Friday, May 3, 2013

The Depths of Life

Life is a deep, deep pool. If we're only willing to skim the top for fear of having to occasionally skim the bottom, we'll miss all the glorious heart-filling stuff in between.

Sometimes we get to experience the various depths in a short span of time, where the clear and brilliant breath-taking moments are quickly followed by a time of uncertainty and fear, stranded in murky waters, where we feel choked and overwhelmed. 

This was my past weekend.

I volunteered at the last minute to chaperone my middle-school daughter's 4-day choir competition trip to Boston since another chaperone had to withdraw. I admit I was a little nervous, as the itinerary was ambitious, and to be in charge of someone else's children in a city where bombings had occurred the week before was a bit...intimidating. Despite my nervousness, I felt compelled to step up. So I jumped blindly into the pool, not knowing how deep it was going to be or if the waters were clear or turbulent. Sometimes ya just gotta jump.

I was rewarded with many golden moments on the journey, manifesting in snippets of student tenderness and responsibility as they genuinely cared for each other while we toured the city by Duck Boat and on foot all weekend. They joked and smiled, encouraged and kept after one another, checked back to make sure they were still with chaperones, and did a fine job of respectfully representing themselves, their families, and the school. Even on day three when we were all getting tired and punchy and miscommunications occurred, they soothed each other's tears and followed with "I'm sorry, I love you" and group hugs.

Our three choir groups cheered one another as they performed, and our Women's Choir gave what I can only describe as an exquisite performance, one that actually made me catch my breath. All the groups scored well, and the Women's Choir was told by one of the judges that they were the best choir he's heard in a long time and their last song almost brought him to tears. He came up to the stage specifically to tell them that, which is uncharacteristic.

The journey also had its darker moments. Horrendous traffic plagued us at almost every turn. I had to fight my own deep fatigue at the reduced sleep and less-than-ideal diet that accompanies trips like these. There were times when I would have been completely content to curl up in the sunshine and bask like a cat on Boston Commons or anywhere else with green grass and brown earth to support my weary head. This pace was not one I would have chosen, and I could see that even the kids would have appreciated just a little down time to hang out in their rooms together at the hotel or swim. Pockets of middle-school drama broke out at times, which required gentle handling to soothe raw nerves and hurt feelings.

Overall, our trip had been clear and fairly smooth, filled with meaningful connections to one another and our nation's ancestors, as history unfolded through vibrant tour guides. We shared ferocious belly laughter at the crazy antics of the Blue Man Group, made all the more funny by the chaperones being seated in the front two rows, plastered in some sort of banana-goo and coming home with the spit-ball art of a Blue Man. And our hearts soared with unending joy at the kids' amazing performances.

On Sunday, we loaded our two buses to head home after a few hours' stop at Six Flags New England, all blissfully exhausted and a bit sore from four days of pounding the pavement on tours and a competition. We celebrated the successful competition, discussed our favorite activities, and settled into our seats, eagerly anticipating our arrival at home. 

Within the first hour of our drive, our trip took a turn for the worse. Kids began suddenly vomiting on both buses and we had to pull off to clean up and get supplies to handle the situation, as more were becoming ill. Long story short, our stop was extended when one person had to go to the hospital. We wearily and worriedly got back on our way, with a daunting 4-hour ride still ahead of us. One other chaperone and I were also having some stomach issues. We handed everyone on the bus an empty bag to keep handy just in case they needed it, and by the end of the trip, many people did. Rumors ran rampant about possible food poisoning because of the rapidness with which the illness hit, but two kids had been sick on the trip earlier, so we don't know what caused it. It didn't really matter anyway. People were s-i-c-k.

The rest of the ride home was as bad as it sounds. New people would get sick, and the closest adults would fly into action, supporting the child and cleaning up as best we could. It was the longest ride of my life, and as I fought my own queasy stomach, I tried to sit still, meditate, and contain myself during the quiet times between sick kids. Part of me was wondering why this was happening to us and it was beginning to feel as if we were in a horror movie.

I'm normally a very positive person, but I was reaching my limit. My spirits dropped further when we stopped at a rest stop about 1 1/2 hours from home and one of the bus drivers got sick. I tipped my head heaven-ward, and said, "Dear God, that's enough. No more. We must get home. These kids are so sick. ENOUGH." I was almost in tears by this point.

And then I remembered that I chose to jump into this pool, be it clear or cloudy, and I knew in my heart that we had what we needed to get through this. I took a deep breath and changed my perspective. My sour mood legitimately matched my sour stomach, but it was not going to help and there was still work to be done and miles to go. Though life was extremely difficult at the moment and I was exhausted and feeling awful, I decided that I would not have traded my weekend, even if it had to end like this. We would survive this trip, if by sheer will alone. We were all in this together.

I switched up my thoughts to gratitude for my amazing and fearless chaperones-in-arms. No one hesitated to clean up vomit and comfort a kid, knowing they risked succumbing to this vicious illness themselves. I gave thanks for the gracious and kind assistance we received from the Kmart employees where we stopped to clean up. I felt immense relief that three of us were there to catch the child who fainted so they didn't hit their head on the concrete. I offered silent words of appreciation for the strangers who stopped and asked if we needed help, and for EMT's who were true angels and lovingly took our student and accompanying staff member to the local hospital for medical attention. Everyone worked together to get through this mess. And even though kids freaked out and moved away while someone vomited, they alerted the adults when their friends needed help and tried to comfort one another as best they could.

This trip offered the very depths of life...from touching and joyous experiences to horrendous illness. 

If I had to be at the deep and murky bottom at the end of last weekend, I am so grateful for the people who were down there with me, most of us strangers at the beginning of the trip. Before our descent, we had many sparkling moments of laughter, success, comradery, and kindness, and we held onto those moments like flashlights as we tried to see our way out of the darkness together.

As soon as I'm able to drink something stronger than water or Gatorade, I'll raise a glass to my fellow chaperones who I consider nothing less than heroic, the teachers, bus drivers, and even the students themselves who all made the best of the situation and took care of one another, no matter how badly they felt. To each warrior who carried on, despite the desperate need to rid bellies and bowels of that foul ailment, I salute each one of you for your courage.

We shared amazing sights and sounds, then survived the bleak deep together. We reached down within ourselves to gather the strength we didn't know we had and pushed through with compassion when things seemed the worst. This was an incredible growing experience for us all.

Someday we're going to look back and laugh at this adventure. But not quite yet - my stomach still kinda hurts. 

And in a few weeks when we've all recovered, I think we need an adult-only field trip. :D

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