Finding meaning in unlikely places

by Steve Brock on July 26, 2011

Of all the signs representing places where cruise ships in the Northeast sail, the most meaningful turned out to be Portland, ME, some place I’ve never visited…

Last month, my parents took my brother’s family and my family on a cruise that sailed from Boston and ended in Montreal.

My prayer before the trip was that it would be meaningful, something more than midnight buffets and tourist stops along the way.

Be careful what you pray for…

We get into Boston three days before the ship leaves. On our next to last day there, my family and I are on the T (Boston’s subway) heading back to our hotel. I overhear people giving an elderly man directions. A few minutes later, I look up and see that my youngest son, Connor, is repeating them to the man.

We get to our stop – the last one on this line – and my other son Sumner offers to carry the man’s roller bag as we exit. We ask where he’s headed. He has to find the train station and get a train to Portland, Maine.

We don’t know where the train station is either, but we follow some signs and ask some people and eventually find it. My wife, Kris, takes the kids back to the hotel. I offer to accompany the man on to the train station. He gratefully accepts.

We locate the ticket window but the guy tells us that the train to Portland is sold out. We have to go to another window. We do, and thankfully, there is a cancellation and a single ticket available. The guy at the ticket window requires photo ID. The old man only has his checkbook in his pocket. So I hold up his roller bag and help him dig through it for his wallet. He then buys the ticket.

I explain that his train will be announced in about 45 minutes but until then, we don’t know what track it will be. I point out the reader board that displays the departures then lead him over to the various numbered doors for each track.

He thanks me profusely for my help and offers to pay me. I decline and tell him just to help someone else sometime. I know I need to get back and meet up with Kris and the family, but I can sense that the gentleman is still unsure of the situation.

So I walk him into the waiting area and repeat the procedure pointing out that his destination will appear by the track number as confirmation when the track is announced. We go over this a few times. He again thanks me.

He then tells me his name is Tony. His son was supposed to have driven him home to Portland from Boston, but some work issue came up for his son necessitating the unfamiliar train trip for Tony. Tony is in his mid-eighties. He reaches into his pocket to show me a commemorative coin, but he has left it at home. The coin is from the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Tony worked on the antennae used to track communications and the coin is his reminder of that event, his token of identity and purpose.

I tell him that I loved Apollo 11 because it landed on the moon on my birthday when I was a kid. Tony tells me I’m far too young to have been a kid then.

I like Tony.

We talk some more, but then I need to leave. I ask if he’s OK. He says he is, but we go over the process one more time.  

He then shakes my hand for probably the fourth time. I understand. That’s all he feels he has to give to me, that clasp of skin on skin, a gesture intended to convey the fullness of the gratitude he feels. I have been there before myself so I linger in his grip for what seems both longer than normal and just right.

He tells me again he wishes he could give me something but I tell him there’s no need. With nothing left to offer, he then looks at me and says, “God bless you.”

I respond, “God bless you too.”

“No,” he says, “I really mean it.”

“I mean it too,” I reply. “I helped today as a way of spreading God’s goodness in this world.”

He looks at me and neither of us speak for a while. I’m not sure we could. Eventually, he nods. I ask him for the last time if he’s OK. He assures me he is and thanks me once again, clearly trying to convey the depths of his gratitude.

What Tony doesn’t realize, however, is that he has already given me far more than I ever gave to him. It’s a backward equation but one familiar to anyone who has ever gone on say, a short-term missions trip. You go thinking you’ll bless others. But it always turns out you’re the one most deeply touched.

Thanks, Tony.

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