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Re-paying a Debt

April 19, 2015


I arrived at Sea-Tac Airport near Seattle, WA around 9 PM and was grabbing a bite before the van came to pick me up to take me home. The young man at the next table was talking on his phone. His voice was soft, but full with tension. His father had just died and he and his wife and 3 year old daughter had been at the airport since 7 that morning trying to get a flight out. Through a series of mishaps, they were left with no wallets or purses, thus no money, ID, or credit cards. He was begging whoever it was to pick him up. As I finished my yogurt, it didn’t sound too promising. I was torn: should I admit that I was eavesdropping and step in? If I did, what then? What help could I or would I be willing to give? Then he said that he was worried because his three year old was hungry. That did it.

I intervened and offered to buy some food for the family. He looked dazed but grateful – and hung up the phone. As he mumbled thanks over and over, we made our way to the kiosk and he stood there – numb, not quite sure what to do. Gently, I told him to pick out some food and he grabbed some sandwiches and sodas. Quietly, I suggested fruit for the little girl. “Oh, yeah, yeah…right,” he said weakly and grabbed some, stuffing it all into his backpack. As we made our way to the ATM, he began talking, almost babbling nervously about his family. There was a strong cigarette smell on his breath. He was obviously very worried about his little girl. When I gave him the cash, he looked at it in stunned silence – then again began the litany of thanks. Could I come and meet his family, he asked. Gently, I said no; my van was due. He looked at me, a question in his eyes: why did you do this? I answered that unspoken question:

“There’s nothing noble about this. I am merely repaying a debt.”

I had just returned from a 45th reunion of my Peace Corps group. We had just spent a week remembering the incredible kindnesses and support we had received as Peace Corps Volunteers in the Philippines.

“I’m just paying it forward,” I said. He was under such stress; I don’t think he quite understood. Someday, I hope he will.

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