She Set a Great Example

What you do speaks so much louder than what you say.

—Native American saying

Four-year-old Ryan O'Shea had never seen such a crowd in his life. Hundreds of people were huddled around the customer service desk where he and his mother stood in a long line with other disgruntled passengers whose flights had been cancelled. It was the day before Christmas, and everyone at the Atlanta airport was trying to get somewhere else to be with their families for the big day.

Ryan and his mom were no exception: Ryan's dad and big sister would be picking them up in San Francisco and whisking them home to Palo Alto just in time to put out the cookies for Santa's arrival. For Ryan it was going to be his best Christmas ever. He hoped Santa would be bringing the big red tricycle and SpongeBob videos he wanted. And he had a surprise for his mom and dad as well: Granny had secretly helped him make a beautiful frame for his preschool photo by gluing macaroni to Popsicle sticks, spraying the whole thing with gold paint, and sprinkling it with glitter.

But now Ryan was hearing a lot of adults crushing around him who seemed to be pretty upset.

"What do you mean, 'computer error'? . . . No crews were scheduled for any of these flights? . . . That's the most outrageous thing I've ever heard! . . . There's only one person behind this counter,- at this rate we'll be here for days."

Once passengers got wind of what had happened, there was a mad dash to find out what options—if any—they had: Were any other airline carriers flying? Were any flights available—or trains, rental cars, anything? Hotel rooms filled quickly, so where would they sleep? Would the airline compensate them for their extra expenses? It was getting late, and everyone in line was getting desperately tired, hungry, and impatient. Tempers were flaring, and the whole situation had rapidly turned into a traveler's worst nightmare.

"Honey," Ryan's mom, Abby, said to him, "don't get lost. Stay right next to me."

"But Mom, why aren't we on the plane?" Ryan asked. "We have to get home so we can put out the cookies for Santa."

"Don't worry,- we're going to make it, Ryan," Abby assured him. "Nothing can stop us from getting home in time for Christmas."

So the mom and her young son waited. And waited. Seconds, minutes, quarter hours, half hours—time passed very slowly for the mom and her boy.

But despite the endless moments, quarter hours, and half hours—in fact for the next three whole hours—this mom kept her child occupied by talking to him, singing, telling him stories and nursery rhymes, one after the other, with a real persistence and stamina that was wonderful to behold.

"Ryan, do you remember that guessing game we play in the car when we try to name the animals?"

"Sure, I remember, Mom: alligator, bear, cat . . ."

After a while, a grandma in the crowd gave the mom a little relief and played "Eensy, Weensy, Spider" and "Farmer and the Dell" with Ryan. A few other passengers took turns talking to the child—and was this kid ever eager to talk.

"Hey, did you know Santa is coming to my house?" Ryan exclaimed excitedly. "This is going to be my bestest Christmas ever," he told everyone around him.

Finally, after three hours and forty-three minutes of standing in line, it was Abby's turn at the counter to speak to the agent, and those waiting nearby eavesdropped, hoping to learn something about their fate. She began her questions amicably enough: her husband and other child were home, and she needed to get there to be with them.

"I'd be willing to rent a car and drive or take a bus to the nearest airport that has planes still flying. Any way we get there is fine," she explained loud enough so her child could hear. "Santa is coming tomorrow, you know, so we have to make sure my little boy gets home in time for Christmas Eve."

But the harassed, stressed-out, and disgruntled agent's answer was clearly not what the young mother, or anyone behind her in line, wanted to hear—especially after being stranded and waiting almost four hours just to talk to him.

"Sorry," said the agent. "There are no flights available for the next few days. Santa just won't be able to come this year— you're stuck."

Everyone uttered a collective gasp. For the first time, Ryan began to feel discouraged. It was like the wind had been knocked out of him. He'd never even considered that he might miss Santa's special visit to his house. Abby looked as though she were going to explode: her face turned beet red, her hands clenched into fists, and she began taking short, shallow breaths. She was going to have a massive stroke or break into tears.

But then another surprising thing happened. Abby glanced down at her small son, which seemed to stop her momentarily. Then she turned to the agent, stuck her face within inches of the man's face, and said quite brusquely: "Excuse me. I need a second so I won't do something I may regret."

Suddenly the line of frustrated and exhausted travelers became dead silent. The ticket agent turned absolutely white.

Several passengers glanced nervously at each other,- one appeared ready to go into "duck and cover" mode. Everyone assumed mayhem would break out in the next minutes—and the agent looked as though he thought he was about to take his last breath. All eyes turned tensely on the woman,- then, in the next few seconds, they saw the mom do something quite amazing.

Abby pivoted on her heel so that her back was to the agent. Then she froze. She closed her eyes, took a few deep, very slow breaths and let each one out slowly. Then she began quietly counting to ten under her breath. When she reached ten, she opened her eyes, unclenched her fists, and wiped her palms on her pant legs. Slowly the bright red color in her cheeks began to fade, and her breathing returned to normal. The whole process took no more than thirty seconds but seemed like an eternity.

Ryan looked on in awe as his mother turned back to the counter and looked squarely at the agent. Then he heard her say calmly, "Wait a minute, Sir. You've got it all wrong. Of course, Santa is coming. So we're going to figure out how to get Ryan back in time for Santa."

There was a visible sign of relief. The SWAT team wouldn't have to be called in after all. Then the group started applauding! Everyone realized they'd just experienced something quite revolutionary: they'd actually witnessed an incensed, irate passenger display self-control—something very rare at airports these days. This was quite a memorable event.

The agent, of course, reacted a bit differently. He was wiping sweat off his brow, probably grateful to be alive. But the best reaction by far was from Ryan. The little guy had quietly watched the whole episode and was now beaming from ear to ear. And the expression on his face was priceless: he was looking up at his mom with absolute pride and adoration. He was also the person clapping the loudest.

"Way to go, Mom!" the older woman patted Abby on the back.

For the first time, the young mother realized that Ryan had watched the whole thing carefully and had seen how she had acted. She was so relieved to see her son smiling up at her with such respect and delight that she grinned back down at him. She smiled at the older woman and said, "Thanks. You never know when our kids are watching us, do you?"

At that point, something else quite amazing occurred. Without raising his eyes to look at Abby directly, the former Grinch behind the customer service counter muttered under his breath, "Lean forward. I can't say this too loud, but there's a Delta flight leaving for Nashville in twenty-seven minutes. Go straight to Gate 32. I've told them to hold two seats for you, and I made a reservation for you and your son on a flight leaving Nashville for San Francisco ninety minutes later. Don't say a word, just get going, and you'll be home in plenty of time for Santa."

Abby beamed and squeezed Ryan's hand as hard as she could as she said to him, "I told you we'd home in time for Santa."

And just before Ryan dashed off with his mother, his little voice piped up to the man behind the counter, "Merry Christmas, Mister!"

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