Passport to Punta Cana

It never occurred to me to check my passport status. At least, not until 20 hours before our flight took off.

I’d checked Stone’s passport details thoroughly when I booked a trip with friends for spring break. He was 19 now; would his passport from age 16 still be accepted? As it turned out, it would.

But checking my passport never crossed my mind. Until it did.

And there it was, as plain as the leer on my passport face from 11 years before–I could’ve sworn it had been only five:

Date of expiration: April 2018.

I read it again.

And again.

It didn’t budge. It was as immovable as the sun that would rise and the moon that would pull the tides tomorrow in Punta Cana. As certain and immutable as death. As taxes. As time.

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Like a fat lady in a bikini, it was too buoyant to sink in. My passport was expired, yet I was scheduled to leave with three other mothers, my 19-year-old son, and five of his friends in the morning.

Like, tomorrow tomorrow.

Immediately I thought, Well, I just won’t go. He’ll go without me. After all, I hadn’t really wanted to go in the first place. This was the boys’ idea–a trip to the Dominican Republic to the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino where the all-inclusive plan included alcohol for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and every other moment of the day in between. And all of it, for one ridiculous price.

What mother would agree to that nonsense? It was cleverly billed to us as a “moms’ beach trip to the Caribbean with their beloved sons for a last hurrah with them.” The appeal to a mother’s heart for one-on-one time before her son ships off to college is emotionally seductive.

“What about this is there not to love?” the boys wanted to know. “Just shoot me now!” I’d responded. How stupid did they think I was?

I booked the trip in January, after soul-searching and bank account adjusting and deep water talking with both Stone and Buck. It could be an opportunity to practice drinking in moderation, given that the legal drinking age in the Dominican is 18.  

It could be a chance to have an out-of-this-world mother-son experience before said son leaves for college, one we would remember for the rest of our lives.

Sniff.

It could also be the biggest mistake of all my 35 parenting years.  

I realized that what was holding me back was fear of what might happen. Fear of not being in control. Fear of losing this beloved son to a lifetime of drinking and alcoholism, to destitution and self destruction and drug addiction.

What a lot of power I was giving a beach trip.

So I decided to jump off the cliff of Saying-No-Certainty and trust that whatever the outcome, God would be there to catch us. I had a hunch this trip would be as much for me to grow as for Stone. And as is often the case, probably more so for me.

The night I knew my passport was expired, I texted the other moms. One knew of someone in similar circumstances, who had asked the senator’s office for help. I couldn’t remember who the senators for the state of Georgia even were at that moment, though I’d voted for them, but quickly found their numbers and called.

An aide in Perdue’s office picked up and said this kind of thing happened a lot, that they had someone who could work wonders. She emailed me a privacy act form to sign so that she could speak for me to the passport office. When I hadn’t heard anything back by 5 pm when both offices closed, though, I gave up hope of government assistance.

I was on my own.

So the plan became this:

-to pack quickly in a carry-on to save the time of checking a bag when (and if) I got to the airport,

-to find and make copies of my driver’s license, birth and marriage certificates,

-to drive with Stone to a hotel in Atlanta that night (rather than directly to the airport the next morning),

-to get new passport photos made at Walgreens on the way plus supper, and gas,

-to be the first in line at the passport office the next morning, and

-to beg for mercy.

I was bummed after Walgreens not to have heard back from Senator Perdue’s office. The aide said she might be able to get an appointment for me the next day, which was Friday, since the next walk-in day would be the following Saturday–too late to get me on my flight on time.

Without the senator’s help, I would have to perfect-my-beg as I drove to Atlanta, which was 2 hours away from where we live near Chattanooga. How could I make a pleasure trip to a Caribbean beach sound urgent enough for priority treatment to underpaid government employees? I had no idea. It didn’t sound credible for special help, even to me.

The next morning I got up early and drove to the passport office in downtown Atlanta. I’d left Stone at the hotel to get a ride from his friends. Traffic was light on this Friday morning. Thank you, God. I found parking easily and waited in my car, remembering the phone call from the night before.

Jennifer had called after hours from Perdue’s office, “I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you this afternoon. We had a lot going on.”

“Well, it’s only a vacation at stake. Hardly a real emergency. I hate to even have to ask for help…”

“Oh, no. We’re asked to do this kind of thing all the time.”

“What happens next?”

