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Living life in a hurry may make you miss best parts

| Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Life lessons can be found in the strangest places, at the most unexpected times.

Just when I begin to think that nothing can surprise me anymore, something happens and proves me wrong. In recent weeks, I was twice educated.

Prior to the July 4th weekend, the Raleigh-Durham airport was crawling with people. Seats were impossible to find in the terminal. Bad weather had caused delays, and long lines formed at the information desk, mostly people concerned about missing connecting flights. I stood in line as well, trying to check in on standby for a 7:30 p.m. flight.

At one point, the fire alarm in the airport went off. Concerned, a number of people left the line. I'd been standing there for 45 minutes and wasn't about to move until I could see this so-called fire. Although we were assured that everything was fine, the alarm continued to sound for nearly 20 minutes.

Then, we were informed that our flight had been delayed to 8:30. I decided to stick around to try for a seat, despite the almost hostile air about the travelers around me. We waited until 10:15, and by the time our plane arrived, the pilots had put in too much air time and would be unable to fly. We could wait, however, for pilots to arrive at 11:30, at which point we could take off.

Most of us had been sitting around for at least five hours waiting for this flight. We were the only people left in the airport. People were crabby and tired. I figured that mutiny was sure to ensue.

Instead, everyone settled into their seats at the terminal and began smiling and talking. People were sharing computer screens and passing around newspapers. We were all stuck in the same situation together, and a camaraderie formed between us.

I kept thinking: Are we the same people from three hours ago•

I watched two men exchange business cards and jokes before we boarded the plane, and wondered what might have happened had our flight had been on time. We would have gone about our separate ways frustrated, never having taken the opportunity to talk to one another. Sometimes, I thought to myself, the wait is worth it.

This wasn't the only lesson I'd learn over vacation. The morning after I arrived in Ocean City, N.J., my little sister and I were walking along the boardwalk. We saw what appeared to be a severely retarded man in an electronic wheelchair pass, his body bony and childlike, and commented to one another about what a terrible life he must lead, and how awful life would be confined to a wheelchair, needing help from everyone.

The man stopped 300 hundred feet ahead of us and looked around. As Ali and I got closer, we heard an electronic voice. "Will you help me to get a drink?"

People passed on the left. My sister tugged on my arm and we stopped.

The man smiled at us and hit buttons on his built-in keyboard. He had no strength and no ability to operate his hands. He missed the keys a number of times before we read that he would like a coffee with one cream, two sugars and a lot of ice to keep it cold -- oh, and there was cash in his backpack attached to the wheelchair.

He used his computer to bring up instructions for how we were to feed him the coffee. I followed the instructions, holding a napkin under his chin and pouring the drink into his mouth. He used his computer to ask where I went to school and what I was studying. He told us that he was a student at Villanova University -- 35 years old -- who was conducting research on how people responded to disabled strangers.

Here was a man who couldn't even drink on his own, doing research and "speaking" about his condition around the country. Someone tell that man the definition of impossible. I'm going to think twice the next time I hear the word.

Life lessons are everywhere. We just have to be careful not to move too fast -- not to rush onto a plane or past a disabled man on the boardwalk -- to allow ourselves to learn them.

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