October 8, 2021

Sight Unseen / Brandon A. Evans

At the road’s end

Brandon A. EvansThere’s a story about my life that—in its entirety, anyway—I’ve never really told anyone.

I’ve shared little bits here and there, and loved ones know much more of it than others, but still, the whole thing?

It’s not a particularly flattering story, and many of its details aren’t uplifting.

Still, it contains echoes of things we’ve all been through: failed efforts, good intentions, lonely paths and—against all our wishes—arriving at the road’s end.

For me, it’s the story that’s at the heart of my life. It’s become the template for everything else that followed and everything that is yet to come; the lens through which I see God and the world and make sense of both. Every column I’ve written in this newspaper—every one—has a part of this story in it.

It happened more than 20 years ago.

I should never have signed up for an overseas pilgrimage, especially not while a young man barely out of his teen years.

It was 2000, the Year of the Great Jubilee in the Catholic Church. I was heading into my senior year of college as Pope John Paul II was preparing to meet with 2 million people from around the world in Rome for World Youth Day.

Against any semblance of continuity with my shy, nervous nature—and perhaps bolstered by the confidence I had around select friends—I signed up for a pilgrimage with others from my Newman Center at the University of Illinois.

Make no mistake: I was not getting into this just to have Mass with the pope in a crowded field. The trip was much more than that. It was a full-blown weeklong pilgrimage to the Eternal City; a chance to travel abroad at a reasonable cost with people I knew, explore the roots of our faith and broaden my narrow horizons.

For a person leery of travel, it was the perfect set-up: all I had to do was save the money, attend a few meetings and show up on time to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on Aug. 14. From that point, I would never be apart from the group; our itinerary was planned in advance and any adverse situations would be taken care of by the tour company.

That morning in August we were all there: a bundle of nervous, excited energy. Well, almost all of us were there.

Shortly before moving to the gate, a young man called from the road to tell us he’d forgotten his passport and was racing back home to get it.

He was going to miss the flight.

Our group put their heads together. We thought about changing his ticket to a later flight that could still make our New York connection, then leaving it at the front desk. But what if something else happened and the ticket had to be changed again?

We agreed that someone should change their flight as well and stay behind to make sure he got on board.

I volunteered.

And the second I did so, the path ahead of me was sealed.

Most of the party went on to the gate, but a few stayed with me just a bit longer.

Another call.

The young man was now stuck in traffic and would not be there in time for even the delayed ticket.

That’s when things first started to tumble.

We went to the front desk, changing his ticket to the latest conceivable flight that could still make the connection, and gave them the ticket to hold. I asked to have my ticket changed back to the yet-undeparted original flight, but they couldn’t do it.

So my friends boarded while I sat at another gate, alone, a sense of dread building. I thought ahead to New York: we were landing at LaGuardia Airport, but our chartered flight to Rome flew out of nearby JFK. That meant quickly finding a shuttle between airports on my own.

After a bit, I boarded my plane, we pulled away from the gate, and then sat … and sat and sat. I’m not sure what the problem was but, unbeknownst to me, the other young man had made it to the airport, retrieved his ticket, boarded his later flight and—somehow—was already in the air.

Finally, my plane took off. I started to eye the green watch on my wrist closely, hoping to slow down the time.

After landing, I walked quickly through LaGuardia with my carry-on bag and found the shuttle. The minutes were still ticking away. It was going to be close.

As the driver wove between traffic, I was praying for the Divine Mercy of Jesus like a chain-smoker with cigarettes, lighting up a new series of invocations on my lips as soon as I’d finished the previous set.

We began making stops at JFK, and I asked the driver when we’d be at mine. He said that it was one of the last ones, but that if I wanted, I could get out at the next stop sign and he’d show me where I could walk—or run—to get there faster.

Agreeing, I found myself bounding across a parking lot, through a loading area for trucks, then across a street or two and past some other gates. I finally got to the small, chartered office.

The woman behind the counter lit up when she saw me. “Are you here for the flight to Rome?” she asked. “Oh good, let me just call down there—your friends got them to hold the door.”

She called the gate and her demeanor changed.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “They just closed the door to the plane.”

“Well, can’t they open it back up?” I asked.

“No. Captain’s decision. They have to leave.”

I felt sick to my stomach. Someone brought me my luggage that had been held off the plane while the woman explained my options: buy a much more expensive ticket to Rome on a commercial flight, or change the next week’s connecting flight to Chicago to the next morning and go home.

After making an embarrassing call to my parents, I changed the ticket and, as night fell, got back on a transfer to LaGuardia for my trip home.

I didn’t even know how to begin getting a hotel room, and that seemed like a waste of money anyway. I settled into the waiting area at the airport to spend a long night awake.

I tried to get something to eat but was met by a security guard at the end of the food court line who told me they were just now closing.

The hours went on and on and my stomach grumbled. Whenever I had to use the restroom, I hauled all my luggage into the handicapped stall out of fear it would be taken.

