A Pleasant Surprise February 25th, 2011
I have many more substantial thoughts on my mind – post topics I’ve been mulling for days, and was looking forward to exploring on yesterday’s flight home. But my 36-hour bout of flu, powering through a day’s worth of conference lectures in the midst of it, and rallying to get myself home have left me spent. Mentally. Emotionally. Physically. So instead of raising meaty and challenging questions, I will tell you a story.
I woke up yesterday feeling better. Not great. But better. I napped long and hard Wednesday afternoon. I went to bed at 8:30 Wednesday evening. My fever finally broke overnight. And by Thursday morning I felt like a recognizable version of myself.
The rest of yesterday morning was reasonably smooth. The drive from Burbank to LAX was slow, but uneventful. I listened to a Beethoven piano sonata, a suite from Carmen, and an early Mozart symphony as I drove and they kept me calm. I returned the rental car without incident. I checked in for my flight without incident.
Then things took a bit of a turn. The line at security was short, but circuitous and poorly organized. The TSA agents were not re-stocking the bins as quickly as needed. So I put my bags down, pilfered some bins from another stack, and went to recollect my things. As I grabbed the handle of my bag and lifted it slipped out of my hand. My thumbnail tore down to the skin, my breath caught in my throat, and I gave the final performance of my decreasingly brave face in order to get myself through TSA’s lock and key.
Safely into my concourse I dug into my bag for a nail file. And as I filed the jagged edge away, the tears came. I wasn’t crying over a broken nail. I was crying over three days of illness, frustration, loneliness, and stress. The broken nail was merely a trigger. I let myself cry. After a few moments I collected myself enough to get to a restroom. A tissue and a splash of water helped a bit.
Back in the concourse I looked for lunch options. There was nothing appealing to a girl coming off the stomach flu. I grimaced at my options and chose the least of the evils. I called my mother as I waited for a mediocre bowl of soup and lamented myself a bit more. She listened affectionately.
I left the restaurant to find my gate. The concourse was familiar to me. Last summer on our way home from San Diego GAP, IEP, and I were stuck in that concourse for six or seven hours as we dealt with delayed and canceled flights. I looked at the empty gate where we’d played tag with IEP to keep him occupied. I peered into the gift shop where we’d played with toy cars. I sat one table away from the spot where we’d let him sleep through lunch, only to later regret not having woken him to eat. It was like some kind of cruel joke. All I wanted in the world was to be home with my family and I was taunted with vivid reminders of them at every turn.
I found my gate. I stared at the people around me, wondering if they were headed to or away from home. I wondered why some were frowning. I wondered if small pairs and trios were professional colleagues or friends. But mostly I just sat still. And then I heard it.
Strumming. Flamenco. It was soft and rippling. It was delicate but rich. Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” played over the speakers, but I tuned her out. I sat up in my chair, looked around, and there, in another cluster of chairs, I saw him. A young white man in his twenties with tousled curly hair wearing a bright orange fleece moved his fingers deftly. I stood up and, as inconspicuously as possible, moved closer. From my new location I watched him play, half-focused, as he chatted up the guy sitting next to him.
My shoulders relaxed. My blood pressure dropped. For the first time in two days, I smiled. His music bounced around the gate. The people near me watched him and also smiled. The two men sitting next to me talked about a daughter’s semester abroad in Spain. I thought of my own semester abroad in Spain. I felt thankful. I felt even a little bit happy. It was a real gift.
Years and years ago in the midst of a sort-of-stressful international vacation my mother reached the end of her rope. Over a plate of smoked fish in Edinburgh she teared up and said, “I just want a pleasant surprise.” The saying stuck, and has become a standby in my family’s lexicon. I called my mother again from the gate. “Mom, I got my pleasant surprise.”
As our flight began to board the guitar player returned his instrument to its case. I stood up – plausibly to prepare to board – and walked past him. I wanted to tell him that listening to him play was the first good thing that had happened to me since Tuesday. I wanted to tell him he was a sorely needed bright spot in an otherwise dimly lit week. I wanted to tell him that I would remember this moment for a very long time.
But that would have been really weird.
“It was a real pleasure listening to you play,” I said as I walked by. And that was it.
The thing abut the pleasant surprise is that it is almost always small. Perhaps this is because it almost always comes in a moment when the bar is set rather low. Nevertheless, it is small, unexpected, and simple. But its effect is profound.
PS – Thank you for all of your kind “get well” wishes on Wednesday. I’m not quite 100% now, but I’m doing much, much better. Being home certainly helps.