The art of the 'oh.'

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(this article is from Angie Arendt’s column in the June 2019 edition of The Humm).

There is a little pub in Terminal C at the Dulles International Airport that serves up the best hamburgers east of the Mississippi (the U.S. Mississippi, that is). Running along the back wall of that pub is a floor-to-ceiling window that overlooks the runway and a trio of small tables where you can sit and enjoy one of those to-die-for burgers while watching jumbo jets and puddle jumpers alike gracefully (and sometimes not so gracefully) touch down. That’s where I was last month and that’s what I was doing: watching planes, eating a burger and letting myself be wowed by the fact that: 1). tens of thousands of people hurtle through the air from city to city everyday and 2). that my favorite burger joint is in an airport. I’ve accepted the fact that there are some things in life that I will never understand, these two things included.   

On the other side of the room a few dozen people were standing shoulder to shoulder at one of two bars, straddling their rolling suitcases. At least a dozen more travelers stood in line at the door waiting to snag a spot inside…and yet the two small wooden tables next to mine remained unoccupied. “What’s with the empty tables?” I asked the waitress as she topped off my glass. She laughed out loud. “Seriously?” “Yeah…” I nodded. She put the water pitcher down and pointed at the growing lineup at the door, still chucking. “Oh, honey. Take a look around. There ain’t no outlets back here.” And then she sighed, her smile faded. “You know, I remember when people would stand in line for these seats. Folks back here would clap as the planes came in, chat with each other—they smiled a lot. But now?” She shook her head and looked around the room. “Not so much. You enjoy that burger.” And off she went. 

My friend Ronald tells me that when things don’t make sense, it’s good to simply say, “Oh.” When we first met almost twenty years ago, Ronald would talk my ear off about airplanes, old musicals, and girls…and not necessarily in that order. He was autistic and had a tendency to start his stories mid-thought, end conversations abruptly mid-sentence and say whatever came to mind: traits that took some getting used to and traits I grew to envy. At church, he’d stand up during prayer time and share the things he was grateful for: his Lawn Boy mower, Gilda (his Corgi), 747s, Shirley Jones, his mom and dad, the State Fair…heck, I even made the list from time to time.  And then he’d tell us about the things that ached him, too: “My friend Jennie’s dad drank too much and he died…”, “I hope I can have a girlfriend someday. I would treat her like a queen and make her smile. I get lonely sometimes….” and “Why doesn’t somebody do something about all the guns? I don’t understand…” He would end with “That’s all. Thank you for listening.” And to nobody in particular I’d always say softly, “No, Ronald. Thank you for speaking.” 

I don’t understand how it works but thanks to Ronald I know that it does: sharing the seemingly insignificant, silly, everyday joys of life and naming the things that keep us up at night and break our hearts are how things like empathy, compassion, hope, joy, and love grow. I saw it happen week after week in that room: connection. All because one person was courageous enough to be real…and the rest of us were courageous enough to listen. 

When I told Ronald I was leaving Iowa to marry Peter and move to Canada, all he said was, “Oh.” After fourteen years of sharing the highs and lows of life week after week, I was expecting a little more than one syllable.  So I waited a few seconds and then broke the silence: “That’s it? Just ‘oh’?” The response that came was pure Ronald: “I can’t decide whether I want to say “oh, no” or “oh, wow” so I just said ‘oh’...” He stopped abruptly and walked away mid-sentence. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “Oh,” indeed. 

Admittedly, there are a lot of things I don’t get: how socks get lost in the dryer, what happens after we die, how it is possible for a huge tin can full of people to fly through the air, or how it is that we ache to see and be seen but hide behind our devices more and more every day.  But there are some things I am certain of: unplugging every now and then is a good idea, sharing the things that break our hearts and make us smile is good for the soul and the best burger you’ll ever find is in a little pub in Terminal C in the Dulles International Airport.  If you’re ever there, grab a table by the window…