We all look the same this morning in the shelter. In mismatched, ill-fitting clothes that don’t belong to us, but that we’re grateful to have. Some are barefoot, others sport comical socks in a stranger’s donated shoes. All of us wear the same serious expression.
It’s my 60th birthday.
For months, my family and I have eagerly looked forward to a combo family reunion/birthday bash at my sister’s new house in Spring, Texas, a suburb about 30 miles north of Houston. We’re flying in from opposite coasts. The Cali Contingent and the Boston Brigade would finally join Team Texas.
But a powerful intruder named Harvey blew up our plans for a bodacious backyard barbecue. His idea of a good time? Create a terrifying water park where everyone gets in for free – and pays bigtime later.
Now I’m sitting in an emergency shelter inside the Lone Star Convention Center in Conroe, Texas. Hundreds of us hunker down on our tiny air mattress islands. We clutch whatever bits of our lives we were able to grab as Harvey swallowed up our streets, homes and communities.
I stretch out on my petite piece of real estate, grateful for the warm blanket and clean pillow. Smile as I drink the surprisingly good coffee the volunteers have miraculously made. Devour eggs and a cheese burrito on a paper plate, a birthday breakfast I never could have predicted. All served by the calmest, kindest folks I’ve ever met.
As I gaze at the sea of humanity around me, I realize I’m on a 21st century Ellis Island. Nearly every region of the world is represented in this one large room. Every culture. Every skin color. Every religion. Every ideology.
I suddenly know we don’t just share the same mismatched clothes. We share something far more profound: we are all Americans. And without exception, we’re all there for each other. Without regard to religion, politics, age, sexual preference, gender identification or socioeconomic status.
From volunteer to victim, people reach out to help. Not just with kindness and compassion. But with an unwavering consideration and respect I thought our country had lost forever.
Suddenly, I can see again. Straight into the core of our American soul. Clear through the division, the strife, the toxic ugliness that’s blinded me lately, blinded so many of us. It’s shining, filling the whole room with light. The steady blaze of that amazing, we’re-all-in-this-together spirit I’ve loved with a fierce pride my whole life. The pride I thought I’d lost forever.
Now, looking around this emergency shelter in Conroe, Texas, I know no one will ever take away my pride in my country and my people again. Thank you, Harvey, for the best birthday gift of my life.