My arms were sore the morning after and that’s not something you’d necessarily expect the day after being trapped in an elevator—13 of us shoulder to shoulder, breathing in each others’ air. I had never been stuck in an elevator before, at least in reality, but the claustrophobic in me had vividly envisioned it many times. I had been in cramped elevators before and because of my imagination, I’ve shut my eyes tightly, never minding how I looked, as I took deep breaths from my nose, out through my mouth, praying for the doors to open. I’ve fought that panic that resides in the space somewhere between my throat and my heart and thought, “open, please, open, open, open.” I’ve always known I had the fantastic potential for panic in a tight, uncomfortable box.
So imagine my fear when the sound of the doors opening on this particular day only yielded a repetitive clicking noise where the cold, gray wall should’ve revealed a lobby. One floor up I had already asked the crowd not to allow even one more person on board and the response to that was a sour-faced woman pushing her way on regardless. I stood, face-to-face, with my 10 year-old son as we heard the futile clicking of the non-opening doors and I knew in that moment something was drastically wrong. The elevator being stuck was the precursor to a whole lot of potential, mostly the panicked kind where people start to mutiny and lose control. Perhaps it would be me.
We were packed in there so tightly and suddenly I felt, rather than heard, the woman next to me and her sharp breaths indicated fear. It was already warm in that small, cramped space and I prayed silently, “God, help me stay calm.” I noticed the small baby in her arms, and as the mother’s breathing intensified, I had a decision to make. Succumb to the fear that was coiling itself around my throat or step up. It was then that I smiled at her and asked—as if it were my greatest pleasure—for the opportunity to hold her one year-old daughter. She paused—breathed easier—and handed the baby over.
It was the first of many exchanges in that tight space. Once I took over holding the child—all the while checking in with my own—I knew we needed to stay calm and it was going to take an effort to make this work. There was a man in the corner, one with anger in his eyes, and he told us this had happened to him before. A small woman, to my right, was fanning papers with closed eyes and scolding herself for not taking the stairs. Another frightened woman stood with her teenage son; a woman who didn’t speak English huddled in the corner with her toddler. A big 65 year-old man with a deep, beautiful voice held up the opposite wall. And me, my fourth grader. All of us, pushed together.
So we pushed the buttons. Called for help. Firefighters were dispatched and on the way. I took over the role as elevator spokeswoman (who better than a claustrophobic, I’m sure) and I started looking people in the eye and smiling. If something was going to be contagious in this tiny, cramped space, dear Lord, let it be that, I prayed.
And slowly, as if happening in small, incremental measurements, things lightened. Right there in that elevator, there was a bit of laughter. One woman took a picture—all of us needing to do absolutely nothing in order to cram together into the shot. A few of us spoke in sad, hushed tones about our March Madness brackets prematurely busting and my sweet son found something silly on my phone to share with the two small children.
We went around the circle, introducing ourselves, each recounting how many times each of us had been in this predicament before. Six times was the record—not surprising, coming from the woman fanning herself. I reminded her to take deep breaths and I told her I was proud of her for remaining here with us rather than succumbing to what most of us wanted to do—jump out of our skin. Many people started shedding layers of clothing—it was hot, and getting hotter. The woman with the teenage son said she hadn’t eaten anything and was starting to feel nauseous. I whispered to my son, “quick, dip down in my purse, get my gum.” My son started to reach in and grab one for himself but I stopped him and reminded “we serve others first.” Jammed in here like sardines, with the smell of fear and rising panic in our noses, was no excuse for things to run amuck. He obediently passed the gum around and the mom of the teenage boy started mothering herself and handed my boy a piece. And just like that, her nausea was forgotten and everyone was sharing more than something small to chew on.
The big man, Julius—the one with the deep voice—shared the texts he was exchanging with his wife who was in the lobby. “They’re working hard, honey. Trying to get you out. The firefighters are here. Can you hear the sirens?” The connection to the outside world—this wife I had never met—helped us feel grounded and hopeful. We were in this together. This small, tight space. We were sharing hot air and body heat and shoulders touching and I was feeding the baby a bottle and it was if we were breaking bread and passing the wine between this motley crew.
I kept praying. But my arms started trembling because even a tiny one year-old who was born at 26 weeks can still weigh heavy in such a cramped space with an unknown timetable. My talkative son was unusually quiet and his cheeks were red from the heat. I didn’t know how long my arms would hold out. His legs were getting wobbly. There wasn’t even room to sit.
Then, all of a sudden, the elevator started moving. The doors opened onto the second floor. We praised Jesus—this elevator family of mine—and we filed out civilly and with grace. We marched weakly down the stairs, laughing and breathing in the cool, air-conditioned air. We smiled at the firefighters in the lobby and Julius introduced me to his bride who proudly shook my hand. I touched his shoulder as we left and thanked him for being solid—a good companion. The mom of the teenage boy said she was so thankful we had all remained calm because she normally takes anxiety pills on planes and she marveled that we were all laughing and communing together. Her son, 16, looked me in the eye and thanked me. Twice.
And as we headed toward the sunlight of midday—much later than anticipated—my son looked at me and said “well, I’m never going in an elevator again.” I stopped him and said, “No, no. That’s not the point at all.” That was an example of spectacular success. That was the good stuff. Unexpected joy and the Holy Spirit working the room (small, cramped room that it was.) We passed a gurney in the lobby and I told him there could’ve been people on that. Instead we walked past with a smile. There could’ve been less air, more heat, contagious fear leaking out of our pores. There could’ve been crying and anger and separateness. But instead there was community. We had each other.
Would I choose to be stuck in there again? Absolutely not. But God is so good. He takes the uncomfortable and makes it beautiful. He takes the trembling arms and the wobbly legs and the angry eyes and the nauseous stomachs and He works through it. He allows us not to rely on ourselves but on Him and in the process we get to hear about miracle babies born too early and when teenage boys are getting their drivers licenses and how everyone’s doctor’s appointments went. We get to hear how the upset man can make jokes about the pollen count in the trapped elevator being at least better than outside in the dusty Atlanta air and how, in broken English, a woman offering the help of her cell phone that actually had service. It gives opportunities for anxious women to feel brave, moms the opportunities to walk the walk in front of their kids, and human beings a chance to connect in ways they wouldn’t necessarily chose.
It gives people a story.
That, my sweet son, was a beautiful display, I said. Thank God for those long, stuffy, hot minutes. Thank God for that elevator and the people we stood with, shoulder to shoulder.
They were our people.
And we were theirs.