A lot can happen in three weeks.
It’s been 21 days since 45 people lost their lives during a terrorist attack at the Istanbul Ataturk Airport. Among those 45 were three sisters, Kerime, Zehra and Meryem, and their eight-year-old niece, Huda.
At 10:00 PM gunshots rung out at the Istanbul Atatürk Airport: 24-year-old Abdulhekim Bugda posted on his Facebook to reassure his friends and family, “We are safe.”
Those same gunshots startled awake my brother Adam and his girlfriend Kristine as they drifted in and out of sleep in the international terminal.
“Adam, did you hear that?” Kristine asked, waking him.
Then the first bomb detonated. The windows around them shattered and Kristine and Adam searched frantically for cover.
At 12:06 PM–while at lunch with co-workers–I received a text from Adam:
“Something’s happening at the airport. I love you guys.”
The world as I knew it crumbled. I waited only for the three little dots to know that my brother and Kristine were okay. My mind raced. In the span of minutes, I had buried my brother, delivered his eulogy and relived every argument and stupid thing I had ever said to him. I could only message my partner, Dave, the same thing over and over: I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know what I’m going to tell my mom.”
And then the text came.
It took 25 minutes for me to hear that they had found shelter thanks to a couple on honeymoon from Spain that opened their hotel door amid the chaos.
Adam and Kristine were safe. Among the 45 innocent lives that were taken was Abdulhekim Bugda.
The terrorist attack at the Istanbul Atatürk Airport was a litmus test for my family.
My sister’s immediate reaction was one of anger.
My father’s was one of disbelief and denial. He was the one that had helped book their itinerary and had suggested they visit Istanbul. He blamed himself for what had happened.
My mom however was a whole other story.
In the weeks leading to Adam and Kristine’s trip, her anxiety was flaring up in new and unusual ways. She wasn’t sleeping and everyday activities like dinner with friends became a toxic stew of expectations and pressure. I could see something was taking a toll on her, so one night, with the subtlety of an elephant, I asked, “Are you doing okay?”
She responded, “Adam and Kristine’s trip is really getting to me. I’m excited for them, but I don’t want them to go.”
“Everything’s going to be okay!” I assured her. “You need to be excited for them, not afraid for them.”
“Are you sure?”
There are some reassurances that aren’t fair for us to guarantee, especially to anxiety-ridden moms, but in that moment I made a promise to her that everything was going to be okay.
5 days after making that promise, I stared at my phone in disbelief trying to muster the courage to call my mom and tell her that her anxiety had manifested into a reality. At the time of my call, my mom was partaking in her weekly trip to Ross for their special 10% senior discount on Tuesdays. In addition to Target, Ross is her personal safe space.
“Before I say anything, I want you to know that Adam and Kristine are okay.”
“What?” she asked.
“Adam and Kristine are okay! When you get home right now, you’re going to start seeing news reports of a terrorist attack at the airport. They’re safe and they’re doing–”
“I’m on my way home.” Click.
I called back. “Mom. I’m on my way home to come meet you.”
I knew it’d be upwards of an hour before I’d be able to comfort my mom in-person, so I called Dave and asked whether he could act as my surrogate until I arrived. For eight years, Dave’s life has been filled with one tragedy after another–he’s been the recipient of the call more times than I can count. For eight years, he has been a source of strength for my family, even driving my mother to her chemo and radiation appointments. However, on this particular day, he absorbed the real impact of the news. As he grabbed his keys to head out from his place to meet my mom, the adrenaline of the situation overtook him and he fainted on his living room floor.
When I pulled up to my apartment complex, I began sobbing, tortured about what I was going to tell my mom. But, as I opened the door, I was stunned to find Dave lying peacefully on the couch with a blanket tucked around him in the same way I tucked in my nieces at night. I heard a noise coming from the kitchen, so I headed that way.
Turning the corner bracing for the worst, I was instead greeted by my smiling mother, stirring a prodigious pot of matzo ball soup on the stove.
“Shh! You’re going to wake the patient.”
That night I was reminded of where my family’s strength lies, my mom. She was conceived in a concentration camp, survived cancer, and will always overlook her own pain if there is someone else in need of her love.
Over the next couple days, a piece that I wrote about my family’s experiences, called “Three Little Dots,” began to make its way around the world. On the Thursday following the attack, my mom, Dave and I had dinner at our apartment and began reading the messages.They came from everywhere: Istanbul, Australia, Guatemala and South Africa. They came from mothers, sons, brothers and friends. They came from people in all walks of life but they all shared one common belief. All of the messages reiterated undying hope for the future of our world. Love was a universally shared belief that was not derivative of a particular location, religion or ethnicity.
