(Read Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here.)
4:45am My folks are in Central time and should be be up by now. (This may be the first time in the history of the world that I am awake earlier than they.) I call home and announce I am headed to Omaha in six hours; could they meet me there? Or should I try to fly directly to Minnesota (we had been planning to drive there from Kansas in two days)? Or attempt to fly standby to Wichita? Ever calm and analytical, Dad states, "There are no good options here." He decides on a plan I hadn't even thought of: he and mom will drive the six hours to Denver and pick me up. Note to self: nice Christmas presents for the folks this year. Maybe a cruise? A jar of cashews is definitely not going to cut it after this.
5:00am It's time for Tom to find his gate. I walk him there and we shake hands with, "Take care, God bless." I wish I were better at goodbyes. It's only been twelve hours since we met, but I'll miss Tom.
5:45am I sit with a $3 scone and a $3 hot chocolate (Starbucks was the only food vendor open this early) beside the customer service desk in the United Airlines wing of the terminal. It is insanely cold down here. At least customer service will be open in fifteen minutes; then I can cancel my ticket to Omaha and get some help finding my checked baggage.
6:10am I know I was rudely told last night that customer service would open at 6:00am, but here I stand shivering in front of an empty desk, with no airline agents in sight. There are a few other travelers around, sitting hunched up against the arctic air that blows incessantly from overhead ducts. Those who don't have coats are wrapped in newspapers. I have neither. It's June, for crying out loud, but I promise myself I will never fly without a sweater again. If I survive hypothermia today, that is.
6:20am It's killing me to just sit here doing nothing. I imagine my suitcase full of clothes and gifts and presentation materials being loaded onto an Omaha-bound plane in the quiet Denver dawn. Ugh, the last thing I need right now is a lost suitcase. I pull out my computer, locate United's website, and place a call to their 24-hour customer service number. What follows is a thirty-minute exercise in futility. English is not this woman's first or even second language. Maybe fourteenth? It doesn't help that there's all kinds of static. (Me: "Can you locate my baggage?" Her: "Num thalit wintrup feenwally.") Finally she calls in her supervisor. "Sorry," he tells me. "Your baggage destination is Wichita and there's nothing we can do to stop it." Then he assures me that United will deliver my suitcase to my parents' home... for a fee. This is not a satisfactory answer. I hang up.
7:05am Someone arrives at the customer service desk. A very sour-looking someone wearing a sweater layered over a turtleneck (shouldn't that be a clue to the climate control people at DIA?). But it takes her all of twenty seconds to reroute my suitcase to the Denver baggage claim. No unintelligible responses, no fees—that's my kind of customer service, sour or not. Now there is nothing to do but find the baggage claim and wait.
9:00am I have been sitting by the baggage carousel for an hour and a half, slowly growing more apprehensive. My suitcase could be on its way to Wichita or Omaha, or it could be lost in the labyrinth of Denver International Airport baggage conveyor belts...
9:20am A big black suitcase with an Expedia ID tag tumbles out onto the carousel. Mine! I admit I got teary eyed. It felt like a measure of sanity and control was returned to me along with that suitcase. The first thing I do is pull out a sweater... still trying to thaw out. Now for more waiting.
12:00pm I figure this is the very earliest my parents could arrive from Kansas, so I put away my book, my laptop and my iPod and begin to pace. Remember, they have no cell phone, so we're hoping to just run into each other in the expansive baggage claim area of this terminal.
12:45pm Still pacing. I catch a glimpse of red plaid out of the corner of my eye. It's French Guy! He looks rough, but then I probably do, too. I try to make eye contact and give a sympathetic look, but he is too distracted by his plight to notice me. Bless his heart, I wonder if he'll ever reach Europe.
1:15pm I finally spot my mom walking toward me. She sees me about the same time and it's like one of those slow motion movies where two people run toward each other with arms wide open. No matter how old I get, I still believe my parents can make everything okay. The nightmare is coming to an end. We climb in the car and head east.
8:15pm Home sweet home! Only 22 hours behind schedule. Shower, bed, sleep, oh! blessed sleep. Thank You, Lord, for safety, for blessings amid the bumps, for self-sacrificial parents, for always being in control.
Postscript: There was no toaster from United; it was a $150 voucher. A nice gesture... not that I'm eager to fly again anytime soon.