It was Christmas Day of 2002 and I boarded a flight to Milwaukee with a ham as a carry-on. The ham was a gift from my mom to my ham-loving brother.
The ham was in a box, which I put in the overhead compartment next to my bag, and then waited to take off. Unfortunately, though, we sat on the tarmac for 45 minutes, raising the risk of me missing my connecting flight in Detroit.
"This isn't looking good," said the man next to me, who was traveling with his 2-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son. "I've got to make it to Chicago with these kids tonight and I can't miss that flight."
After the flight finally took off, the four of us had a nice conversation – the kind that makes you feel like old friends with someone you barely know. When we neared Detroit, however, the conversation took a more serious tone.
The flight was cutting it too close to the connection and both of us were only going to have a sliver of time to make it to our connecting flights. I was determined though – that ham and I weren’t going to spend Christmas in Detroit if I could help it.
After we landed, the flight attendant announced the gates for the connecting flights and we learned that our connections were three gates away from each other.
"There's no way I'm going to make it down there with these kids and our luggage," he said.
"I can help," I said, having no idea what I was signing myself up for.
When the plane landed, I grabbed my bag and my ham, went out into the terminal and waited for the man and his kids to come out. It took a little longer than I had hoped because he had to pick up his daughter's stroller.
"I'm sorry," he said when he came out. "You shouldn't have waited."
"We're in this together, man. We can do this."
The man put his daughter in her stroller and we divided up the cargo. It was a precarious situation.
The dad was pushing his daughter in the stroller with one hand and holding a bag with the other. His son was lugging his gym bag, and I had the girl's bag in one hand and my roller bag in the other.
"What are we going to do with the ham?" I said.
"Let's stack it on your bag," he said.
We all started running as fast as we could but we kept having to stop because the ham was falling off my luggage. I tried to carry it, but it was too cumbersome to run with the ham and pull the luggage. The dad stopped.
"Get out of the stroller," he said to his daughter. "Let’s put the ham in there."
The ham went into the stroller, we redistributed bags, and then we charged through the airport.
God bless his daughter, who was sprinting as fast as her 2-year-old legs would carry her. She was getting tired and so were we, but we only had minutes left and slowing down wasn’t an option.
With minutes to spare, the four of us (five if you count the ham) arrived at our gates, where our planes were boarding.
“We did it,” the man said, panting.
“I can’t believe it,” I replied.
“We couldn’t have done it without you.”
“My ham and couldn’t have done it without you.”
The four of us gave each other hugs, wished each other a Merry Christmas and got on our flights. After putting the ham in the overhead compartment, I sat down by the window and looked out in surprise and wonder. It was snowing – a white Christmas. I finally got the answer to the prayer I had prayed countless times as a kid growing up in the warmer climate of south Mississippi.
Looking back though, while the white Christmas is still special to me, that sprint through the airport with my unexpected friends is what means the most. Sure, at the time, it was a burden – out-of-control anxiety with a side of ham. Now I remember it as a rare opportunity to survive a momentarily harrowing moment in which the four of us needed to help each other make Christmas happen.
This Christmas, you and I are probably going to have our own experiences that seem so frustrating at the time. The turkey is going to burn and you’re going to have to go the barren grocery store and buy TV dinners for everyone. Uncle Joe is going to say something that – at the time – will seem so offensive, but two years later will make a great story. Something's gone wrong and there’s nothing we can do about it.
This Christmas, let’s look for the blessing in the momentary burdens anyway. Let’s just let it be messy and imperfect.
The first Christmas was awful in its own way, with the smell of animal manure and no decent crib for the baby. If that Christmas could hide a surprise blessing that no one expected, then no matter what happens, our Christmas can too.