A Lost Wallet, an Asthma Attack, and a Forgotten Pillow
Not a week into our family sabbatical, we lose a critical identification document and have a health scare. We are learning to trust we will be okay, even with many travel setbacks.
We stepped off the escalator at LAX to take the shuttle to the rental car office and Matt reached into his pocket to ready his drivers license. He looked up, “Uh, do you know where my wallet is?”
So began a long string of misadventures which I might more accurately call “just normal life for our family of absent-minded clowns.” Despite the setbacks, we’ve still had a good time and learned that we don’t need perfect conditions to enjoy each other and the world around us.
Lost and Found
After rifling through Matt’s belongings and finding nada, I settled down on the baggage claim floor to thoroughly unpack each of our five backpacks and one duffel bag. Matt repeated the process. As I checked every possible cranny a second time, I could no longer deny it: Matt had left his wallet, including his drivers license, a debit card, a credit card, and some US dollars and Brazilian reais, on an Amtrak train.
Now we were already a 30-minute shuttle ride across Los Angeles from the train station. Maybe, I thought, we can pick up the rental car and drive back to the station in time to try to find it on the train. As we joined the crawling traffic on the Interstate 110 towards downtown, the knot in my stomach tightened. The lost cash wasn’t a big deal. And the credit and debit cards, well, we could call to freeze them right away. But the drivers license was kind of important. Actually, really important.
For the next leg of our trip in Brazil, we would be renting a stick shift and Matt is the only one in our family who can drive one. Without his drivers license, would I have to learn to drive a stick shift in the rental car parking lot? Or would we just cancel our rental car reservation and take buses everywhere? Or would Matt have to take a flight back to Illinois to go to the secretary of state’s office and get a replacement license in the three days before our flight to Rio de Janeiro?
Halfway back to Union Station, Matt tried calling Amtrak’s lost and found office. It was no use going back, we discovered. The train had already moved to a yard in a different part of the city to be cleaned and they wouldn’t let passengers in.
Deflated, we turned around and drove to my aunt’s house in Palos Verdes and tried to enjoy the time with family and beautiful beach views. How we wished we could turn back time just a couple hours and redo our last few minutes of packing up on the train.
Without time-traveling abilities, however, I considered going back to the trainyard myself and wheedling my way into the empty train to scour our rooms. Instead, we just filed a lost-and-found ticket online and prayed it would be found by the time we left the country.
I kept telling myself, the important thing is that everyone is healthy and we are about to head out on the adventure of our lives together. “People are more important than things,” is a phrase I learned from a friend. I breathed it in and out like a mantra.
The next day my dad took us to Universal Studios. Matt checked his email every five minutes hoping a message would arrive saying that they had found his wallet. By evening, we had resigned ourselves to the worst case scenario of a forever-lost wallet.
Then, as I was washing some chives for dinner, the phone rang. Did you know that angels are named Larry and have a South Asian accent? Anyway, this Amtrak employee’s voice sounded angelic to me. They found Matt’s wallet! Matt, my aunt, and I danced around the kitchen island pumping our fists in the air.
The Asthma Attack
We apparently caught a bug on the train because in LA the boys all got sick. By the time we hopped on our overnight flight from Houston to Rio, Finley, our 5-year-old who has asthma, was wheezing a bit. Respiratory infections always aggravate his lungs. The dry air on the plane made things even worse, and when we landed in Brazil I started giving him treatments from his albuterol sulfate puffer.
During our first night in Brazil, Finley started running a fever and had an even harder time breathing. I woke Matt up in the middle of the night after enduring another unbearable round of his asthmatic coughing. I didn’t really want to take my child to an emergency room within 24 hours of arriving in a foreign country, but breathing troubles always worry me. We had to take Finley to the ER for the first time when he was 9 weeks old and couldn’t breathe because of the RSV bug. This time, Matt convinced me to wait it out until morning. Still, at 3 a.m. Rio time, I was sitting in a hostel bunk bed looking up the closest doctors’ offices, just in case.
In the morning, we ate a delicious breakfast, which made everything seem a little better. Then we took a low-key outing to a nearby beach. Maybe we wouldn’t need to see the doctor after all. But by midafternoon I watched Finley work so hard to suck air into his lungs that I could see a cavity in his neck form during each inhale. I decided to take him to a doctor after all.
