Return to Gander

by Xiaowen Zeng

I saw the email from Gander, Newfoundland, Canada by accident.

Since my son Nick started university in Michigan the previous year, the quietness of my home in the suburbs of Philadelphia had become almost unbearable. Driven by an urge for more video chatting with him, I bought a Samsung phone that had a bigger screen than the Blackberry Torch I had been using. While setting it up at home, I was prompted to login to my Gmail account, which I hadn’t used for a several years.  I looked up the little black notebook where I had written down at least 30 passwords for various accounts. Like millions of others, I was living in a password jungle worrying that one day I could lose access to everything in life. Thank goodness! I found the one for Gmail. The password was Beijing0903. Beijing was the city where I met Nick’s father Jing. September 3rd was Jing’s birthday. Once I had loved him. I knew that sooner or later a detail would be thrown at me like a sharp flying knife in a Kung Fu movie and cut my heart wide open but I never imagined it could be a 11 character password!  

I logged in successfully. My Gmail account was full of spam like an abandoned garden hidden by weeds.  But, I spotted the email from a non-profit organization in Gander.  In my mind, I saw a wild flower standing on a long beach and breathed the refreshing breeze from the ocean.  The email was an invitation to a memorial ceremony to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Over 6,000 passengers on 39 planes were diverted to Gander in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and were sheltered by local residents.  I was one of them. I spent four days in Gander, a small town with a population of about 10,000, which I never knew existed before landing there. I left my Gmail address with Aaron, a volunteer from the non-profit organization, so I was added to their mailing list. I learned from the emails I received in the first couple of years that some passengers had returned to Gander.  I may have promised Aaron to visit with my family but I hadn’t. I had moved more than 15 times in a decade so it seemed normal that my departure led to a permanent farewell.  Plus, I’d had enough battles to fight. I was too tired to manage even two personal email accounts; as a result, I had lost my connection with Gander.

Staring at the new phone for quite a while, my room was already wrapped in huge and heavy shadows. I felt as if I was sitting in a collapsed and dark mine, dying for blue sky and fresh air.  As I recalled, there was no shortage of blue sky and fresh air in Gander. It struck me that the four days I spent there was a turning point for me.  What got diverted was not only my trip but also my life.  It was only one week away from September 11th. I’d never planned a trip in such short time —  I normally had to plan to be spontaneous!  I surprised myself by accepting the invitation.

The flight felt shorter than I expected. I got into the terminal of Gander airport, the same place I was 10 years ago. In late August 2001, I was sent by my employer, a high tech company in Dallas, to Paris on a business trip.  On September 11th, I boarded the return flight and I couldn’t wait to get home. Nick had been suffering from stomach flu. Jing got high grades as PhD student but was not a qualified caregiver – friends joked that he couldn’t even boil water.  The flight was in the air over the Atlantic Ocean when U.S. airspace was hurriedly shut down. After sitting in the plane for over 20 hours cut off from the outside world, I teetered on the edge of mental breakdown. I was scheduled to attend a security system steering committee meeting on September 12th. It was my first chance to be appointed as a project manager, but I missed it completely. The flight captain finally told everyone what had happened that morning. I was shocked and fell into a deep pond of sadness because of the loss of human lives. We were finally disembarked. I only had what I carried, and had little sense of where I was, or where I was going.  My mind was so occupied that I didn’t pay attention to my surroundings. I tripped over the foot of a steel chair in the terminal and yelled out in pain; I drew a lot of attention.  A white guy in a cotton short-sleeved shirt and a pair of shorts came over. He introduced himself as Aaron, a volunteer helping the stranded passengers, who would take me to a clinic. I noticed that his hair was the colour of chocolate and his eyes were like jade. He extended his strong arm to me and almost carried me to his blue Ford SUV.

Now, here was Aaron again. He was greeting a couple of passengers. 10 years later, I still recognized his straight back from a distance. He was again in a short-sleeved shirt and a pair of shorts. Meanwhile, I had wrapped myself in a long sweater.  He turned around and his eyes met mine. He came over with a smile. The air was frozen for a few seconds, waiting for 10 years of vicissitudes to pass. He had obviously put on a few pounds and his hair was now like salt and pepper.  I swore I saw some sadness in his eyes. He finally said ‘give me a hug’ and touched my back with his warm “bear hands”. Comforted by their warmth, I wished they could stay for a little bit longer. He commented that I looked the same as 10 years ago. That was a sweet lie. He offered to drop me off at the motel his family once owned. I followed him to a used pickup truck. I asked him where his blue SUV was. “Oh, right, you once cried in that blue SUV”, he teased. His ex-wife had taken the blue SUV, along with their daughter, to Toronto a few years ago. She wanted a different life. But for him, leaving home where his family had lived for generations would have been as painful as digging out a huge tree root by hand.  He said it in a calm voice as if telling someone else’s story. In his truck, he took a photo out of his wallet and showed it to me. It was his daughter. She was a cute 7-year-old girl. As he was inserting the photo back to the wallet, I noticed that his fingers trembled a bit.