The night passed slowly, much of it spent wondering why God would’ve taken this trip away, especially since it had seemed like it was an opportunity given by his providence.

But it was also spent knowing that what I’d done in sacrificing my trip for that other young man was not purely selfless: it was a rush of foolish adventure accompanied by a heavy dose of getting to be the hero. Not, it seems, so Christian after all.

The next morning I was so tired I slept through the landing in Chicago, woken only by a notification from the stewardess. A car service brought me an hour away to my parents’ house.

My grandmother offered to buy me another ticket to Rome, but I turned her down. I couldn’t throw her good money after bad. All I could think of was sleeping.

Barely any time had passed when my mom came into the bedroom. The tour company had called and felt awful about everything. They had a seat on a direct flight to Rome, leaving in just a few hours and paid in full, if I wanted it.

I didn’t want to say yes. I was so tired. But this was a new chance to have things made right. I shook off the sleep and was driven back to O’Hare. Only hours later, I was on my way to Rome.

The tour company explained that everything would be taken care of for me: they were contacting the chaperones at the hotel in Rome so that I would be met at the airport by some of my friends and taken where I needed to go.

While over the Atlanic on the darkened overnight flight, I leaned back in the chair. The ordeal was over—God had provided after all seemed lost.

Still, I didn’t sleep on the flight, mentally preparing for landing in a foreign country and figuring out how to make my way through customs for the first time.

Everything went as planned, and I emerged into the arrivals section of Rome’s Fiumicino Airport. I couldn’t help but feeling like a little bit of the conquering hero as I strained to pick out my friends. The lost pilgrim had found his way.

But there was no greeting party. I walked the distance of the whole place after getting my luggage, wondering what was keeping them. I waited … and waited.

I tried to call the hotel, with no luck.

It turns out that there was a problem with the phone lines in its area. The tour company had never reached anyone as well, and without a cell phone, they were unable to reach me.

No one was coming.

Even worse, no one knew I was here.

As the afternoon wore on, I went to the information desk with a folded piece of paper containing the hotel’s name and address. I asked for directions to get there and after several people helped, they reached the same conclusion: the hotel was not familiar to them, was not on any list or in any phone book, and wasn’t in their computer system.

Even the road didn’t exist, which meant I couldn’t buy a ride because the taxi drivers wouldn’t know where to take me.

Finally, one of the men behind the desk gave me a map. He had a guess as to what area the hotel might be in, and drew instructions for me to take the airport railway to the Termini station in Rome, and from there to transfer to a subway line and travel out from the center of the city.

It was better than nothing, so I followed the instructions, lugging my suitcases along with me. I made the transfer, then waited until I saw the signs (and heard the announcement) for the underground station in question.

Almost no one got off the train with me. The station looked strangely empty. When I came up into the daylight, my heart collapsed.

I thought I would come upon a busy square: open air restaurants and scurrying shoppers, basilicas and statues, a roundabout bustling with mopeds—and, of course, hotels with their names sprawled on large signs.

But it was just a narrow four-lane road that was not very busy at all, and lined on either side were two- to three-story apartment buildings. No signs, no churches, no hotels.

I was dehydrated, to the point that my left eye was so irritated I just kept it closed like a grimacing pirate. The tiny castor wheels of my suitcases ground and clipped and caught on the sidewalk until I was practically dragging them.

Finally, after a few blocks, I saw a McDonald’s at an intersection.

I managed to get in, order a large Coke, and go back outside. I dropped the suitcases and leaned against the brick wall, slowly sliding down until I was sitting on the concrete.

The sun was getting long in the sky.

I was terrified. Nothing really went through my mind except for the feeling of being very alone—and very, very far from anything I knew.

Though I was barely conscious of it, my next steps were pretty evident: rest up, then backtrack to the airport. I’d be safe there. Tomorrow I could try to reach the hotel again; failing that, I’d transfer my return flight and get back to the States.

The magnitude of my stupidity—of my having no one else to blame—grew heavy on my shoulders, as did the worry that the airport (or the train line to it) would be closed and I would be on the streets overnight.

A cab driver pulled up.

Great, I thought, I already know what he’s going to say.

Asking if I needed a ride, I silently unfolded the paper with the hotel information on it. He looked it over, furrowing his brow, then shrugged his shoulders.

“Sorry,” he said in broken English, “Don’t know where that is.”

And that was it: the last of the longshots.

I had done my best, and tried my hardest, and even overcome more than a few fears, but it wasn’t enough.

The generosity of the tour company and the efforts of my friends were truly wonderful, but also not enough.

And lastly, the prayers—all the prayers, from so many people—they just weren’t enough.

It felt like I’d wasted so much good will.

And, frankly, it was hard to fathom that I’d come all the way to Rome for a large Coke and a view of an empty street.

Literally and figuratively, it was the end of the road.

The most important detail in this whole story is the next one. It’s the thing I come back to again and again when remembering it, and the reason I remember it so strongly.

