Passport to Punta Cana

It never occurred to me to check my passport status. At least, not until the day before we were due to leave. Twenty hours before, to be exact.

I had checked Stone’s passport details thoroughly when I booked a trip with friends for spring break. He was now 19. Would his passport from age 16 still be accepted? As it turned out, yes, it would. But looking at my passport never crossed my mind.

Until it did.

And there it was, as plain as the leer on my passport face photo from 11 years ago–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, this fact was too buoyant to sink into my brain, too big even to shoehorn in. My passport was expired, yet I was scheduled to leave with three other mothers plus my 19-year-old son and five of his buddies in the morning.

Like, tomorrow tomorrow.

I immediately thought, well I just won’t go. He’ll just 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–besides food, room, activities, nightclubs, theaters, restaurants, casino and shows–alcohol for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and every other moment of the day in between, around the clock. And all of it, for one all-inclusive, ridiculous price.

img_8221What mother would agree to that nonsense? It was cleverly billed to us as a “moms’ beach trip to the Caribbean (with six 18 and 19-year-old boys) for spring break.” The appeal to a mother’s heart for one-on-one time with her son before he ships off to college is alluring, even emotionally seductive.

What about this was there not to love? The boys wanted to know.

“Ha! Just shoot me now!” I’d said. How stupid did they think I was?

Apparently, as stupid as it turns out I am.

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 he 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 years of parenting.  

When the other moms approached me about the trip, I was against it. “Not sure this is the kind of place I want to take him right before college,” I said. “Let me think on it.”

But I didn’t.

I didn’t even consider it.

That is, until I realized that what was holding me back was fear. 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.

Wow.

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

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

After the fog in my brain cleared–yes, failing to check my passport’s expiration date was my mistake–my next thought was to blame someone else. It’s the airline’s fault! Surely I’m not the first and only person to have failed to renew their passport with a trip on the immediate horizon?

There should be a law protecting people from their own stupidity. How hard would it be to put your passport number in when you buy your plane ticket? Then the airline can say, “Hey, Stupid! You can’t go until you renew your passport.” That would have been so practical, so much more helpful than having to put all your toiletries in three ounce bottles inside a quart size ziplock. Now that’s just silly.

I texted the other moms about my passport problem. One knew of someone in similar circumstances, who had asked her state senator’s office for help. I didn’t know who the senators were for the state of Georgia even were (though I’d voted for them) but quickly found their numbers online and called.

An aide in David Perdue’s office picked up right away and said this kind of thing happened a lot, that they had someone who could work wonders. The aide emailed me a privacy act form to sign so that they could speak for me to the passport office. When I hadn’t heard anything back from her 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 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—and supper, and gas—

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

-to beg for mercy.

I was bummed not to have heard back from Senator Perdue’s office. They had said they might be able to get an appointment for me the next day, which was Friday, since the next “walk-in day” would be the one following, on Saturday. Without the senator’s office backing me, I was gonna have to perfect-my-beg on the way to Atlanta. 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 at 5:30 AM in my Embassy Suite, jumped in my clothes, and drove 18 minutes to the passport office on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta. I was surprised by how light the traffic was on a Friday morning. Thank you, God. I found the building easily, found parking easily, and decided to wait in my car a while since it was only 6:15 and still dark, and the office didn’t open until 8. I was gonna be first in line, or as close to first as I could get.

Surprisingly, the night before, Jennifer from Senator Perdue’s office had called at nine o’clock to offer her help. “I’m delighted to hear from you, but dang. It’s late! Do you always work this late?”

“Sometimes,” she confessed. “It’s my choice. I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you this afternoon. We had a lot going on today.”

“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. This is vacation season, too. Lots of calls right now.”

“So, what happens next?”

“I’ve called the passport office and left a voicemail, and I’ve emailed them, too, asking for their intervention on your behalf. You should get there at least 30 minutes early. That’s all I can do at this point, but I’ll keep in touch. And let me know if you hit any snags tomorrow.”

I leaned my seat back and closed my eyes. I thought about what I’d read the day before that had felt fresh and new to me, how God had paid such careful attention to all the details of the lives of his people in the desert, from instructions about the worship of himself to rules about dealing with dead bodies and everything in between. He knew exactly where they were every moment. 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 by that in the dark before dawn inside my car in downtown Atlanta that Friday morning. God knew exactly where I was, too. My situation and my urgent need weren’t outside his interest or concern. At that moment, 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 in an airplane, whichever one it might be.

