I awoke on the last day feeling a mix of anxiety and giddiness. Excited to be home, but dreading the day ahead. I can never read my boss’ poker face, expectations of when it was acceptable to leave the conference were always difficult to read. The last day of sessions fell on a Saturday so I was not willing to stay another moment longer than necessary. I booked a mid afternoon flight home so I’d miss at least one of the sessions I had registered for.
I packed my things in silence, the long night was filled with the same style of paranoid dreams to which I had become accustomed of late, fearing my boldness in traveling so close to where my estranged mother lived would set off some vibration in the universe, like an insect caught on the edge of a spiderweb. Though she couldn’t know unless someone informed her, the fear welled up in me just the same.
I sat alone at continental breakfast, listening to the other tables around me fill with strangers who became polite single-serving friends with the people they met. I must have given off that aura of weirdness I tend to, since no one bothered to sit with me. I didn’t mind, I eat many meals alone these days and have no problem overcoming the social expectation that I do otherwise.
I entered the main auditorium for the final day. There I saw my boss and a few people I knew. One sat near me, but not next to me, a function of his own introversion. I smiled at him a few times after our polite conversation ended, as we ran out of things to discuss. Soon another person took the chair between us, blocking him from my view.
The morning’s presentation was a lifetime achievement award for the association’s beloved president, a kind woman whose tireless efforts have kept our industry conferences and networks together. The outpouring of affection for her was well-earned, genuine and moving. In experiences like these, you learn so much about someone you never really knew, touching personal histories and the kind of convictions that all self-aware humans should strive for.
As she spoke about her own life, I couldn’t help but contrast my own against it, feeling the disparity between us grow with each detail. Her father liberated Dachau during the war, encouraging her as a young woman to stand and be counted among those who stand up for the rights of their fellow humans. Mine entered military service to avoid prison and spent all my life decrying the “hated Jews.”
Her mother, a human rights activist, petitioned the city during the Jim Crow era to have the roads paved in the areas of town where the African American populations were living. Mine spent her days having affairs, producing bastard children like me, and lounging drunkenly on our cigarette-stained burned up couch, barking at us to fill her empty wine glass.
In college, the honoree participated in protests at Kent State, and realized that in order to make real dynamic change, you must work within the system, and went to law school. While I was in college, I was so depressed and self destructive, I could barely think about anything but myself. I exposed myself to terrible people who I thought were friends, including the two boys who plied me with so much alcohol I was too drunk and disoriented to fight them off.
The honoree named her family and its noteworthy achievements with pride, whereas I can only recount mine with grief, rage, and shame. Her children stood by her side, beaming with love and pride. Mine must be kept secret and protected from the damaging lineage he was unfortunately born into.
And yet, this inspiring woman stood before us that morning, beaming the abundance of love and affection she had been so deserving of back out to all of us. She had each person stand for the types of roles we played in our work, a recognition that but for all our efforts, our industry would not be what it was. And though some of the younger people behind me felt it was acceptable to talk through her speech, I believe that those us paying attention felt as honored as she did.
The rest of the day’s sessions went by quickly, and I found myself with some time to walk the mall once more over lunch. The weekend crowd was thick with tourists, throngs of people bumped and banged into me as I made my way through. None was polite enough to apologize and soon I began to feel every bit the white trash I had been raised to be. I ducked into a restaurant for lunch, and was seated alone in a corner booth.
Two tables over, a well to do mother and her young daughter of about 10 sat picking at salads, engulfed in their cell phones. Neither of them spoke to the other and the salads they ignored left me wondering why they went to the restaurant at all. I ate my lunch quietly, reading some of the book I was working on. Soon it was time to leave, so I left to retrieve my bags and leave for the airport.
The airport security line was empty, something I’d never seen before. I went through the line quickly and found my flight’s gate. Across from me was a very loud family who had been vacationing in Boston, information I could have gleaned easily from their tee shirts emblazoned with lobsters holding claw crackers and the eye-roll inducing phrase “crack kills.” They were opening up their bags to show each other the equally obnoxious souvenir toys for their likely equally annoying family back home. The most horrific of all was a stuffed plush that spewed garbled gibberish when its stomach was pressed, each of them taking turns pressing it and guffawing at full volume.
Fortunately they were flying to Arizona, not Philadelphia, so I would only have to endure them for a few more minutes. My flight home had a much nicer caliber of humanity, specifically the extremely nice gentleman who was assigned the seat beside me. There are few moments in life where you click with people, and luckily for me and my new friend, this was one of them. We talked almost the entire flight back, discovering we shared similar (and unfortunately dysfunctional) family histories. We had a lot of shared interests, and the normally boring trip home blew by in no time.
My therapist often jokes that he can usually spot someone from a broken home, and I think that’s true for me as well. I think we shared the same invisible scars, speak the same language as a code from ingrained survival. Sad as it is, this man was harmed the same ways that I was, and we had what I can only describe as moment of mutual respect and reassurance that it was them (our families) and not us that caused this damage. But as sad as the conversation could have been, we laughed it off as the peculiar spectacle of dysfunction should and parted ways as friends.
The drive home was blissfully quick, and although my son was asleep for the night when I arrived, I was just so excited to finally be home. My boys had survived just fine in my absence. Orderliness was restored to the universe.