As we sat at the dinner table reading the messages, we couldn’t shake the idea of “what if?”. What if they never went on the trip? What if they arrived at the airport 15 minutes later? What if the three little dots never came? What if it was us?
“I’m afraid to open my door for trick or treaters, let alone open my door like the couple from Spain did during a terrorist attack,” I shared.
“I know what I would have done” Dave exclaimed. “I would have fainted. Because that’s what I did while it was happening on the other side of the world. I’m like one of those fainting sheep. When it comes to fight or flight, my body takes the flight.”
As Dave drove home early that evening, the sun was making its final curtain call over the San Fernando Valley. He took a route home that differed from his usual routine. As he approached an upcoming intersection, a car quickly sped through to make a left hand turn. At that same moment a young boy crossed the street on his bike. In an instant, the car struck the boy and his body flew up into the air, over the hood, with his bike trailing behind him like a kite tail.
Dave’s heart raced as he tried to process what just happened. The intersection was silent; the boy lied motionless in the street. Dave darted out of his car and as he approached the boy, he noticed the growing puddle of blood beneath his head. Immediately, he called 911 and grabbed some leftover rags from a recent camping trip out of the car. The dispatcher talked him through every step as he applied pressure to the open wound and tried to stop the bleeding.
As the boy stirred, Dave reassured him. “Everything’s going to be okay.” He continued to apply pressure to the wound, and the boy asked in a faint voice, “Can you call my mom?”
With the weight of news similar to that what I had delivered to my mom 48 hours prior, Dave shakily retrieved his phone and dialed the boy’s mother.
“Um…your son’s been in an accident. I’m with him now and he’s okay!”
Within minutes, the boy’s frantic mom arrived at the scene. She calmed only after she got confirmation from the paramedics that her son was going to be okay.
A couple weeks later, Dave received a text message from her.
“Hello, David. I don’t know how I can ever repay you for what you did for me and my family. He’s out of the hospital and doing much better. Aside from a concussion and a few scrapes here and there, he’s back to normal. Not a lot of people would have done what you did. He’s lucky to have an angel looking down on him.”
From Nice to Baghdad. From Dallas to Dhaka. It has been an overwhelming three weeks to turn on the news and see the amount of pain that our world is currently experiencing. It feels as though we have all been wounded in some way. It’s easy to focus on the fear of one another and have that drive us apart. Instead, I choose to look at the stories of love that these tragedies have uncovered. I think of Leshia Evan standing silently in protest on the streets of Baton Rouge. I think of the “hug” Najih Shaker Al-Baldawi provided to a suicide bomber, sacrificing his life in Iraq and saving hundreds in the process. Throughout our lives, there will be times in which we will be tested, and yet we never truly know how we’ll react in a situation until we’re in it. Heroic acts are not always on the grand scale that we think of them as, but often begin as simple everyday interactions.
Deciding not to be a bystander for someone in need within your community is a heroic act. A bowl of matzo ball soup can be a heroic act. Even more heroic is deciding not to be driven by fear. Adam and Kristine were at the beginning of their vacation when the attack occurred at the Istanbul Airport. Our families were terrified at the thought of them continuing on, and yet we knew it was wrong for us to want them to come home. It was their decision to continue on. They emailed, called or texted constantly, updating us on every site they saw, dish they ate, and hotel they slept in.
At some point in the past three weeks, the mundane became sacred.
On July 14th, 2016, on Kristine’s 30th birthday (and the day after they returned from their trip) Adam set up a picnic beside Lake Balboa with takeout sushi and strawberries and cream. It was the first time they could finally catch their breath. During the meal, they reflected on everything that had unraveled over the past few weeks and shared their mutual gratitude for the road that lay ahead. In a world and a time filled with one tsunami of bad news after another, one small ripple of love was set forth on a quiet Thursday afternoon.
Adam got down on one knee with a ring in-hand.
“Will you marry me?”
For three weeks, Adam had carried that ring with him from the Istanbul Airport to London, through Budapest and onto Paris, but it wasn’t until they returned home, a block away from the high school where they fell in love 12 years prior, that the moment just felt right.
“What?!?” I screamed as Adam told me the joyous news over the phone. Dave and I were walking down the street to our car as I continued to gather the details.
“Are you serious?! Oh my G-d!” I looked over at Dave to see his exuberant reaction, forgetting for a moment that I was the only one actually hearing the news.
“What? What’s going on? Is everything okay?” His face was flushed with panic.
“Adam just proposed to Kristine!”
The excitement of the moment and the feeling of relief immediately overtook him.
Then in the blink of an eye, he fell to the floor. His eyes began to flutter as I ran to his side.
“I think I’m fainting, again.”