I gave up.

Not a little, not with reservation, not angrily or with other comforts planned in my head.

I didn’t offer the defeat to God nobly or think of what valuable lessons I’d learned. I didn’t thank God for the chance to suffer for others. I didn’t even ask him for help.

As I watched the man walk back to his taxi, I finally admitted the truth: this just wasn’t meant to be.

And there—right there and nowhere else—was when the story turned.

The suffering God had allowed was not pointless after all. It had brought out just the kind of surrender in me that was needed—needed at exactly that time and exactly that place—in order for him to step in.

And he did so by giving a single, quiet inspiration to the only person left who could help.

The cab driver stopped at his car, pausing in thought.

He turned, looking at me strangely and waving his finger, a smile in his eye.

“I can help,” he said. “I have an idea. Come on!”

With the wizardry only an Italian taxi driver possesses, he whisked up both my suitcases before a weak protest escaped my dry lips. By the time I was to my feet, he was putting my bags in his trunk.

“No, no,” I started to say.

“Come on, come on!” he beckoned, smiling. “We look!”

I know what this is, I thought. He’s going to drive me all over the place looking for this hotel only to feign defeat and dump me back at this McDonald’s—at night—with a huge fare.

But my bags were already in the car and … I had no protest left.

In my defeat, I quietly got in the back seat, half feeling kidnapped and fully feeling like I was going to be sick.

This was one of the largest and most complex cities in Europe, with 2 million extra people descending on it. We had no chance of finding this hotel.

The car sped away and I looked sadly as the last landmark I knew disappeared around a bend.

We went three blocks.

Three blocks.

“Ha!” yelled the driver. “Look! There is your hotel! See, new road! Not on the maps!”

I looked, and sure enough we had come upon a fresh new road in a very old city, leading down a small hill and to a hotel still on a half-undeveloped plot of land.

I couldn’t believe it.

But it was true. All that time, all that way—6,400 miles by car, plane, bus, rail and foot—and I came up short only three blocks from my goal, with no way forward at all except by a miracle.

When I got into that hotel room I let go of my suitcases and fell to the floor, stretching my hands out in either direction across the cool tile as if I could hug the whole building.

In that moment, the hope and surprise and wonder of what lay ahead tore backward through the memories of the past three days and stole the venom from them; all the despair and the self-pity and hunger and sleeplessness, it all vanished as though made of nothing.

My friends—who’d endured difficulties of their own over the past three days—were overjoyed to see me, and the next week was one of warmth and prayer and laughter. We toured the basilicas, explored Roman ruins, shared daily meals and had Mass with the pope in a field.

And as it turns out, every day that we went to and from that hotel we walked to a bus stop that was three blocks away … and on the other side of that McDonald’s.

Every day, I saw the exact place where I had found the end of my will power; the place where I was too defeated to even protest a cab ride I didn’t want.

And it didn’t bother me, that dismal wall, because it was now only a silly reminder of a distant misadventure.

The lesson I learned has stayed with me all this time: that it is precisely at the road’s end—at the place that all our efforts finally fail—that God is waiting to save us with graces that reverse the sting of suffering and project optimism even into uncertain futures.

You would think that the intervening years of adulthood would’ve wrestled this idea away from me—after all, I’ve been to many other road’s ends since then, most of them far more serious and despairing, and in ways I couldn’t have imagined. And those times God did not appear. He did not, as before, rescue me. And there are many, many others in the world who find themselves beaten down by grievous hardships—poverty and war and addiction—far too many to blithely say that God will always save us at our most desperate points

So why would I continue to believe something that’s been proven wrong again and again? Why keep hoping? Why share it with people in a column, for goodness sake?

It’s a funny thing, and I can only explain it like this: that the hundreds of times God has not come are still not as meaningful as the time he did.

My experience in Rome of being rescued by a miracle of inspiration cannot be taken away or explained into irrelevance. It will always live in my memory, and each time I’m disappointed that things don’t go my way I cling all the more to that distant August evening.

In doing so I persist in the belief that God was trying to tell me something, trying to show me a faint echo of a grander story: one that still stirs my heart, drives my pen and shades the way I see the world.

Perhaps even more, when I pine and twist for things he holds back from my grasp, he is still speaking this story to my innermost thoughts as a reminder that sometimes we must surrender our impossible roads if we ever hope to traverse them.

We cannot pick the times that God will give miraculous gifts, but we can rest assured that they do exist, and if they come it will not be from our earning or expectation but from the goodness of a God who loves us beyond comprehension.

That may be a slim line of hope to those at their own road’s end today, but it is hope nonetheless. For the God who allows mysterious suffering also—in moments we do not expect—allows mysterious grace.
 

(This column is dedicated to Rachel Thackrey, without whose encouragement and support it would never have been written. Sight Unseen is an occasional column that explores God and the world. Brandon A. Evans is the online editor and graphic designer of The Criterion and a member of St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield.) †

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