Stories from the Stage

S4 E15 | FULL EPISODE

Missed Connections

At times, it can be hard to relate. But a missed connection could be a chance for redemption. James tries to connect with his brother killed in the Vietnam War; Mustapha’s journey from Ghana to the US is full of long-distance connections; and after her mastectomy, Musu-kulla reconnects to the dating world. Three storytellers, three interpretations of MISSED CONNECTIONS, hosted by Wes Hazard.

AIRED: April 26, 2021 | 0:26:30
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM GRIFFIN: There was a large man in uniform standing

on my front porch.

"Your son, specialist four Thomas Brinsley Griffin Jr.,

is missing in Vietnam."

MUSU-KULLA MASSAQUOI: I knew things weren't okay

because her eyes were red and tears began to well

as soon as she stepped in the exam room.

MUSTAPHA ABDULAI: I was wondering,

was this was a good idea?

Maybe I should go to the authorities and tell them

to put me back on the next flight and bring me home.

WES HAZARD: Tonight's theme is "Missed Connections."

The text message that arrived just a few minutes too late.

That good friend from childhood that you just

gradually lost track of.

That time you really needed someone to be there for you,

and they just weren't.

These are the kinds of experiences that we end up

thinking about our entire lives

and wondering how things could have been different

if we had recognized the opportunity for what it was.

If we had just seized the moment,

if we had realized that that would be the last time

we'd ever see that person.

So many of our greatest stories are born out of moments

just like these.

Which is why with tonight's theme of "Missed Connections,"

we are thrilled to bring you a group of tellers

who are going to dig into experiences just like that.

GRIFFIN: My name is Jim Griffin and I grew up in

the Dorchester section of Boston, Massachusetts,

and I was the sixth out of seven children,

came from a neighborhood where everyone had a large family

and small family in my neighborhood was five kids.

I still live in the Boston area.

I'm still very close with my family who also

lives in the Boston area, and I work for a large

financial firm in downtown Boston.

What are some of your earliest memories

of growing up as a kid in Dorchester?

There were a ton of kids in the neighborhood 'cause

everyone had a minimum of five kids in the family

and we ran around like a wild pack of dogs

and we were always in trouble-- not major trouble.

We weren't criminals, we were just pests.

And that's what I remember most, is the camaraderie and...

there was no such thing as a helicopter parent in those days.

It was, "Get out of the house,

and don't come back till the street lights are on."

And so we were out all the time.

And we had to invent our own games most of the time,

and that's what we did.

HAZARD: So obviously your story is deeply personal

and I'm just wondering what was the most difficult

part about writing and sharing it?

The most difficult part for me in the beginning

was boiling it down.

I... when I tell the story, it takes 25 minutes.

And then the second most difficult part

was trying to recite the story without crying.

And the first week,

I didn't think I was going to be able to do it

without crying.

I didn't think I was going to be able to get on stage

and actually tell the story, but I kept practicing

and eventually it worked its way out.

And obviously this is an event that you experienced

first as a child and then, you know,

you... it's been with you ever since then.

I'm wondering why now, what feels right about

this time to be sharing your story?

I think it's a story that needs to be told.

I think it's a story about...

life is made up of missed connections.

And..

sometimes the missed connection benefits you

and sometimes it doesn't.

And I think this is one where I had a couple

of hits and misses and then it connected and changed my life.

In the summer of 1967,

while I was playing Little League baseball,

my brother Tommy went off to Vietnam.

He was 19 years old.

He was assigned to the Army Postal Unit,

and back home we thought that that meant

he had a desk job and that he'd be safe.

Six months later, as I was watching

the evening news with my brothers,

the doorbell rang.

When I answered it, there was a large man in uniform

standing on my front porch.

He leaned over to me and he said,

"Son, is your mother at home?"

Now, I was 11 years old.

Having a man in uniform on the front porch

didn't mean anything to me.

I just yelled out, "Ma, someone's at the door."

When my mother came to the door, she immediately started to cry.

The house went into a tizzy.

My dad came home from his night job.

My older brothers and sisters cried,

aunts and uncles came by the house.

Over the next couple of days,

friends and neighbors came by the house.

Some people dropped off food,

and I was able to read the telegram that

the officer left my mother.

It said, "The secretary of the Army has asked

"me to express his deep regrets.

"Your son, specialist four Thomas Brinsley Griffin Jr.,

"is missing in Vietnam.

"He was last seen as a passenger on a military aircraft

that crashed and burned for unknown reasons."

After I read that I realized my brother wasn't coming home.

After we buried my brother,

my mother would sometimes say aloud,

"I wonder what he was doing on an aircraft."

She said she never worried about him

because he had a desk job.

Flash forward 15 years.

I'm hanging at my local bar room with my younger brother

and one of the guys comes up to us and says

he met a guy that was delivering something to his work

who claimed my brother took his place

on a helicopter that went down in Vietnam.