“I’ve called the passport office and left a voicemail, and I’ve emailed, asking for an intervention. You should get to the passport office downtown at least 30 minutes early. That’s all I can do at this point, but I’ll keep in touch. Let me know if you hit snags tomorrow.”

Leaned back in my seat, I also remembered what I’d read the morning before my emergency crashed in–how God had paid careful attention to the details of his people when in the desert, from worship to dead bodies and everything in between. He knew exactly where they were. He counted them. He fed them. He fought for them. They were never outside his watchful eye and never without his presence among them.

I felt encouraged in the dark before dawn inside my car that Friday morning. God knew exactly where I was, too. My location and my urgent need weren’t outside of his concern.

It was then that I believed deeper than I had ever believed before that God was intimately involved in all the details of my life, including getting this passport and getting me on an airplane on time.

“OK, God. I’ll do my part. I’ll keep doing the next thing. Even though this whole venture feels impossible, even though I feel foolish to pursue it, I’m gonna choose to believe this isn’t too hard for you. I’ll do my part and trust you to do yours.”

At 6:30, I walked to the building at 230 Peachtree Street and was told by security that I couldn’t go up the elevator until 7:30. I waited in the Hotel Indigo lobby next door for the next hour, alternating between a sinking feeling of fear and a bolstered one of peace, a sense that God was going to walk me through, whatever happened.

At 7:30 sharp, I was in line and filling out the replacement T-82 passport application, my hands shaky, handwriting wonky. Adrenaline was getting the upper hand.

An agency employee was walking alongside the line, asking to see our necessary identification. The mother and daughter in front of me didn’t have new passport photos and left.

A passport official called on my cell, telling me they’d gotten the request from Senator Perdue’s office to expedite my paperwork and would do their best. Later, she came out to meet me and checked what I’d brought, telling me I could put away my driver’s license and birth certificate. My old passport, the new photos, and the T-82 replacement app were the only things I needed. My hands and shoulders relaxed. Deep cleansing breath.

The line crawled through security, and then it was my turn to get a number, D103. Frantically finishing the T-82 paperwork, I let the guy behind me go ahead.

The agency woman I met in line said to sit up front after I got my number, but I couldn’t see the alert screen from there. A worker informed me that the PA system was down, so no audible “next number” calls would be heard. I’d have to watch the monitors. Afraid I’d miss my turn, I paced the back of the room. Numbers came and went. The family who had been behind me out in the hall got ahead of me.

Tick tock.

The PA system clawed its way to life. My number was mangled by the time I heard it:

“N-w serv–g, D –3 —indow 7.”

Kevin at Window 7 had kind eyes. “Flight today at eleven? My, my. It’s a longshot. I’ll do all I can. We’ve had close calls before, but not any closer than yours.” He asked for proof of travel, the new photos, the app, my money, and my old passport. Kevin was also efficient. The credit card machine stalled. “Every minute matters,” he urged. “Press enter. Try again.”

He left the window and returned. “OK, you’re already three steps into the process now,” he said, looking pleased. “Have you had coffee? Breakfast?” I shook my head. My stomach was big enough to swallow us. “It takes about an hour from this point to have a passport in hand. Take a deep breath. Relax. Go get breakfast. Then come back to window 1 to wait for your passport. And good luck.”

I hadn’t thought I’d meet any human beings in a government office, much less an angel, and I told him so, “Thank you, Kevin at 7 from heaven.” His eyes smiled.

I got the security guard’s promise that I’d be able to get back to window 1 without having to wait in line and took the elevator down. Turning left out of the building, I found a Starbucks three doors away. I went back to the passport office to camp out, wondering how long it would take.

After a while, a petite gal came out, “Mrs. Roebuck?”

“Yes?”

“We’ve got you at the front of the passport line now. We’re doing everything we can. It just takes time. I’ll keep you posted.”

Ten minutes later, she was back, but the news wasn’t good, “The entire system has shut down nationwide. I’m sorry. I have no idea how long it will take to get it up and running. We’re working on it.”

I didn’t flinch. Ok, God. You’re up. Technology is your thing, not mine. I’m gonna keep my hope on. I texted my prayer peeps–Judy, Susie, Donna–and my family. “Pray?”

Then I focused on the steps I’d need to take when I left with my passport:

–Set international airport terminal on my GPS.

–Find parking options.

–Drive to international terminal.

