It was overcast, and I was uncomfortable.
Let me tell you a story, he said.
“When I was fourteen years old, my parents sent me away to a foreign country where I couldn’t speak the language at all. It was scary, but it was good for me, in the end,” he began.
“I haven’t told anyone else this story after all these years. A friend of my father’s was supposed to meet me at this hotel once I arrived to town. He was supposed to help welcome me and get me situated, show me where I was living and help look after me. I got to the hotel and waited for him all day by the big window which overlooked the streets below it. I didn’t know a single person in this city. A day passed. Two days passed. I began to worry. I was so alone. I had no phone number and I had no address for this man. And I didn’t want to upset my father with the news that nobody had come to get me. So I just waited there. I was a child, but I remember it very well, knowing no one, having no idea how to speak or who to speak to. I remember I didn’t have the right clothes; everyone else was wearing boots because it was winter. They made fun of my sandals and laughed at me because they knew I didn’t belong there. Three days, four days passed. Nobody came. I didn’t know what to do so I stayed in the hotel for as long as I could every day and then went outside for a chilly walk when I couldn’t take being inside anymore. Finally on the fifth day, my father’s friend showed up at the hotel. He was held up by a family emergency, he said, and he was sorry. I never told my father that I had waited for five days without anybody; without even a phone call or note. My father would have been furious. And I never told anybody else, until now, I guess. When you’re a child, feeling afraid can feel more like a secret you should never tell.”
Telling this story shook him to his core. It wasn’t your typical horror story – no bad guys, no malicious intentions, no violence – it was simply, significantly, an account of scarring loneliness. In those few minutes, looking at my own father, I saw him become the child in the hotel room. I could feel the trauma, the aloneness, and the kind of unforgettable fear that haunts a lost child in a big city. Spine-chilling, this story was, even though fifty years later, here we were in none other than Southern California suburbia, on what should have been a properly sunny day, driving around in a Toyota Camry.
Thank you for sharing that story with me, I said quietly. I can’t believe you were just fourteen, left alone like that for almost five days.
He tied it back to his original point, which was about resilience. It had transpired from harrowing and incredibly personal to a generic father-daughter lecture in no time at all. But I didn’t forget the story. I couldn’t forget how his face looked when he told it. I wondered about what else in this man’s life I didn’t know about. He was always shielding me from anything too painful.
Not long after that, we got out of the car and went to church. I found myself enjoying the uniqueness of the pastor’s voice. It had a musical quality to it. The church had aged, though. The carpet was worn, the choir was significantly more geriatric than I had remembered, and the pews had tape stuck on the back of them from years’ worth of Christmas decorations and perhaps mischievous, bored children. It was less majestic than my childhood memory recounted. More human, with bumps and bruises just like everybody else. It was odd to see the church looking this way – vulnerable.
“Please bow your heads,” the pastor’s voice rang out warmly “and take a few minutes of silent prayer to reflect on all of God’s blessings. If there is anything weighing on your shoulders this morning, offer it up now to the Lord, and feel that this weight you’ve been carrying has been lifted.”
I bowed my head, closed my eyes, and squeezed my dad’s hand, responding intuitively to a feeling that something important was happening around me. I opened my eyes quickly, in that sheepish, sideways way we do during prayer, just in time to catch my father wiping his eyes. Were those tears? What was going on here?
I spent the rest of the sermon tuned out to everything; the Pastor’s sing-songy voice long gone, no more than a distant memory. Instead, I thought a lot about the aging church, once a symbol of idyllic, idealistic perfection, once unwavering and strong. I thought about my father’s story, about these never-seen before layers of vulnerability, and was reminded of how different our perception of life is as a child versus as an adult. And just as the sermon was ending, as the slow, graying choir made their way back up onto the creaky risers, I thought about how harsh the reality can be when you are newly grown up, somewhere in California, face to face with those differences.