It’s the same every year. We put everything we have into this meeting – RALLYING TO THE CHALLENGE – each year. We burn the midnight oil. We meet and greet, we talk, we listen. And while the meeting goes on, a dozen little things take place to ensure everything runs smoothly. For every speaker who speaks, there are AV technicians who make sure the sound is just right. There are runners making sure that the next speaker is ready and prepared, on standby. There are people talking to advocates and inviting them to question. There are last-minute changes to the running order because maybe one speaker is stuck in Detroit because their connecting flight was cancelled. There are audio and video links to be urgently prepared so that they can still speak seamlessly at the meeting. Then there is timing – it’s no use calling the tea break before you support staff have the cookies ready! So somebody has to keep an overall view and liaise with the session chairman that they are running too fast or too slow.

All this happens without the audience participants being aware. While they see the swan gliding across the lake, they do not see the frantic paddling beneath the waves to maintain that image. Next time you are a conference, bear that in mind when you complain that the butter pecan cookies aren’t as sweet as you like. Or the vegetarian options are less exciting than you would hope.

We do our best. Dear God we do our best. And, often we feel appreciated. You tell us that you like this and that’s why we keep coming back each year, from our base in London to be with you in Grand Rapids. Familiar faces, new faces. Engaged faces, interested faces. That’s what makes it worthwhile for us.

One delegate at the meeting came up to me to speak. It was his first attendance at these meetings. “You know” he said “this meeting is really intense”.

You think so?

To be honest, we love it. And we love the fact that you welcome us back each year. But by the end of the meeting, we have nothing left to give. The CPT team stands by the entrance to the Van Andel Institute, waiting for our taxis to take us to the airport this. We have 12 hours of flying ahead of us. Grand Rapids to Chicago then on through the night back to Heathrow. We hardly make conversation. We are that tired. Spent forces. Our minds are whirring with everything we have seen and done over the last couple of days. We turn things over in our minds. Should I have said that? Did they really mean what it sounded like? If they really meant that, why did they not say so? A thousand thoughts and reflections. Each of us is absorbed in our own small world of memories. Some sit in chairs sleeping. Others unpack and repack their suitcases.

There are a hundred goodbyes. Emotional goodbyes. These are, after all, our friends. To say goodbye to one is a wrench. To bid a hundred farewell is the sweetest of sorrows. And you wonder why there are tears spilt?

The taxis arrive. We pile in. Thirty silence filled minutes later we are at Grand Rapids. The bags are checked and our long march home begins. Five hours later, we settle into our seats on the plane from Chicago. I have held it together till now when, for a thousand little reasons, I am overwhelmed by a tidal wave of emotion. I sit in my seat, bent forward and sob uncontrollably. It’s not a pretty sight. And I don’t even know all the reasons. Emotional wreckage. I am absorbed in myself. It’s almost as though people pass by in silent slow motion. I feel dissociated.

We get to Heathrow eight hours later. Some sleep, some do not. There are more tearful farewells by the luggage reclaim. It’s the weekend. We are drained. We gave it everything.

And you know what – we will do it all again next year.

Grand Rapids Diary 4