It was then when I felt overwhelmed before leaving the building. Bu I reminded myself who’s job was whose. I thought it might help to remind God, too, That’s yours, God. I have no idea about parking. And I’ve never driven to the international terminal before. Help!

My petite friend was back, “Mrs. Roebuck, the system is partly up now. There are a few apps trickling in. We hope yours will be the first.”

Nothing like prayer.

The young man at window 1 was busy with something. He looked at me knowingly and smiled, nodding. I figured he’d heard about the desperate woman trying to make an international flight by 11 am. I looked at my watch. It was 9. I should’ve been there an hour ago, like my friends were.

I remembered Exodus again, You like impossible odds–Egyptians on one side, Red Sea on the other, your people with nowhere else to go but straight through the water. I’m kind of excited to see how this will go down. I was surprised to realize I wasn’t afraid.

Jennifer-from-Perdue checked in for the second time to see how things were going. Who was I that a Senator’s representative from the state of Georgia had my cell? Was texting me? Was trying to help?

At 9:20, Ms Petite was scolding the young man at window 1. Pointing to me, she was also gesturing to a fat blue envelope next to him. Evidently it had been there a while. He sheepishly nodded and I stepped up, grateful to get what was in it, no matter the delay.

And there it was in my hands, an unexpected miracle in less than two hours from start to finish, in spite of spotty technology and imperfect people, because God is good to me.

It would take another miracle to put me on that airplane. Was God all-in? I was about to find out.

When I left the building, I had a brief moment of confusion. For one thing, it was daylight now. Cars whizzed by on Peachtree Street, the same road that had been nearly empty and dark three hours before. I tried to remember which direction I’d come when I arrived, but in my heightened state–the eminent departure of my airplane and the hurdles I still had to jump to get to it–and with the Starbucks side trip muddling my mental picture, I just couldn’t visualize it.

Unfuddle me! I pleaded.

I struck out, hoping I’d see something familiar. The Hard Rock Café sign at the corner was a landmark. But from which direction had I seen it that morning? I had no idea.

I turned right at the corner and walked two blocks straight downhill but realized this wasn’t the way. I crossed to the next corner and walked a level block to see if anything looked familiar. Ted Turner Boulevard wasn’t. Now what?

Two things were clear: I was wasting valuable time. Already it was a crapshoot whether I’d get to the airport in time, much less get through security and to the gate. Getting lost on foot was the last straw. A meltdown was on its way. I could feel the panic rising in my chest.

But this second thing steadied me: if God wasn’t in this, helping me and making the way, I’d never make it, even if I had lots of time and found my car that very instant. It was his power and might, not mine, that would get me there.

I remembered again how God cared for his people. He didn’t care any less for me. He could hold the plane for me if he chose to. He could let it go and get me on the next one. I had nothing to fear. I let myself relax.

“All my times are in your hands,” I thought or heard or thought I heard. And then, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” Even if I didn’t know where I was, he certainly did.

The Hard Rock guitar was now back in sight. Was it a friendly sign pointing to my Caribbean destination? Or a taunt, mocking me? I crossed in front of the office at 230 Peachtree to rewind and start again.

And just at that moment, I saw my mistake: I had turned right at the wrong corner. Down the street in the other direction was the corner I was looking for. I made a beeline, jaywalking across Peachtree, afraid to check the time or compute how much of it I’d lost. Once at the bottom of two more blocks, there it was: the parking lot and my car, right where I left them.

Hallelujah.

Backing out, I discovered why this parking spot had been marked “compact only.” At 6 AM it didn’t seem to matter, but now that the lot was full, it mattered quite a lot. I couldn’t pull out. By maneuvering a few inches up and back, up and back, being mindful of the cement pole on the left and the cars behind me (practically in my back seat), I ooched and scooched myself free. Sheesh, God. I feel like I am m o v i n g t h r o u g h M U U U D D D.

Help me trust.

I found 85-S. While the traffic on the other side going north was nearly stopped, my side was moving quickly. Thank you, Jesus. I accelerated quickly, my heart pounding. Life sure was exciting. “Hope this turns out all right,” I said out loud, remembering my daddy’s quip at a time like this. I laughed remembering him, and my tension drained a bit.

I was sandwiched between a Toyota and a trailer truck and nearly missed the exit, but just in the nick of time, saw it and shot out. The entrance to the airport came quickly into view.

