grew in connection and anticipation. “Their plane was early,” the gate crew told us, “so be ready.”
Suddenly, the brass of the Roger Whitworth Band brought us to our feet as they belted out the National Anthem. And not only us, the volunteer greeters forming the welcome tunnel, but all the people in neighboring gate areas as well. We all stood in honor of the anthem and saluted the flag in honor of our guests who would disembark any moment.
Then, all eyes to the jet way, a voice announces, “Here they come!”
And so they did. How delightful to see the first to emerge, as he stopped in his tracks to take in the scene. With a sincere bow, he waved and smiled as he was ushered along the runway like a New York City model. Cheers rang out, salutes given, whistles and thanks. Thunderous applause.
Then the next and the next. Each one receiving their welcome in their own way. Some were gregarious like the first. Some looked down as if embarrassed. Some in wheelchairs, some with walkers, some with canes. Some sprightly, shaking hands. Some jovial, smiling broadly.
Many, really most, were slow and deliberate. Each red-shirted veteran walked with a blue-shirted companion which, I learned later, had been assigned to accompany them in their day. Some companions pushed the wheelchairs, held hands, or walked behind to be sure of balance, but many wielded cell phones, video-recording the events making a lasting memory for their patrons.
From my place among the left flank of greeters, I was mesmerized by the glory on these faces. These men and women who had served their country proudly in ages past wore age and beauty, character and wonder, delight and surprise. Not many of them, I suppose, are wealthy executives, judging by their demeanor and their dress. They have just flown several hours in anticipation of visiting memorials where they will remember friends and comrades gone and are sure to recall experiences they may have long-ago chosen not to remember. Yet, I watch them in utter amazement. Some weep or choke back tears of joy. Most wave in acknowledgement; some applaud back to us!!
As they make the turn toward the concourse I realize that time has stopped in that corridor. Not a soul is moving in all of Terminal C! The crowd blocks the width of it and not a soul complains. Continuous applause rings out.
The ranks of our hundred or so volunteers are now buffeted by the per-chance traveler out of Washington DC on a Saturday morning. All those, too, are now gathered around gate 38 to see what the fuss is about. There is a small child hoisted up on Daddy’s shoulders to get a better look. Beyond her, a tv screen shows news that no one is watching.
Our attention is center stage until the last, a veteran of WWII, makes his rightful way along the imaginary red carpet and is wheeled through the throng on his way to the bus and the mall and the memorial.
Roger Whitworth and the boys in the band hold their last note and applause swells and then tapers. Over the intercom, an announcer closes the festivities: “One hundred and fifty reasons why we are free today.”
Hands numb from clapping, with smiles affixed, and bidding fond farewells to newfound friends, people turn to go about their days. What an amazing moment we have just witnessed. We came to welcome and honor men and women for their service, and they applauded back to us just for being here.
Gratitude does that.
I’m in a hole. The further down I go, the darker it gets.
Oh, I don’t know I’m in a hole. I’m busy with projects and activities, schedules and travel. I scurry to complete, scour to clean up, check for misaligned pieces and missing parts. Anyone who looks my way would likely call me capable, organized, got-it-together. Perhaps they would even call me successful.
Not until I look up do I realize the hole I’m in.
On a lovely crisp autumn Saturday, I drive down to Williamsburg, to the College of William and Mary from which I graduated 30 (yes, 30 :)) years ago. I gathered with friends and we shared the “where are you now” conversations.
They are not the conversations of 30 years ago. (where are you headed? what’s on your horizon?)
They are not the conversations of 20 years ago. (what job have you landed? do you have children? how busy are you? me too!)
They are not even the conversations of 10 years ago. (how’s the corner office? what about the stock market? have you saved for your kids’ college?)
No. Today’s conversations are about home-coming. Welcome back. So glad to see you. How has life treated you? We discuss achieving-children and ailing parents, fears and longings, habits and hangups, aches and pains.
Somehow, in the interim we have grown older. Time has passed. In this setting we don’t notice because we’ve gone there together.
One friend and I set off for a stroll across campus. It’s been a while. I want to see what’s changed. We walk past the old and familiar. The brownstone buildings and the well-worn walkways. The statues of famous folks and the gaggles of students. Old and new campus and the lovely Crim Dell. We head to the sunken gardens, a central grassy depression where we used to sit and study or laugh and throw frisbees. Today there is an ugly white tent that covers two thirds of the area. It doesn’t belong there. Do we?
On leaving, I spot a curly blond-headed young man holding the hand of a smiling young woman. I know this boy. He was a student in the church confirmation class I taught 5 years ago. He graduated high school last spring. The twosome is walking toward us but doesn’t notice us. That is the way with young people. They focus on each other.
I am looking around at the campus of my youth. It’s the same old campus, same grounds, same walkways, but it looks different through eyes with thirty years more life. It is spectacular in a new way. Was it this way when we went there. How could I have missed it?
When I frequented the sunken garden, I felt protected by its beauty and was engrossed in learning. Now I’m free to wander. A bit less spryly but still wander. I’m not going places, like I once was. Not worried like I once was. Not even cautious like I once was, though I do watch my step. Because life is full of holes you can fall into if you’re not looking. My wandering has a new dimension; it’s guided.
Today, I look back on a life pock-marked with holes which, ironically, have given me better vision. When I stumble into a depression in the landscape, I look for the staircase out. It’s not a doorway that swings open for me to run through. It’s not a hand to haul me out and set me upright. It’s a staircase lit by the light of Christ. If I take a careful look, I’ll see that something’s amiss. Something is here that shouldn’t be here. Perhaps it’s a big white tent. Or a young blond boy. Or is it me? Wait, it’s Homecoming for both of us.
It’s what this visit home did for me. It reminded me of who I was. Not to torment me with “you’ll never be like this again” but to show me what’s worth keeping and what doesn’t belong. It’s not carved in brownstone, and yet it is. It’s both long gone and on-going. A continuous looking for the same staircase leading me out yet again. Leading me up.
Christ unfolded that staircase into every depth – he descended even to the dead – to provide a way out for us. I have known His sustenance in those places, even the greening of the grass and the sense of protection, but I’m meant to climb out. At His urging but by my own effort. Putting one foot in front of the other. But I must do so with reverence because upon this ground once tread the feet of Christ. And He carried a cross.
There are heavy, heavy indentations in those marble steps. But they have been unfurled downwards, so I might climb up. Paved a path for me to follow, and for generations to come.
Oh, I facebooked Byron, the young man I had passed, asking him what he was doing in “my sunken garden on my homecoming.” He replied, “The better question is what are You doing in My sunken garden on My homecoming?”
I said, “Glad you asked. Hope you’re having a great year. And in 30 years, I hope you’ll be strolling the old hangouts, too. Don’t look for me then. :)”
He replied, “Thank you very much! 30 years? You best believe I will be looking for you then!”
That kid knows Christ, too.