“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 this, whatever happened.

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I’d learned the night before that there was another flight to Punta Cana at 6 PM, though my Basic Economy ticket wouldn’t transfer to cover the cost of it. I had to accept another possible cost of $700+ with a sense of “whatever it takes,” not my usual attitude. I’m the girl who figures a 15% tip down to the penny. The passport itself would be another $200 over budget plus the hotel of yet another $200+. It was only money, I thought. Not blood. Not life.

At 7:30 sharp, I went up to the 10th floor. Already there were six other people in line. How they evaded security, I didn’t know. In line, I worked on filling out the replacement T-82 passport application, my hands shaky, handwriting wonky, adrenaline getting the upper hand. One of the agency’s employees was checking to see that we had all the necessary identification pieces to proceed. The mother and daughter in front of me realized they hadn’t brought new passport photos and left. I was thankful to have thought to get a photo taken at Walgreens before we left Chattanooga the night before. Their computer had failed and had to be shut down and rebooted, making our mad dash to Atlanta more like a feeble hop, skip, and jump. It was one delay among many more to come.

Though we’d left home at 7:30 that night for the two hour drive, it was after 11 when we finally arrived at our hotel, stops at Taco Bell and Chick-fil-A and another stop for ice cream for Stone slowing us down. L’il Baby and L’il Wayne kept us company as we drove, the noise cranked well above my appreciation level and making me edgy. I finally took the wheel, PG Comedy took the airwaves, and I relaxed. We laughed together like we used to. Sweet relief.

While I was in line, a passport official called on my cell, telling me they’d gotten the request from Senator Perdue’s office to expedite my paperwork. Heavenly day. They would do their best. Later the same person came out to meet me in line and checked over everything I’d brought, telling me I could put away my driver’s license and birth and marriage certificates and their copies. My old passport, the new photos, and the T-82 replacement app were the only things needed. My hands and shoulders relaxed. Deep cleansing breath.

The line moved through security, and before I knew it, it was my turn to get a number–D103. I was frantically finishing the T-82 paperwork, so I let the guy behind me go ahead. We were beside copy machines that had been set up for those who needed them. That’s when I realized that all my identification and the copies I’d brought from home plus the T-11 app that my friend, Rhonda, had printed out for me were no longer needed. So many steps to get me to this place, to D103, and some of them were completely unnecessary. How was I to know which would be needful going forward and which were wasting precious minutes? There was no way to know.

Tick tock.

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

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

“N-w serv–g, D –3 —indow 7.”

I walked up. 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. Not sure any closer than yours, though.” He asked for proof of travel, photos, app, $170, and my old passport. Kevin was efficient and kind. 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 with himself. “Now have you had coffee? Breakfast?” I shook my head no. My stomach was cavernous at that moment, big enough to swallow us both. “It takes about an hour from this point to have a passport in hand. Take a deep breath and relax a bit. Go get breakfast. Coffee. Then come back and wait at Window 1 for your passport.” He smiled, “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. “Kevin at 7 from heaven,” I said. His kind eyes twinkled.

I got the security guard’s promise before leaving that I’d be able to get back to Window 1 without having to wait in line all over again and took the elevator down. Turning left out of the building, I found a Starbucks three doors away. Something with eggs and cheese and bacon was calling my name from the case, and I ordered a Miso as a chaser. I went back to the passport office to drink my coffee and wait, camping out at Window 1, wondering how long it would be.

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

“Yes?”

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

“Thank you so much. Everyone’s been so helpful. I cannot thank you enough.”

Ten minutes later she was back, “The entire system has shut down nationwide. I’m so sorry. I have no idea how long it will take to get it up and running again. We’re working on it.”

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

My part. ✅ Done.

I tried to focus on the steps I needed to take when I left with said passport in hand:

-Set international terminal on my GPS.

-Drive to international terminal.

-Look up parking options.

Boom. Overwhelmed already. That’s your business, too, God, I thought. I have no idea about parking. I’ve never driven to the international terminal before.

