He is here. Peter Pan flew across hours and oceans to live with us for the next four weeks. And we are both reeling a bit at this prospect.
I saw his face when he came off the plane: the way the relief of reaching the destination mixes with the realization of total bone-tired exhaustion. I was standing at the gate, alone. As the airport coordinator, it was my job to meet the children as they were coming off the plane and then escort the tired crew of six children and an exhausted chaperone through the foreign terrain. The plane had been delayed, and they had been traveling for more than 24 hours. It was a long walk to the landside terminal with some extremely sleepy little ones, so I had my hands full.
I pretended to not notice how he was pretending to not watch me.
I asked awkward questions that he awkwardly tried to answer.
I realized just how much I have forgotten about this thing that is a first hosting. It is almost painful in its tension, this first night. He is jet-lagged, and I am uneasy all over again.
It is the crescendo of expectations crashing headlong into reality.
The dichotomy was even more pronounced because also riding home with us was Laura, a chaperone and very dear friend, who is coming to my town and community to be hosted by my friends for the third time.
Laura stepped off the plane and was immediately in my arms. The children flitted about her like nervous butterflies. All of their energy had been spent in the getting here, and now they let out the collective breath they had been holding.
And one by one, I watched the realization seep into each of their faces: what next? We are here….now what? Have we made a terrible agreement? Everything in front of us is big blank.
I saw it on Peter Pan’s face first. He saw me, and he didn’t know where to look. Me, his feet, the wall. His hand rubbing the back of his neck with chagrin. What now?
And so I hugged him and smiled and tried to show him with my eyes that it would be okay. But I had the same question.
Here are two people who have known for months that they would be together, and they separately planned and plotted out what that might be. Flexibility and openness, sure. Nothing set in stone, and we will see. Maybe it will be like this. And maybe we will do that.
And then the reality of the Now It’s Here hits, and it can be overwhelming.
This was highlighted even more by the contrast of Laura’s preparations and arrival. We have been talking together for months. She asked us what we wanted from her country. She filled her bag, not with clothing, but with gifts for all of us, her American family. Arrival was coming home. Arrival was hugging the ones she loves and bubbling over with the joy of camaraderie.
Peter Pan didn’t even come with a bag. He just has a small backpack, filled with a few small things and the clothes on his back.
We talked a little bit while we waited for the other families to gather themselves together. He understands English, but is worried about speaking it. It’s harder to speak. I need to find the pacing of my words so that we can communicate.
But we haven’t found that rhythm yet. And I forgot how much this meeting and welcoming feels like the lurch of an almost stumble across a bumpy rug.
And so we filled up our car with us, and Laura, and Stephanie and Sprite, and Jennifer (one of Laura’s hosts). It was a loud car, full of chatter. We stopped to get some food, and I could see the tired in Peter Pan’s jet-lagged face. There were six other people, talking so fast, and laughing over old stories and mistakes and connections. He didn’t even know where to start with the menu. But he picked out a burger and when it came, I could see that it came the way all foreign food does, the almost-like-home-but-not-quite-right. He poked at it, and finally gingerly picked it up and carefully ate it. He was an island amidst a cheery reunion. Here, but not yet home.
I watched him sip his drink conservatively. I pointed to it and said if he wanted more, this is okay, because here in America—free refills. He nodded and drank some more. A bit later, the waitress came by and placed another glass by his elbow without prompting. He looked surprised. And I said again, free. All you want. He looked to Laura and asked if this is the way in all American restaurants, and we said yes.
His face. It came alive, and a smile spread, and he said, “Yes?!” And I looked at him conspiratorially and said, “You like America now, huh? Mmmhmm. You do.” He laughed out loud, a real laugh.
And the rest of us laughed, too. And for a brief second, he was not an island. He was present and engaged and risking all the things to find the people to call your tribe. Just for a second, but it was there. And I knew in that moment that I would never again be able to accept a refill at a restaurant without counting out this jewel of the first real moment of connection.
This is how it begins.