I did cry in his blue SUV 10 years ago. He had taken me to the local clinic to see Doctor Morris after I twisted my left ankle. Dr. Morris, a fine older woman with white hair kept calling me ‘poor sweetie’. She wrapped an elastic bandage from my toes to my mid-calf to prevent swelling. She also prescribed some painkillers. In the end, she didn’t charge me anything since I was a stranded passenger.  Once Aaron helped me back to his SUV, I collapsed and let my tears run all over my face.  I was in pain, away from home, and fearful of a suddenly uncertain future.  He told me to take a deep breath and then count from one to 10. I did. I counted to 100. Then he took me home where 12 other passengers from all over the world were already settling in.

While sitting in Aaron’s truck, I saw through the window a number of bright houses showing off beautifully under the sunlight. Their colours were as same as the wild flowers in Newfoundland — green, red, yellow and purple. Aaron told me that he couldn’t afford to buy his ex-wife out so he had to sell their motel and take a job as a handyman. He had painted these houses. There was more pride than sorrow in his tone.  After I checked in at the motel, Aaron and I sat across a picnic table having a glass of lemonade. The fresh air blew on my face reminding me of baby Nick’s kiss. I wondered if it was the sky making the sun brighter or if it was the sun making the sky bluer. That certainly was a moment of perfection.  I told Aaron that I moved from Dallas to Philadelphia a few years ago and there were some unexpected changes in my life. Aaron had to go back to the airport to pick up more passengers but he said he would like to catch up later. He invited me to his house for a kitchen party the next day.

I attended the 9/11 memorial ceremony. I was pleased that I was able to witness the kindness and humanity of Gander residents, which lighted the cold and dark night. I realized that I had been expected to be many people’s rock — my siblings, husband, and son… — and I had lived up to that great expectation. I actually exposed my vulnerability and was taken care of while in Gander, which to me was almost revolutionary. Aaron had been busy the whole time so I only got a chance to say hi. For some reason, standing in the crowd with thousands of people but knowing he was around was comforting.

Aaron’s house seemed smaller and older compared to the one in my memory but it was still cozy. A piece of art on the wall caught my eye, a mosaic of small pieces of china, in a wooden frame. Aaron told me that his ex-wife had broken an antique Dutch vase while arguing with him. He glued the pieces into the shape of blue flag iris. “Sometimes we have to learn to turn a shattered dream into a piece of art”, he said. The kitchen was packed with an audience of over 30, half locals, the other half visitors. Aaron teamed up with three guys and sang a few Newfoundland folk songs while playing guitar and mandolin. After the performance, Aaron was offered a glass of screech by a curly haired guy but turned it down since he had been sober for a couple years. The curly haired guy insisted and made fun of him. I grabbed the glass and drank it although I was never a drinker. After a few glasses of screech, along with a kiss on the mouth of a codfish, all the locals in the kitchen accepted me as an “Honorary Newfie” and invited me to join the boat tour Aaron organized for the morning. They planned to depart from Little Harbour on Gander Lake. I told them that I already booked a flight to Philadelphia. Everyone sighed with disappointment simultaneously.

My head started to spin. I left the kitchen and sat on a wooden bench on the porch.  Aaron brought a cup of tea and sat next to me. I began to talk. I talked as if I had been locked up in solitary confinement for years and finally got freedom. After 9/11, my employer let most foreign employees go, including me. I couldn’t find a job in the IT field. I started to work at a Traditional Chinese Medicine clinic during the day and bus tables in a restaurant at night to support Jing and Nick. Four years later, I had become a Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner and Acupuncturist. Jing finally got his PhD and was offered a job in China. Nick was 12 that year. As an ABC (American Born Chinese), his system had rejected Chinese language as well as dumplings.  I had tried very hard to tutor him in Chinese but he could hardly make a meaningful sentence. Jing and I decided that I’d better stay in the US so Nick could continue going to school. We promised ourselves that once Nick started university, we wouldn’t suffer the separation one more day and would live together in China forever. Jing turned out to be one of most accomplished astronomers in China. He was overwhelmed by the media’s attention and acted like a star. Two months before Nick headed off to the university, a rumour started to spread that he was having an affair. I rushed back to China to rescue my marriage. Jing’s young lover hit the roof after finding out that he lied about his marital status. She posted a long blog revealing some juicy details of their affair, details like those usually found in erotic novels. She also admitted that she had accepted Jing’s gift of an expensive condo, where she had given birth to Jing’s daughter! Her blog got a million hits overnight and thousands of comments. Scandal on the Internet had become a new drug in the Chinese society. I was stunned by the news of Jing’s illegitimate daughter and his extra source of income. It was as if Jing had drunk a magic potion and turned into a different creature, one I didn’t recognize. I felt that I was exposed and naked in public every single second, but that was only the beginning of the nightmare. Jing was reported to have plagiarized another scientist’s research paper, which crushed any remaining trust I had in him. It seemed millions of people supported my idea of divorce. Success was a still a public affair, but failure was no longer a private funeral. It took a record two short weeks to get a divorce. The local court opened especially for me on a Sunday!

I was amazed that I told Aaron my whole story in under an hour. He touched my long hair gently and looked at me with understanding in his eyes. Yes, understanding, not cheap sympathy.  In that moment, it seemed all of the struggles, anger and tears became as light as puffin feathers.

In the morning, I went to Little Harbour after delaying my flight home. I heard my heart beating and I felt like a school girl escaping from long and boring classes. I could really use another diversion in life. Aaron was already on the boat along with the others and getting ready to sail. He smiled at me with a pleasant look of surprise and extended his hand. He said, “Hop on!”

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