Finding Friends in Unexpected Places

``Get up, mom! I'm hungry!'' Seven-year-old Melanie jarred me awake.

I couldn't believe I'd slept so late -- it was nearly 10:30 on a blistering hot Mexican morning. I couldn't figure out why I was so lethargic. Certainly the couple of Coronas the night before couldn't have done that much damage!

I didn't know then that my worst nightmare was about to come true: While traveling solo with my three kids in a foreign country -- Mexico, no less -- I was on my way to getting terribly ill.

I wasn't supposed to be alone this trip. With our husbands tied up at work, a close friend from California and I had planned a Mexican reunion with our kids. But at the last minute, she had to cancel.

Disappointed, I then hoped to meet some friendly parents to provide needed ``adult'' counterpoint to a week with the kids. Little did I know how important those acquaintances would become.

They are the silver lining to this tale, in fact: The casual around-the-pool relationships I'd made during the week at the resort with two other moms would, in the course of one awful day, deepen into real friendship. I hate to think of what might have happened if I'd had my head unsociably buried in a book the entire trip!

Very quickly I would also discover how much I could depend on 14-year-old Matt and 12-year-old Reggie. Travel, I realized, can be a great equalizer for families: Away from home and all the familiar supports, we shouldn't be afraid to ask for our kids' help when we need it, to pull together to weather the rough spots. Often we don't give the kids enough credit -- or responsibility. That's not to say Matt and Reggie, lovable adolescents that they are, weren't embarrassed to have their mom so sick so publicly. Back to the story.

It was our last day in Mexico, and even if I'd been perfectly fine, the day would have been a bear. Our return was a 2:30 a.m. charter flight to Dallas, where we'd have to clear customs and face a nearly three-hour layover before heading home on another three-hour-plus flight. We were instructed to be out of our rooms with our luggage packed before dinner. ``We party until it's time to go,'' another parent said, laughing.

But that night, while everyone was dancing the Macarena, I was lying on a couch outside the resort infirmary, feverish and trying to convince myself, in between trips to the bathroom, I wasn't really that sick. I didn't even have any spare clothes -- everything was at the airport. I'd never felt worse.

Earlier that day, when I pushed away the first-rate gazpacho and everything else at lunch, Lori Dahlberg urged me to go see the resort nurse.

``Leave Melanie with me,'' she commanded. Lori is a take-charge single mom from Calgary, a successful real estate agent. Her daughter Jacqueline and Melanie had been fast friends since they found each other in the pool the day we arrived. We'd gotten to know each other while watching the girls play water games -- with accompanying shrieks -- in front of us.

I'd met my other buddy through the kids, too, practically pouncing on Woody Lawson, a warm-hearted, gracious North Carolinian-turned-New Englander from Hingham, Mass., on the way to breakfast with her husband and family the first day. She had a daughter exactly Reggie's age. Reggie had already declared if she didn't find a friend immediately the trip would be a complete bust. Luckily, Reggie and Eleanor Lawson clicked; so did Woody and I.

Woody urged me to go to the infirmary, too. My mistake was not insisting on seeing the doctor the resort had on call. The nurse had suggested Pepto-Bismol. A nap would help, I figured.

With Melanie taken care of and Matt and Reggie off sailing with their friends, I slept the afternoon away. I woke up feeling worse, dreading the travel ahead but with no alternative. I managed to get us packed and the kids to dinner. By the time the dancing started, I was burning with fever. Lori called the nurse, who called the doctor. He prescribed an antibiotic, but it would take a few hours to kick in. I couldn't keep anything down.

Finally, it was midnight and time to head to the airport. Lori corralled the resort manager and managed to get us upgraded to first class and borrow some clothes for me. Woody took charge of Matt, Reggie and our too-many carry-on bags. The resort nurse accompanied me on the half-hour ride to the airport. I needed a wheelchair to make it to the plane.

I was nearly in tears when, one by one, people I'd shared dinner or a conversation with offered any help they could. I realized people (ital) want (unital) to help -- as I would. You just need to ask. All the way to Dallas, I slept. Somehow, we made it through customs. Lori was in charge of Melanie, the Lawsons our bags. For once, the kids weren't fighting.

We collapsed in the admiral's lounge -- courtesy of Lori's membership. I dozed while Lori and Woody took care of all the details for the next leg of the trip. My husband was waiting when we arrived.

A bad case of food poisoning, my doctor said the next day. I was lucky I didn't end up in the hospital.

Phew, I'm glad that's over. But I wouldn't have missed knowing Woody or Lori for anything. I just hope I have the chance to return the favor sometime, guys.

(c) 1998, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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