On the 28th of November 2012 I sat in Melbourne airport, forlorn and exhausted, homesick already for a country I’d only just left and had only known for two short weeks, saddened by smallness and saddened by familiar, and clutching an overstuffed pink backpack carrying everything I couldn’t leave behind and a handful of Michigan souvenirs I’d bought at the airport there some thirty hours before. I wanted to see my family, but I didn’t want to go home. More than that though, I didn’t want to be in Melbourne airport.
I was quite, quite sure that the gate I was waiting at was the one flying to Hobart, although the screens that displayed the information said something quite different. I waited, tried to catch a glimpse of somebody else’s boarding pass without seeming too suspicious. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I didn’t want to make small conversations with people whose journeys felt ordinary, who had been to Melbourne for the weekend to catch a show, to go to a wedding, to go to a work conference. I didn’t want to talk to Australians at all. I only wanted to talk to Americans, to people who Understood.
I didn’t know it’d be like that.
Because I was tired, and because I was heartsick and soon-to-be time poor I hauled my sorry self and my pink backpack over to the vending machine in the corner and bought myself a block of Cadbury’s chocolate, sad even that it was yummy, real Australian Cadbury’s, not the waxy strange American version (they put wax in chocolate. No joke. And when I looked at them strangely and asked why, they looked at ME strangely and said “you DON’T have wax in chocolate?” Real wax wax. Paraffin wax. No joke).
Because the departure lounge was crowded, and because my old seat was taken, I sat down with a slump and a sigh in another seat, near an old man with a kindly smile who looked at my chocolate and my overstuffed backpack and said “You look like you’ve just been on a Great Adventure; either that or you’re going on one.”
I looked at him again. He was a tall man, and his hair was white-turning-yellow, like a newspaper left in the sun, and his bushy eyebrows waggled when he smiled at me again. I smiled back. “Just been on one, actually. And you? Have you come from anywhere interesting?”
And that’s where it started, right there.
He told me he’d been to the States, and I said that I had too, and he told me he’d been to Michigan, and I told him I had too, and he told me he’d been in Michigan for Thanksgiving, and I told him I had too, and by that time the smallness of Melbourne had opened up into the wideness of memory, and we talked like old friends about the snow that almost was, and the unseasonable blue sky that day, about his experiences in the Buick factory in the city of Flint, that I’d driven through just a few days before. I laughed, and said I hadn’t seen him, although I probably should have waved.
He told me the story of his adopted daughter, adopted from Flint, Michigan, who went back with him and met her birth family for the first time, about how strange it was seeing a face so familiar on someone people he’d never met, about how her mannerisms were so similar to this sister she’d never known. I rejoiced with him, and felt that belonging, that sense of coming back to family, that love, that grief for the lostness. I felt the story there with him, right there at Melbourne airport.
I feel that story today, which is why I’m remembering the Man from Michigan. I’ve been meeting family – my own family that I didn’t know – family that look like me, that think like me, that share a history, and can explain huge chunks of who I come from that I didn’t even know about. It makes me feel like I’m the one who was adopted, the one returning to Flint, Michigan.
It’s a lovely feeling, and a happy-sad feeling at the same time. I don’t know how to explain it. All I know is that I’m holding tightly to the hand of the God who put me in Flint, Michigan for Thanksgiving weekend; the God who put the newspaper-blond man at the airport.
I wish I’d taken his photograph. I don’t even know his name. If I did I’d call him up and tell him I’m holding his hand right now too. I don’t think he’d mind.
I’m glad the Man from Michigan was there that day. I’m glad for the God who puts people in airports just when we need them. I’m glad for the God who allows flesh-and-blood people to be His hands and feet.
What about you? Have you ever met someone you think just must be an angel? Someone you don’t know who’s managed to impact your life? Have you been that person for somebody else?