This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Threshold crossings

Real Families

In March I stood in a familiar yet electric space: at the arrival gate for passengers coming off international flights at Dulles International Airport in Washington. One of our sons was returning from a trip to Africa. Last month, my husband stood in the same space. Another son was returning from a trip to central Asia.

Sometimes I feel I could map the story of my life by the times I’ve either waited for someone I love to walk through those opaque, swinging doors or walked through them myself into the eager arms of those I love.

Standing amid that hubbub of anticipation in March, I came alive. What a microcosm of the world—a swirl of languages, colors, craning necks and radar eyes. Every time the door swung open, like search beacons we zoomed in. Was this the one we were waiting for? Then from a corner of the crowd there was a shriek, a glad shout, arms waving with joy, a rush to meet a new arrival. Other greetings were quiet, intense hugs between two people laden with who knows how many long weeks/months/years of longing. Some were big family affairs, with children leaping into arms, exclamations of surprise all around. Some people looked disoriented, perhaps arriving for the first time in this strange country. Some looked travel weary but on spotting a familiar face in the blur lit up like a light bulb, radiating enormous smiles. Some greeters stood nonchalantly on the edge with signs, waiting to pick up a person they’d never met before.

I would love to know the stories that lay behind the many poignant reunions. There’s something about these in-between times, these threshold crossings that, like a microscope, sharpens the focus on what matters most about relationships. The airport arrivals gate has become for me a metaphor of life’s transitions in general; those passages that bring into intense awareness how much we need each other. How much we want to be recognized, to touch, connect, hold and be held. Weary travelers want to know if we’ll be there for them with open arms.

I remember, as a young 12-year-old, arriving from Ethiopia to the recently renamed JFK airport with my parents and brothers in 1966. For three long years we’d been separated from my three older sisters. And the moment we’d thought would never come was finally upon us. As we waited to get through customs, we happened to look up, and there above us, looking down through plate-glass windows, were my three older sisters, waving excitedly. Soon all of us were exclaiming and pointing, “Look, look.” We couldn’t contain our joy. I remember glowing, standing tall in my bright new Ethiopian dress with its beautiful embroidered border, worn just to greet my long-lost sisters.

I remember when I returned from a college semester in Europe during which my now husband and I carried on an animated and life-changing correspondence. I have a vivid picture of the moment I walked through the opaque, swinging door at JFK. One person had placed himself prominently at the forefront of those waiting to greet the arrivals. He walked toward me with shining eyes and clasped me in a full embrace. My shyness kicked in, assuring that the hug was brief, but I rather liked his chutzpah—and still do, mostly.

On Dec. 21, 1988, my husband and I and young children traveled from the former Yugoslavia to the United States for Christmas with our families and for a job interview. When we arrived in New York, my father greeted us with special warmth. He asked whether we’d heard about the Pan Am flight that went down that day over Lockerbie, Scotland. We were shocked to learn of the crash and even more sobered when we reflected how, during a travel delay earlier that day, we’d tried to reroute with Pam Am through Frankfurt, which could have put us on that plane.

We cross all kinds of thresholds in life that bring what matters most in life into stark relief. When we’re separated from each other, we gain fresh perspective on how precious family relationships are. While we leapfrog across continents with surreal speed, we’re reminded just how fragile our connections are. The awareness of our vulnerability throbs most intensely on the threshold of departures and arrivals. Will we be all right without those we love nearby? Will the strength of our relationship endure the changes? Will we recognize each other when we meet again? Will we be there for each other?

I don’t want to read too much into an airport arrivals gate, but it does focus for me a poignant moment in our human journey and that most urgent question, Will you be there for me no matter what? After we risk the journey to the distant land, to the unknown place—whether our trip succeeds or we come home wearily dragging our baggage—will we be there for each other with glad embrace and reassuring grace?

Sara Wenger Shenk is an author and serves as associate dean and associate professor of Christian practices at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, Va.

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