There were signs to read and decisions to make, but not enough time to process it all. On gut instinct, I ignored the signs and drove toward the terminal, spotting a Park-n-Ride on the right and pulled in. A flashing, red “2-10” told me there were ten spaces on level 2, and after driving around, I found one. It was after 10 am now, and my stomach flipped. God, I’m doing my part. I sure hope you’re doing yours.

I hoisted my carry-on and purse and clambered down the parking stairs. I was glad I didn’t bring a bag I’d have to check. There were shuttles waiting to transport parkers to the terminal. I got on the one whose doors opened as soon as I approached. I felt expected.

It was cool and dark inside, and I tried to check-in from my phone, but it was too close to boarding time. I’d have to check-in inside. The minutes were flying. You can hold a plane, right?

I was the only passenger. The shuttle driver helped me with my bags when we stopped. I tripped getting down and stumbled up on the curb. “Nice landing!” the driver hollered as I caught myself. Was that a sign? I waved the driver goodbye as I turned and took off.

It was easy to find a Delta kiosk for check-in, and an easy-peasy process with my miracle passport in hand. I was heading towards security when my two bags in tow tangled with my feet, reminding me to slow down. The walking was my job. The making-my-flight part was his.

“Gate F-10?” I asked the TSA agent at the stack of rubber bins, not stopping to hear what she answered.

“Left!” she hollered behind me as I jogged away with my shoes in hand, forgetting not to run on my metal knee. My heart was pounding as F-10 appeared, the first gate to come into view.

But it was marked Buenos Aires, not Punta Cana.

“Punta Cana?” I asked the agent there.

“Been moved again,” she pointed left. “Third time. It’s at F-4 now, further down.”

Storesbathroomsrestaurantspeople were a blur as I ran, my sights set on the F-4 sign ahead. I was afraid to check my watch, afraid I’d already missed it. My heart flip-flopped.

And then I saw them–my people. The teenage boys stood up and cheered, clapping and laughing as they walked toward me, high-fiving each other. My son stayed where he was, lying against the window, his head bobbing with the Beats on his ears. He didn’t have the luxury of appearing glad to see his mother out in public like his friends did. I got it.

“Oh my God! I can’t believe it!” the rest of them said, hugging me in turn. I felt like a celebrity with so much enthusiasm directed at me. My mom friends gaped in disbelief, shaking their heads, listening as pieces of my story sputtered out while we waited.

Waited? Yep. I had time to spare. I listened to their story of having to change gates as well as concourse, and I smiled and cried at my being treated like such a beloved child. You delayed my flight. I can’t believe your kindness. It was then that I checked my watch. It was 10:13 am, one minute before the original boarding time. And you’re such a showoff!

We were called to board sometime after that and settled into our seats. Rachel, Owen’s mom, swapped with Stone so that he could ride with his friends. She slid into the seat next to me with three brand new books. And I gasped.

In all of the excitement since discovering my expired passport 20 hours earlier, I had been focused solely on this moment: settling into this seat on this flight. My beach bag, sunscreen, and books had been left behind, as had most of my clothing in an effort to streamline into a carry-on. I had grieved the books. But here was my friend, with extras to share.

Are you still showing off, God? Your love-in-all-the-little-details undoes me. Thank you.

I leaned back in the seat, the sweetness settling in my back and neck, the peace of being helped and held so much more palpable than I usually feel. I heard Stone’s raucous laugh 10 rows in front and looked up to see his wild mohawk bobbing, his friends around him, shoving and grabbing.

Joy poured in.

I thought how I didn’t even want to come on this trip until I thought that I couldn’t. And suddenly, missing this chance to be with my son on his last spring break before manhood swallowed him up was unacceptable. I don’t often feel like I’m going where I’m supposed to be going, but I surely did today.

Give us a grand adventure, God. Give me grace to loosen my grip on my son. Give us joy as fresh as the air and water we’ll be drinking in this week as we walk into all the rest of our days together and apart.

___________________________

Here’s the whole gang on the snorkeling and scuba diving trip that Stone and I are missing today. He is battling Montezuma, Punta Cana style.

The sons.

The moms.

The Pool Party with Foam. Stone objected to my being the tourist-parent with the camera. I told him it could be worse. I could be the tattooed parent in the pool (see video). He said, “Oh…yeah. Way worse.”

Quotations are from Psalm 31:15 and 139:7, NIV.

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