My petite friend was back, “Mrs. Roebuck, the system is partly up now. There are a few apps trickling through. We hope yours will be the first one.” Nothing like prayer, God. Thank you for hearing your people.

My people.

And me.

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 crazy person trying to make an international flight out of Atlanta by 11 AM. I looked at my watch–it was now 9. I should’ve been there an hour ago, like my friends were.

You like impossible odds, right God? Egyptians on one side, Red Sea on the other, your people with nowhere else to go but straight through the water. I’m getting kind of excited to see how this will go down. And I’m not feeling afraid anymore.

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

No idea.

At about 9:20 ish, my petite helper was scolding the young man at Window 1. Pointing to me, she was also gesturing to a fat blue envelope next to him on the counter. Evidently it had been there a while. He sheepishly nodded at me, and I stepped up, grateful to get what was in that envelope, no matter the delay.

And there it was in my hands: a passport in less than two hours from start to finish.

Miracles still happened, in spite of spotty technology and imperfect people. And because of God’s goodness…and helpful people, everywhere.

Would there be another miracle?

Why not?

When I left the building, I had a brief moment of confusion. For one thing, it was daylight. Cars were whizzing by on the 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 more recent side trip to Starbucks muddling my mental picture, I just couldn’t visualize it.

Oh, Jesus, unfuddle me! I begged. My sense of direction is only fair at best, and that was in my younger years. I routinely get turned around these days. And today, I was on foot. The terrain looked very different walking than it had driving.

I struck out, hoping I’d see something familiar. The Hard Rock Café guitar sign at the corner was a landmark that I remembered. But which direction had I seen it when I drove in that morning? I didn’t know.

I turned right at the corner and walked two blocks straight downhill but realized this wasn’t the way. I crossed over at the bottom of the hill at the next corner and walked a level block to see if I recognized anything there. Ted Turner Boulevard I had not seen before. OK God, what now?

I realized at that moment two things: that I was wasting valuable time. Already it was a crapshoot whether I would get to the airport in time, much less through security and to the gate. But getting lost on foot trying to find my car was just about the last straw for me. I was on the verge of a meltdown, I could feel the panic in my chest, but then this second thing steadied me–that if God weren’t in this, helping me, really making the way for me, 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, his resources, not mine, that would provide a way.

I remembered again how he cared for his people–all their needs for food and water in the desert, for safety and health. I was his people, too. God didn’t care any less for me. He was aware of my every step. 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 into him again. “All my times are in your hands,” I remembered. And, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” Absolutely nowhere. And even if I didn’t knowhere I was, he certainly did.

I turned to speed walk back up the hill, my replaced knee clicking rhythmically. “Thank you, God, for this good knee. Thank you for my life. Show me where my steps don’t please you.” Was this a discipline? It sure was feeling like one. “Am I stuck somewhere you don’t want me to be?”

I sifted through my relationships. I couldn’t think of anything, except maybe a little snag on one that crossed my mind. “God, is it here? Show me.” And I looked, and wouldn’t you know? I saw some crap right there. Ok, God. Whatever you say. I want to do this your way. Life on my own sucks, just like trying to find my way to my car right now. I can’t do it. But I’m your girl. Lead me. And please, please help me find my dang car.

The Hard Rock guitar was now back in sight. Was it coincidence or irony that it was a beacon for me in my confusion that morning? A friendly sign pointing to my Caribbean destination? Or a taunt, mocking me? I crossed in front of 230 Peachtree again, rewinding and starting over.

And at just 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 on my detour. Once at the bottom of two more blocks, there it was: I saw the lot and my car, right where I left it.

Hallelujah.

I wondered if I should take the time to fill out the passport info required to check in with Delta, now that I had my passport in hand? An Asian man at the parking lot pay machine tried to get my attention. “Sorry? Sorry?”

I’m sorry,” I said, shaking my head no as I got in my car and buckled in. I pulled up directions to the airport instead of checking in with Delta, and turned my key in the ignition.

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 D.

Please give me hope.

Help me to trust.

This. Is. So. Hard.

It was getting closer to 10. Would I make it from downtown Atlanta to the airport on a Friday morning in the 17 minutes my map app promised? I didn’t know. “God, the traffic is your business, not mine,” I said, as if to remind us both.

