Three years ago yesterday, we boarded a plane in China with our new 2-year-old son.
For hour after hour we took turns entertaining him, feeding him, and pacing the plane.
It was a frighteningly turbulent flight, but finally we landed. I had never known such relief.
But we weren’t home yet.
As we were taxiing into Chicago, John and I were talking about getting through immigration, collecting our luggage, and making our next flight to BWI.
Then an American college student in front of us turned around.
“You’re not getting to the East Coast tonight,” he said. “There’s a big snowstorm there, and all the airports are shut down.”
We hoped he was wrong. Nope. Soon enough we were standing in the airport with our luggage, staring at a screen listing numerous canceled flights.
We had been traveling for more than 24 hours straight and had had a smattering of sleep.
We had no debit card, no cell phone, a credit card, and $22 in American cash. We knew only one family living in Chicago, our friends we had just met in China who had hugged us and said goodbye before we ran off to try to catch our flight.
I made a collect call to my parents. More than two feet of snow had fallen on Baltimore, they said. The city was shut down.
That didn’t sound good.
The airport felt larger than the Great Wall of China. We had luggage from two weeks’ worth of travel. I left John, Leo, and the pile of suitcases in a corner and went to try to find someone who could put us on a rescheduled flight.
Have you ever been to O’Hare? The signs were in English, but they made less sense than the ones in the Beijing Airport. I had to take a train just to get to the ticket counter. When I got there, I went up to the first uniformed person I could find. I spilled out my story of our terribly long journey, of how desperately we needed to get home, and on and on and on.
I was crying, tears running down my cheeks. It wasn’t just that I had had no sleep. I had a son and a husband who had been pushed beyond their limits many hours earlier, and I had nothing to offer them.
As my voice trailed off, I realized the airline employee was staring past me in boredom.
“Get in line,” she said, and nodded toward the hundreds of travelers who had beaten me there.
It was then I realized we weren’t getting home that night, and probably not the next day either. In fact, I wasn’t sure when or how we would get there.
I turned away to go back for John and Leo. I had no plan. And, walking blindly through O’Hare, I bumped into one of the only four people we knew in Chicago, the adoptive dad we had said goodbye to an hour earlier.
It felt like a miracle. He used his phone to find us a hotel room. Then, because we didn’t have enough cash for a taxi, he and his wife drove us to the hotel.
After we were in our room and I had spent 45 minutes on hold with the airline, John turned to me and said, “Let’s drive home.”
“What?” I said. “We need a car seat for Leo—and he’s never even been strapped into a car seat before. He might hate it. And we don’t know what the weather is like between here and there.”
Then I stopped to think. Christmas was just a few days away. All the flights were booked. Besides, after our most recent flight, did we even want to board a plane again?
And suddenly what sounded like a crazy idea became our only solution.
The next morning, I took a free hotel shuttle to a car rental place, picked up the car and car seat, and came back to the hotel, where John installed the seat. Then we bundled Leo into the car, threw our luggage in the trunk, and spent the next day and a half driving home.
It became the best part of our journey.
Leo cried for 30 seconds. Then we started to drive and he realized what fun it was to look out the windows.
Meanwhile, John and I discovered that it didn’t matter what noise we made in the car—we could sing at the top of our lungs or play with obnoxiously loud toys. It didn’t matter how many Cheerios Leo spilled. Nothing mattered except that we were together, and every minute we were closer to home.
The weather held out for us. We drove through some light snow in the mountains of western Pennsylvania and spent one night in a hotel outside of Pittsburgh. We didn’t sleep much—we were too jet-lagged. We just kept driving.
Luckily we were able to use our credit card everywhere. We would never have had enough cash for the tolls, but thankfully the rental car had an EZPass.
By the time we got home—on Dec. 21, 2009—Leo had lived with us in four different hotels and traveled by plane, train, and automobile through China and five U.S. states. It took a few days for him to realize we really and truly were home to stay.
Despite my doubts and fears, we were home.
Unbelievably, all those miles later, we still had that $22 in cash.
And we made it just in time to celebrate the most wonderful Christmas we had ever had.