On Google Maps I had located a place nearby called “Botafogo Medical Center.” As Matt stayed back at the hostel with the other boys, Finley and I hopped a taxi toward it. Unfortunately it was rush hour, and when we started moving in the taxi I realized it would take more time to get there driving than walking. I paid the driver 10 reais and left the taxi stalled in traffic.
Before we got to the medical center I walked past a government health clinic (part of the SUS, or Sistema Único de Saúde, Brazil’s free public health care system) which seemed relatively empty. I walked in and explained to the receptionist with my rudimentary Portuguese (thank God for those months of Duolingo lessons!) that my son was having trouble breathing. She pointed me down the road to another health clinic, as this one only treated adults. Apparently, the medical center we were originally going to was a specialist center which wouldn’t treat children either.
By this time I was dead tired from an anxious night up with a sick child, jet lag, and the general transition to a new country. Still, I hoisted Finley onto my back and we headed toward the other health clinic.
We arrived about ten minutes later and I went up to a receptionist who took down all of our information. This was a drawn out process involving the receptionist calling other people to help translate, me translating on my phone, and writing lots of things on sheets of scrap paper. Finally, we were in the system, and the receptionist pointed us to seats in a side waiting room. “They’ll call him for the vaccine soon,” I heard in Portuguese. Wait, what?! I wasn’t here to get a COVID vaccine for my son! I was here to see a doctor!!!
“No, no, no,” I said. After fumbling around to explain again, I was directed to a different line. Back to square one.
In this line, we were quickly pulled to a seat to get a COVID test. Based on what I could piece together from the medical assistant, we were going to get COVID tests and then we could see a doctor. So Finley and I sat down for the most uncomfortable COVID tests we have ever endured. They literally stuck the swabs up to where the top of our nostrils meet our eye sockets and drew tears. Both nostrils. 10 seconds each.
Then we waited outside for 15 minutes for the results. When they finally called us back, I thought: finally, we’ll be able to see a doctor. They showed us on paper that we both tested negative and then said, “He probably just has the flu and needs rest and liquids.” Wait? No doctor? I tried again, “But my son’s having trouble breathing, and his asthma medicine isn’t helping.” The man looked at us confused. Then he pointed us to yet another place, a hospital down the road, which we would have to go to if we wanted to actually see a doctor.
After two hours of trying to see the doctor, all we had were two negative COVID tests.
By this time I was so tired and dispirited that I decided just to walk back to the hostel to regroup. Finley, exhausted from our fruitless medical expedition and two sick nights, promptly fell into a deep sleep, impenetrable even by the girls at the school next door singing along to rock music at the top of their lungs at some kind of dance practice.
When he finally woke up a few hours later, Finley seemed better. I had also taken a nap and felt calmer. I gave him ginger honey tea and made him breathe some steam to break up the mucus in his lungs, and he slept much better that night. I guess we didn’t need to see the doctor after all.
A Forgotten Pillow is Nothing
Not a week into our yearlong travels, we had already lost a critical piece of identification and had a health emergency. And yet, here we were, still alive, still together, somehow not too much worse for the wear.
Back when we were still in Illinois, a friend said something about how those times where we can’t rely on our normal supports — a trusted family doctor, urgent medical care in our own language, a local DMV to get a drivers license replacement, for instance — are when we really learn to trust God. Part of me resisted her wisdom, because I’m not sure what I think about a God who conveniently helps us find a parking spot or get the best seat in a concert or whatever.
But maybe this is different. Maybe this kind of trust isn’t about a genie God who optimizes our experiences, but a God who is present even in the most suboptimal conditions, making it possible to endure them. Maybe you don’t call it God, but just the Universe, or simply Life. However we name this source that sustains us, I think it is true that we come to know it (or Him or Her or Them) better when there is nothing else to rely on. When we’re in a foreign country speaking a language we’ve only learned through an app watching a child sucking in air for dear life. Somehow, even here, something or someone was supporting me.
The day we left Rio I forgot my pillow at the hostel. This wasn’t just any pillow, but a travel-size neck support pillow filled with buckwheat hulls that I had taken hours to research back home. I debated whether to bring it, but decided that getting better sleep was worth the weight in my backpack. Then, less than a week into our trip, I forgot it.
As Matt navigated the stick-shift Fiat out of Rio traffic and into the mountains of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, I took a deep breath and released my perceived need for a special pillow to optimize our trip. Even in suboptimal conditions, I thought, we’re going to be fine.