I pulled onto 85-S. While the traffic on the other side going north was nearly stopped, my side was moving quickly with very few cars. Thank you, Jesus. I accelerated and drove too fast, my heart pounding. Life sure is exciting, I thought. “Hope this turns out all right,” I said out loud, remembering my daddy’s typical quip at a time like this and laughed. My tension drained a tad.

I got sandwiched between a Toyota and a trailer truck and nearly missed my exit, but in the nick of time, saw it and shot out. And just the way something you’ve been longing for suddenly surprises you when it’s finally right there in your hand, the way a butterfly you want to hold suddenly settles on your palm, the entrance to the international airport came up, right into view.

There were signs to read and decisions to make, but not enough time to process it all. On gut instinct alone, I ignored the signs and drove toward the terminal, spotting a Park-n-Ride on the right and pulled in. A flashing sign told me that level 2 had ten available spaces, and after driving what felt like hours, I finally found one. It was after 10:00 now and my stomach flipped. God, I’m doing my part. I sure hope you’re doing yours?

I found the stairs and hoisted my carry-on and large purse with me as I clambered down. I’m glad I didn’t bring a bag I’d have to check, I thought. There were shuttles waiting to transport parkers to the terminal. I chose the one whose doors opened as I approached.

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

Of course, I thought I heard.

I was the only passenger, and the driver helped me with my bags when we stopped. I tripped getting down and stumbled up on the curb. “Safe landing!” the driver hollered out in approval as I caught myself. I waved him away as I turned and took off. I hope that was a sign?

Once inside it was easy to find a Delta kiosk for check-in, and an easy-peasy process with my beloved passport in hand. I headed towards security next, and my two bags in tow behind me tangled up a bit with my feet, reminding me to slow down, to rest and trust. The walking was my job. The making of my flight was his.

Security was a quick in-and-out, my knee and bracelets setting off alarms, as usual, but I was passed through after a brief check.

“Gate F-10?” I asked the TSA woman at the stack of rubber bins, not stopping to hear her answer.

“Left–I think?” she hollered behind me as I jogged barefooted, forgetting I wasn’t supposed to run on a metal knee, my heart pounding as F-10 immediately appeared, the first gate to come into view.

But it said Buenos Aires, not Punta Cana.

“Punta Cana?” I asked the agent at the desk.

“Been moved again,” she pointed left. “F-4, further down,” and I was gone.

Storesbathroomsrestaurantspeople were a blur as I went, my sights set on the F-4 sign just ahead. I could see flight attendants boarding, and I was afraid to check my watch, afraid that I’d already missed it, that these were attendants for the next flight. 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. Stone of course stayed where he was, lying against the glass, his head bobbing with the Beats on his ears. He didn’t have the luxury of appearing actually glad to see his mother out in public. I got it.

“Oh my God! I can’t believe it!” the rest of them said, hugging me each in turn. I felt like a celebrity, so much kindness and enthusiasm directed at me, all at once. My mom friends gaped in disbelief, shaking their heads and smiling, listening as pieces of my story bubbled out while we waited for our zone to be called. And I listened to their story as they’d had to change gates three times as well as a concourse.

I laughed at what felt like an inside joke. Thank you, God. You delayed my flight. You are so great. I checked my watch; it was 10:13, one minute before the original boarding time.

Classic showoff move.

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

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

God, are you still showing off? Thank you for covering me all day, even bringing along books. Your love-in-all-the-little-details undoes me. Thank you, Abba.

Thank you.

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

Pure joy.

God, I didn’t even want to come on this trip until I thought I couldn’t. And then, suddenly, missing this chance to be with Stone on his last spring break trip in high school was unacceptable, even devastating. Thinking he would go without me this one last time as a kid-at-home before manhood completely swallows him up and away from me made me want to go in a way I hadn’t known I wanted.

Thank you for showing me that. And for showing me your glory today. Wow! What a day. I don’t always know I’m going where you have in mind for me to go. But I sure know it today.

Give us a grand adventure. 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.

I love you.

Amen.

The whole gang today on a snorkeling and scuba diving trip without Stone and me. We are battling Montezuma, Punta Cana style. 👎🏻

Quotations are from

Psalm 31:15 NIV

Psalm 139:7 NIV

This is a 360 video of the Foam Pool Party on Thursday. 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. He said, “Oh…yeah. Way worse.”

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