But this is a rescue story of a very different kind.
It started at a hotel near Raleigh-Durham Airport. My husband and I had just checked in for a couple of days and were loading our bags into the elevator. We’d hit the button for the fourth floor, but the elevator stopped at the next one and an elderly Asian woman stepped on, looking confused. When we asked which floor she wanted, she seemed unsure. She got off on the next floor and hesitantly turned left. As the doors slid shut, we could see she had done an about-face and was heading back the other way.
“I’ll get the bags,” my husband said when we reached our floor. “Why don’t you go down and see if she’s lost.”
I ran down the stairs and found the woman wandering the hallway, disoriented.
“Hello!” I called. “Do you need some help finding your room?”
She gave an embarrassed little laugh and held out the card with her room number: 323
“Oh that’s just around the corner. I’ll show you,” I slowed my walk to keep pace with hers. “My name’s Leslie, by the way.” Hers, she told me in heavily accented English, was Youko. She looked about the same age as my mother, with the same gentle demeanor.
When we arrived at her room, I turned to leave, but Youko held out the key card again, signaling that she needed help opening the door. Then she motioned me inside. “I have ticket,” she said, eyes darting around the room, hands flapping like startled swallows.
“Ah!” she smiled when she located the packet of travel documents. She handed it to me, and I opened it to find airline tickets, her passport, and a considerable amount of cash.
“What time I go?” she asked me.
Horrified at her trust in me, a total stranger, I looked at her tickets and determined that her flight was to leave early the next morning at 5:45.
“How will you get to the airport, Youko?” I asked, concerned. “Do you have a ride?”
“No, no,” she shook her head. “I take bus.”
The hotel shuttle? Really?
“I tell you what. I’ll ask the hotel to give you a wake-up call. Then all you’ll have to do is take your bag downstairs to the lobby and they’ll help you get to the bus.”
She nodded, but her polite expression told me that the plan wasn’t penetrating.
“I’ve got a better idea,” I improvised. “I’ll come to your room and make sure you get on the shuttle. We’ll tell the driver which airline you need, and they’ll take you to the right place. Sound good?”
Youko seemed happy with that suggestion, and I went down to the lobby.
“Do you know the woman in room 323 named Youko?” I asked the concierge. “She seems to be alone and pretty confused.”
His face lit with recognition, and he said, “Oh, yes. Youko has been visiting here from Japan for years. She has friends that live in the Raleigh area.”
Where the heck are those friends now? I huffed inwardly. She was clearly in no shape to travel by herself.
The man scheduled the call, and I went upstairs to fill my husband in. He agreed that I should help so no one else took advantage of her vulnerability, and we set his phone’s alarm.
When the tone chimed very early the next morning, I got up and threw on some yoga pants and flip flops with my oversized T-shirt, then ran downstairs to check on Youko.
I knocked. No answer. I knocked again and quietly called her name. Silence. I knocked and called a little louder. Finally, I heard rustling inside and she came to the door, dressed but clearly just roused from sleep.
“It’s about time to leave, Youko. Are you ready?”
I looked around and noticed the phone out of its cradle. Her suitcase was open and there were garments scattered about.
“Oh gosh, well, we’ve got a few minutes,” I said. “Do you want to go get ready and I’ll put these things in your bag?”
Youko headed to the bathroom and came back out a moment later, unchanged. She shoved a toothbrush and a bra in her purse, slid her feet into shoes and pronounced, “I ready now.”
“Um, okay” I responded dubiously. But I went ahead and made sure she had her travel documents, then wheeled her suitcase out behind us and pulled the door shut.
The blue hotel van was already idling in front, so I handed the driver Youko’s bag, told him where she needed to be let off, and helped her to a seat. As I said goodbye and started to leave, she gave me a little wave and I intuited that she’d never make it home without help. On impulse, I climbed in and sat down next to her.
“I feel like going for a ride,” I smiled, reaching for her hand. We held hands in silence the short journey to the airport, where the driver dropped us off at Departures. I took Youko’s suitcase and walked with her to the United counter.
I told the attendant about her predicament. “I don’t know what she’ll do when she gets there, but if she just makes it back to Japan, I’m hoping someone will be there to help her.”
He motioned for a wheelchair and asked, “Is Youko a friend or relative of yours?”
“Neither,” I confessed. “I just met her at the hotel.”
The man’s eyebrow went up, but he reassured me, “Don’t worry. We’ll take good care of her.”
Youko sat down in the wheelchair, and before they turned away, I knelt in front her. She clasped both my hands in hers and with glistening eyes, said simply, “Thank you.”
Unable to speak for a moment, I looked at her with affection then said, “It’s been my pleasure, Youko. If I ever come to Japan, I’ll be sure to visit you.” As they wheeled my friend toward security, we waved to each other until she was out of sight—safe, my mission complete.
But that wasn’t the end of the story.
With a sigh, I walked outside to wait for the shuttle. The sky was still dark, but the air was warm, and I enjoyed people-watching as I waited.
Now, I knew from experience that the hotel shuttles run on a regular schedule, so I wasn’t worried. I did wonder, though, when after quite some time, I spotted the blue van in the distance, turning another direction.
I considered my options. I could run to try to meet it, but if I left and another one came to the original spot, I would miss it. I had no cell phone, no money, no ID, and no way to contact the hotel or my husband.
So I figured I’d just wait some more. I settled onto a metal bench and watched as the airport began to trade its quiet nighttime hum for the colorful cacophony of day.
A security guard who had been keeping an eye on me walked past again and I asked him, “The hotel shuttles come back here, don't they?”
“Oh, no,” he said. “Once it starts getting busy, they go to Arrivals, instead.”
Just at that moment, a white rental car pulled up to the curb (should’ve been a Charger, right?) and my husband leaned over, grinning, “Hey, Lady, you want a ride?”
“Yes!” I said, hopping in with relief. “How did you know where to find me?”
“It wasn’t that tough. When you didn’t come back, I asked the desk and they said they’d seen you get on the bus with Youko. They told me it made regular stops in Arrivals after the first run, but I know you. If they dropped you in Departures, you’d wait in Departures forever. It would never occur to you that they wouldn’t come back there to get you.”
He was right, of course.
And I laughed with delight. Because I was known. Loved. And rescued.