“It’s a lovely thing, to be pitied.”
In 1974 I was nine years old. My parents had separated earlier in the year and now Christmas was coming. Rather than spend it at home in California — without my dad — my mother instead, wisely, opted to take my sister and I back to her hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa to spend the holidays with our extended family.
We had to fly, of course. Back then flying was still sort of a big deal. You dressed up a little. I remember that I wore my one dressy outfit, a ghastly ensemble of dusty rose polyester pants and a floral shirt with similar mauve overtones. I thought I looked really good in it. A few years later I would see John Travolta wearing a nearly identical outfit as he prepared to hit the dance floor in “Saturday Night Fever.”
You can’t fly direct to Cedar Rapids from anywhere. On the way we needed to change planes in Des Moines in what we’d thought would be a short layover. But when we arrived there was a huge snowstorm moving in. Shortly after we landed all flights were grounded. Even though we’d arrived right before Christmas, for some reason the Des Moines airport was so empty that it seemed post-apocalyptic. We were stuck there for an entire day. I remember my mother, exhausted and at her wit’s end, worried about making it to Cedar Rapids on schedule, or even if we’d be able to cover the last leg of the trip.
My sister, Susan, who’s about four years older than I am, was just hitting her teens. We were both bored, having not brought enough entertainment to fill so many hours. So we started to wander around the airport. At some point we commandeered a couple of wheelchairs and we were racing them around the gates. A security person reprimanded us, so we stopped racing. But we continued to use one of the wheelchairs.
Susan pushed me around the airport in the wheelchair for awhile. Everyone assumed I was paraplegic. We decided to try something challenging: see if we could get the chair into the ladies’ room. As my sister heartlessly rammed the chair against the door a stranger fell all over herself trying to help us. I remember giggling with nervousness, then marveling at the expression on the woman’s face: empathy tinged with sorrow, but basically a face that betrayed a deep, pure impulse to help. I realized in that moment how great it feels to be pitied.