Somewhere on that 7 a.m. Greyhound bus journey between Port Authority and Albany, I started crying.
Being stranded by a blizzard in New York had been fun at first: crunching through piled-high sidewalks was a Christmas movie come true.
But the record-breaking snowfall in the Eastern United States from December 16 to 20, 2009, caused 1,200 flights to be canceled out of New York’s three major airports.
I got less of a kick out of spending hours on hold in my shoebox hotel room, scrambling to get travel rescheduled at one of the busiest times of the year.
I was on my own, having extended a work trip, and I had a partner in London to get back to, followed by a trip to see family in Ireland and a new baby niece.
I finally finagled a patchwork itinerary that would get me home. Since there were no flights from New York City to London, I got a seat on a flight from Albany to Detroit on December 22, then another on a red-eye flight to London. I’d hop back to my apartment for an hour or two, then catch a flight to Belfast on the evening of the 23rd.
One-way ticket to Albany
I barely slept the night before, which was fortunate as my hotel room’s alarm clock never went off. Waking just by chance, I threw my things together and raced across town in a blind panic.
The grubby gray concrete of Port Authority bus terminal isn’t any prettier by dawn’s early light.
I was on the earliest bus possible, but the schedule was 40 minutes later than advertised and, as the journey got underway, it was delayed even further.
Realizing that I was on a pointless journey upstate to Albany, a place I’d never even heard of till 24 hours earlier, and that I wouldn’t be home with family by December 25, I gave in and began to weep.
Planes, trains and automobiles
“Are you okay?” asked the woman in the window seat next to me. It was calming to see a kindly face after the stony blankness of the officials at Port Authority and we fell into conversation.
Susan Lee was a realtor from Brooklyn, on her way to her mother’s for the holidays, and as we talked, I began to relax and accept my situation. Then Susan came up with a plan.
Instead of staying on the bus to the airport, my new friend and I were soon hopping off together at Albany Bus Terminal, where Susan’s mother Judy was waiting in the car to pick her daughter up.
Susan took the wheel and the three of us made the 12-mile dash to the airport, the Lees’ plan for the morning put to one side.
I jumped out of the car, raced through the airport and made it onto the first of three flights. I got to London the next day, sent Susan a thank-you email, and by evening I was back home, ready to spend Christmas Eve in the Northern Irish countryside.
And that was that, until April 2020.
‘We need that right now’
“I’m just so excited that you got in touch with me,” beamed Susan, joining me via Zoom from the cottage in Sullivan County, New York, where she and her partner had gone to sit out the coronavirus lockdown.
She was fresh-faced and smiling, and it was hard to believe that more than ten years had passed since that fateful trip.
I was in my bedroom in North London, in the home I bought a couple of years before. I’ve been at CNN five years now, having been laid off at the online video start-up which brought me to New York in 2009. My Irish family’s a little bigger, with a nephew joining us in 2010.
The pandemic restrictions have given me a lot more time to reconnect with people online, which is why I’d dug out Susan’s business card from a drawer and Googled her.
Susan told me she’d choked up when she got that surprise communication telling her that, once upon a time, she’d done a little thing that meant a lot. “We need that right now,” she added.
“I traveled quite a bit when I was younger, too, so I received a lot of goodness from people,” recalled Susan. “It was a feel-good moment, you know. It was rewarding to get your email and find out what had happened.”
In 2009, “I was just going to spend Christmas with my mom,” she said. “My father had passed away a year prior to that. It felt sort of empty with my father being gone.”
The Lees emigrated to the US from Seoul, South Korea, in 1976. Her father was a dental technician, and “he wanted to live the American dream.”
Said Susan, “It’s a horrible thing to lose a loved one, especially somebody that I loved dearly. But looking back now, it’s quite amazing how I’ve been able to move on, when I thought that I wouldn’t be able to live without him.”
Susan has a sister in Hawaii and a brother in California, while Judy is still in Albany, a couple of hours’ drive away from Susan’s cottage.
“She’s an amazing woman. A cancer survivor, she’s had such health issues for a lot of her life,” said Susan. “When Covid-19 came out I was very concerned because she has to travel three times a week to the dialysis center.”
Susan had made a socially distanced visit to Judy 10 days earlier, to bring supplies. “It was weird not to be able to hug her,” she said, but she was glad her mother was safe and well.
‘Make lemonades with lemons’
Susan helped me reunite with family that year, but now, like billions around the world, we’re not sure when we’ll be able to hug our loved ones again. It’s a reminder to treasure the moments we have.
December 22 will be the 11-year anniversary of the day Susan helped me get home. This year I had flights booked from London to Belfast on that day too, to spend Christmas with the family I’ve not seen since March.
Now that the UK travel bubble has been canceled and London is in lockdown, I’ll be spending the holidays with my new housemate of a few months, and catching up with friends and family over video.
Back in 2009, I used Google Hangouts to ring home when stranded, and video calls have also been a great help this year – and the WiFi’s better too.
I’ll be messaging Susan today ahead of our anniversary, to learn how the rest of her year has panned out. Back in April, her work as a realtor had paused, but she told me she was doing her best to “enjoy the less stressful life” and “really trying to make lemonade with lemons here.”
We ended our call with hopes to have drinks in person one day, when we could leave our homes and the Atlantic was no longer between us.
Said Susan, “It’ll take a little time, but life will continue.”