He couldn't give me the guy's name,

he didn't know where the guy worked,

so I just filed that story away.

There was no follow up.

My mother died in December of 1985,

and she never knew the circumstances

around my brother's death.

Flash forward another 15 years, it's the late '90s.

My father says one night,

"I'd really like to know what happened to your brother."

And I promised him I'd find out.

I figured I have the story from the bar room

and I'll do a quick internet search

and I'll have an answer in about two days.

I spent a big chunk of the next two years

in various chat rooms and Vietnam veteran websites

and came up with nothing.

I remembered my mother had a photograph of my brother

with three guys in Vietnam,

and she had written their names and their home states

on the back of the picture.

I found it and started randomly calling people

with those names in those states

and I came up with nothing.

My dad died in October of 2004,

and I wasn't able to keep my promise.

And I stopped searching soon after that,

but every once in a while,

I'd type my brother's name into Google and the first hit

would always be the Vietnam Memorial

in Washington, D.C.,

and after that, local and state monument sites.

Seven years after my dad died, October 2011,

I was sitting at my desk at work

and I typed my brother's name into Google.

First hit was the wall in D.C.

The second hit was a website called Military Friends Network

and there was a posting on it that was two years old

that said, "Thomas Griffin took my place

"on a postal helicopter that went down in Vietnam.

"Not one day has gone by in the last 40 years

where I haven't thought about him."

And it was signed, "Respectfully, Doug."

My eyes popped out of my head.

Oh my God, this is the guy from the bar room story.

I had to find him.

I wrote emails, I sent letters, I made phone calls,

and I left voicemails, and I got nothing in response.

And I was so dejected because I was sure now that Doug

had died in the two years between the time he posted

and the time I read it.

Yet a week later while I was driving home

from my office in downtown Boston,

my cell phone rang, and when I answered it,

the voice said, "Is this Jim?"

I said, "Yes." He said, "This is Doug."

I almost drove up on the sidewalk.

He apologized for not calling me sooner,

but he had been on a business trip to Boston.

He had actually been working

right down the street from my office.

He got very emotional and he told me,

"I've never spoken to anyone about this in 40 years,

not even to my wife."

He told me that he met my brother when my brother came

in country in July of 1967.

He said they became very close

and they worked together in the postal unit.

He said in late December 1967,

Doug was scheduled to go on R&R to Hawaii

and my brother asked if he could take his place

on the postal helicopter runs.

Doug ran it by the commanding officer

and everyone signed off, and Doug went off to Hawaii.

He said when he came back, my brother was dead.

He told me that he stayed in the service for 20 years

after the Vietnam War ended,

and he worked all over the country and he met all

sorts of people and he couldn't remember one of them.

But he said, "I'll always remember your brother."

He even remembered my brother's birthday, October 24.

When he said that I had to pull my car over and dry my eyes.

I thanked him for getting back in touch with me

and asked if we could stay in touch,

and he said he would like that.

And after that day, I never spoke to Doug again.

I've never met him in person.

But every Christmas, every New Year,

every Memorial Day, every Veteran's Day,

and every October 24,

I get an email from him.

And I respond the same way he responds to me,

"One of the great highlights of my life

is getting in touch with you."

I couldn't keep that promise to my dad,

but getting in touch with Doug allowed me to reach out

and touch my brother one last time.

And my brother's memory lives on

outside of my family

because of Doug and his family.

And because of that, I'll always be grateful.

MASSAQUOI: I'm Musu-Kulla Massaquoi.

I am a first-generation Sierra Leonean American.

I am a mom of three

and a freelance model.

I'm also a breast cancer survivor

who has made it a point

to start an organization called Listen to Your Body,

where I speak to other survivors in hopes to encourage them

to live their life to their fullest.

And if you have a story, share your story

and know that there are other people that you

are helping within sharing.

HAZARD: And I understand, you know, in fashion,

so much of the job is projecting confidence

and owning the runway.

And I'm wondering what have you found

to be the differences between

the kind of confidence it takes to be successful

in that and the different kind of confidence that it takes

to be on a storytelling stage

and share something that's so personal

and potentially vulnerable?

(chuckles): Well, not having to speak,

it's really easy, super easy,

and then having to be on the stage and speak to people,

that's where the nerves come in, where it's like, okay,

I have to... okay, I'm gonna tell something,

I'm going to say something, am I gonna remember my words?

And sometimes you forget your words,

but it feels so rewarding to be able to tell the stories

that I've been telling.

This is just another level,

its evolution from, you know,

where I was to-- where I am right now.

And the story that you're sharing with us this evening,

what would you most want the audience

and the viewers to take away from it?

To have faith in yourself, to know that

there is somebody out there for everybody,

that loving yourself is the most important thing

and then the love that you deserve,

and the love that you, you know, that you want

and that you need will come to you.

I was the muse of several

amazing clothing designers in Boston.

I was the right size and shape for their garments

and I felt like a doll when they'd dress me.

