I was in my last year of graduate school, and I was flying home for the holidays. It was Christmas Eve, and I’d just managed to finish my last assignment and hand in my last set of grades before boarding an early morning flight out of Providence, Rhode Island. The previous year I’d taken a late-afternoon flight and, thanks to inclement weather, ended up spending the night in the Philadelphia airport—not the most comfortable place I’ve ever rested my head, and not the happiest location I ever woke up on Christmas morning. This year I left early, hoping to get home with a minimum of fuss and muss.

I arrived in Philadelphia on time. The weather was clear and brisk, a perfect day for flying. Yet thanks to an unknown delay, our plane sat on the tarmac for almost an hour before a bus came to take us to the terminal. Though I rushed through the airport, hurtling myself over other people’s suitcases and lamenting the fact that I had really let myself get out of shape, I didn’t make it. I arrived at my gate only in time to see the propellers starting up on the small plane bound for home.

Dejected, and more than a little annoyed, I waited for the attendant to rebook me. Still, what reason had I to complain? It was only nine in the morning. It was a beautiful day. Most of all, it was Christmas Eve. A few hours in the Philadelphia airport wouldn’t kill me. Imagine my consternation, then, when the attendant informed me that the next flight wouldn’t leave for over eleven hours. Eleven hours! I couldn’t believe it! Another Christmas Eve stuck in the airport.

I bought a newspaper and read it—doing the crossword and the jumble—and then finished the book I had started on the plane. I spent a couple of hours wandering around the terminal, window shopping, trying to enjoy a leisurely lunch, but mostly just feeling sorry for myself. All around me, people were hustling and bustling, rushing home for the season. I started feeling depressed, and worse, in a terminal teeming with other people, I started feeling very much alone.

Some Christmas this was turning out to be.

Then I ran into someone I knew. Dr. Eldridge was a professor whom I’d had for an English class some seven years prior. Though she looked seven years older, I recognized her small frame, plump face, and black and grey streaked hair immediately. Smiling in recognition at one another, we quickly fell into conversation. We soon discovered we had something in common: she had missed her connecting flight as well, and was going to be stuck in the airport almost as long as I. So, without making any actual decision about it, we decided to rough it out together. We had some coffee and reminisced about old times; Dr. Eldridge caught me up on the latest gossip from my alma mater, and I told her what I was working on. It’s remarkable—when I was all alone, trudging around the terminal by myself, checking my watch every few seconds to see if any time had passed, five minutes seemed an eternity; now, relishing the company of an old acquaintance, time simply flew by. We enjoyed a quiet dinner together, as it seemed no one else traveling that day had time to pause and eat, and she even insisted on paying for it, as she knew how little money graduate students have. "Call it my Christmas present to you," she said.

I decided to return the favor. While Dr. Eldridge was using the restroom, I rushed to a nearby kiosk and purchased a small but gaily-wrapped box of chocolates that I secreted in her bag. It was nothing more than a small gesture of thanks, and as I slipped the package into her bag I snickered, mindful of the airlines’ omnipresent admonition about other people packing one’s bags. By this time, though, the cheer of the season had come back to me, and I wanted to do something nice for the person who had managed to lift me out of my doldrums on one of the happiest nights of the year. I didn’t tell her about it; I figured she would find it when she unpacked, so I merely smiled as I waved her off at her terminal and onto her waiting plane.

I finally made it home, and despite the late hour, my family and I enjoyed a merry reunion before wishing each other good night. Yawning, I went to my old bedroom and decided to check my e-mail before going to bed. When I did, I found a note from my professor:

Dear Michael,

Thank you for your kind gift and the pleasure of your company this afternoon. I did not tell you this earlier, as I did not want to ruin your Christmas Eve or our time together, but I was traveling today not to come home for the holidays, but because I learned that my mother had passed away last night. So I thought I would find myself all alone this Christmas. Instead, in my sadness, there you were, bright and happy as always. You lifted my spirits and gave me a Christmas after all, not through your gift, but through the gift of your company. I will always be grateful. Thank you.

I smiled ruefully to myself as I read her note. If I had only known…but then again, had I known, we probably would not have spent our time together as we did, laughing and swapping stories, and clearly, that was what had meant the most. It’s funny—I never learned what the delay was that caused me to miss my connecting flight. Looking back, I prefer to think it was providence, a fitting notion considering the origin of the flight itself. Regardless, that delay turned out to be one of the best Christmas presents I was ever able to give.


Michael G. Cornelius is the author/editor of fourteen books. He has also published works in numerous journals, magazines, and book anthologies. He is the chair of the Department of English and Mass Communications at Wilson College in Chambersburg, PA.

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