The Kindness of Strangers
I'm back from Hawaii a bit earlier than expected for reasons I won't go into right now because I want to focus on something else while I digest the events of my trip. The most amazing things happen to me when I travel alone, and as my distressed partner can tell you, that is how I prefer to travel, in general. My partner is game to go anywhere, any time. I am more reticent, preferring to have a reason or a pull in some direction. Usually I find out late in the trip what the pull was or why I was prompted to go there, and it is never what I expected. I am not interested in "bagging destinations," although once I wrote down all the places I had been for 24 hours or more and was surprised to see that the list included almost 100 different geographic locations. Inevitably, I encounter someone who says or does something that answers a question I have been struggling with, though I hardly think they know it. It has happened too many times to discount as "coincidence." This Oahu sojourn, my third, was no different.
I was walking from the Army base to a nearby town called Mililani, about 3.5 miles away. It was 90 degrees and humid, and I was hauling my luggage so I could catch an airport shuttle a few hours later. I had to be resolute about this because coming and going from an Army base is no easy matter. Without a military ID or accompanying soldier, there would be no way to return once I set foot outside the gate (ironically, in this case, named Foote Gate). It is equally difficult for a civilian to get a cab to pick her up on base. Indeed, many cabbies are denied the privilege of passing through the gates, even though they are native Hawaiians not predominantly Middle Easterners like they are here in Chicago! Schofield Barracks is in the center of Oahu, not close to much of anything, and a long walk before an interminable flight seemed like a good idea. And so I began.
I'm sure many people who passed me thought I was leaving my husband or some such, marching along with a stack of luggage on two tiny wheels. I suppose it was an unusual sight in a place where men vastly outnumber women, and the men are almost always armed and driving assault vehicles. Many drivers turned their heads or considered me in their rear-view mirrors. About a mile and a half into my journey, a guy in a smallish car, stick shift, pulled over and asked me where I was going. He had on an Army t-shirt and shorts. His right knee was wrapped in a bandage of some kind and an aluminum crutch lay diagonally on the passenger seat. "Mililani," I said, without urgency.
"Do you have any idea how far that is?" he asked, incredulous.
"Yeah," I answered, "it's three or four miles."
"Get in. It's only a mile or so out of my way," he said. "Your shoulders are really going to be hurting before too long."
I wanted to accept a ride more than anything at that minute. I was hot, thirsty, and focused on my goal. But all I could think of as I studied him and asked my intuition for guidance was Ted Bundy (charming serial killer who lured women to his car by feigning disability) and "Didn't your mother ever tell you not to accept rides from strangers?" And I'm not saying this guy had any evil intention whatsoever. He most likely did not. But I declined the ride and thanked him for his kindness. "Suit yourself," he said, and hit the gas. I felt bad, and I reflected for a while on the culture that teaches women to feel bad for being wary of men, whose record for violence against them is astonishing. And here was a guy who was trained to kill.
I continued down the road, over terrain that became increasingly hostile to the little wheels under my rolly-bag. After a while, I did not feel so bad about not accepting aid when it was offered. I thought of all the women who have been lost to that kind of trust. It was better to feel strong and self-protective just then. But I hated that I had to decline an offer of goodness from the universe, so I began talking to my guardian angel, who is a very real presence for me. I put forward this thought: "Thank you for sending someone to make this trip a little easier, but I don't think I was ready at that moment to accept help. I am committed to this journey because, after all, there is a Starbucks in Mililani. If you send some nice lady to offer me a ride, I will accept with gratitude."
Half a mile down the road I stepped aside to take a long drag off my water bottle and to assess my progress. There I was, standing and squinting at the road ahead, when a little car pulled up and a lady not much older than me with a bag of newly purchased baby clothes in the back seat. "Girl, you can not be hauling all your stuff along the road like that! Where are you going? Let me give you a ride!" She was Hawaiian, with gold bracelets on her warm-toned skin, and she radiated goodness.
I smiled and said, "Are you sure? I'm going to Mililani."
"Put your bags in the back. I'll take you there, hon," she smiled. "Just move that stuff over." She kicked the air conditioner up a notch. "It is too hot for you to be dragging all that stuff out there!" And she was right.
As we drove to Mililani, we shared more than many people do in the course of a long friendship. She had a daughter my daughter's age and was struck, as I was, by the singlular selfishness of kids that age. She had three older kids, none of whom were as challenging as her fourth, of whom she said, "We have tried so hard to save her from herself, and she thinks we are the enemy. We've spent thousands of dollars to help her get started in life and she has no regard for anything we do. So, we give up. We have learned to just let her go and make her own mistakes, no matter how terrible they are. It's tragic, though, how unnecessary all her suffering will be." None of her older kids had insisted on making the very bad choices her youngest had. I poured out a bit of the drama I had just been through with my own now-19-year-old daughter and told her I had finally reached the same point of surrender. I had done everything I could do, and now I had no choice but to step back and take care of myself.
"My girl is in the Army, and they're sending her back to Iraq," I said. "They thought she had cancer, but now they are sending her back." I did not describe the pain of our parting or how finally my daughter had refused my efforts to alter her self-destructive course. I spoke without any feeling other than resignation, but my friend could hear other voices.
"Listen to me," she said, "because I knew the minute I saw you that I was supposed to pick you up. Your daughter is going to be fine. It is all going to turn out OK," and she turned to me and smiled, patted my leg reassuringly. "I saw you a while back but I was going the other way, so I turned around and came back to get you. It's going to be fine. You'll see."
As we arrived at the Starbucks in Mililani, I put out my hand and said "My name is Gaia." Her name was Kanania. I thanked her as I got out of the car and asked God to please bless her and return kindness to Kanania and her family a thousand-fold. Maybe it was too much to ask, but hers is the kind of goodness that makes me feel safe in the world, even when I am far, far from home.