I'd get a charge and bring their clothes to life,

ripping every runway I stepped my feet on

with grace and poise.

And when they moved, I followed

to places like Connecticut,

New York, Philadelphia,

up and down the east coast doing things I never imagined.

Each experience was amazing.

I did print work, videos,

commercials, and I thought that it would stop

when I had children, but it didn't.

Some incorporated my children.

When I turned 30ish,

during a routine physical seeing my internist,

I explained to her that I had been feeling

sharp pains in my breasts.

They felt like they were engorged with milk.

So she examined me and then she sent me

for several other exams with no findings.

But then she called me back into her office

a few days before Thanksgiving.

I knew things weren't okay because her eyes were red

and tears began to well

as soon as she stepped in the exam room.

She told me that I had cancer in my right breast

and everything after that was drowned out

with loud ringing in my ears.

She sent me to see some specialists

and I decided to have a mastectomy

because I didn't want it in or on me anymore.

It served its purpose as a source of nourishment,

sex appeal, and pleasure.

So, although I had become comfortable

with who I am and how I look,

being single and dating with scars

was a challenge for me.

I struggled with relationship for fear of rejection,

putting too much weight on what I'd lost.

So my friends and even my therapist

said that I shouldn't share that information so soon.

But I wanted to be upfront and honest.

So I dated with hesitation,

not knowing what I wanted

and settling for whatever.

Five to six years into having the scar,

I immersed myself into my children,

work, and things that I was passionate about.

I remember my children just got

sick and tired of me being under them.

We were watching "Despicable Me Two" once

and I started to sniffle when the main characters

were at the wedding altar.

My children went in on me and they said that

you really need to get out, get a life.

And just as I did,

I was diagnosed with cancer in my left breast.

I became fearful and doubtful all over again.

But I knew deep down that God had me.

So sometime during my healing process,

I received a friend request from a guy.

I scrolled up and down his page

and I accepted because he looked familiar.

We message from time to time

until he asked me out,

and me wanting to think for him rather than

allowing him to think for himself,

I said, "You don't want to go out with me.

I'm a breast cancer survivor."

To which he responded,

"I commend you for being a strong woman."

Not what I was expecting.

Followed by, "Without you, nothing is fantastic."

And then,

"You have the strength for more than just yourself.

I'm going to need you to rub off on me."

His lines were good, although he says they weren't lines.

I said yes, we hung out,

and he was sweet and very handsome.

Something about him felt comfortable and familiar

and at the time I was clueless to the rules of engagement,

so I might have gotten a little too comfortable with him.

But not once did I feel less than in his presence.

So my final reconstructive surgery time came

and I was terrified all over again.

And I had a strong woman moment.

Rather than push him away, like I had done several other men,

I invited him over.

I remember I was wearing my favorite ankara lapa--

that's the African cloth that you wear like a beach wrap.

And I prepared him for what I was about to do.

And in a take-me-or-leave-me moment--

more like take me, you better not leave me--

I dropped my lapa,

exposing my scarred,

nipple-less breasts.

He looked at me and said,

"Is that all?" and smiled.

And then he hugged me

and all of my fears fell at my feet.

I felt so safe

in his arms in that moment.

And then I started to think, "I like this guy."

No, no, no, I actually

really like this dude and he knows it.

So here I am,

nine years after my diagnosis

and I realized that my breasts

aren't the only thing that define me as a woman.

And learning to love, honor, and respect myself,

I'm learning to accept and reciprocate

love, honor, and respect.

ABDULAI: My name is Mustapha Abdulai.

I grew up in Ghana

and moved to the U.S. for graduate studies.

I currently live in Framingham, Massachusetts,

and I work as the director for

adults residential services

at the Guild for Human Services.

What have you learned from storytelling so far?

ABDULAI: Storytelling, it allows you

to project your inner self,

it allows you to connect with other people

because you come to realize that

your story is somehow connected to other people's stories.

And for me, that's when I said

when it comes to stories, to their telling,

you never walk alone.

I'm just wondering what your upbringing in Ghana--

how that prepared you for the challenges

that you face here in America?

For me, it was always about hard work,

that you were taught to work hard and to survive.

And so when I think about myself

and my... whatever I've gone through,

I always believe that no matter how difficult

the road is, that there will always be a light

at the end of the tunnel.

And those are things that I think growing up

and looking around my surroundings

and whenever I get opportunity that I count myself either

as fortunate, I count it as a blessing,

and I try to make the best out of it.

It was a bittersweet feeling, sitting at the airport in Ghana

waiting to board a flight to Washington D.C.

Even though my original destination

should be Boston, Massachusetts,

for graduate studies.

I was accompanied by a large family.

Everyone was excited and you could see

it was a son of the soil.

Their own was heading to the U.S.

I was anxious and I was thrilled at the same time.

But, to be frank, I was more worried

than anything else because my uncle, who was supposed to...

who lives in Massachusetts, who was supposed to host me,

have stopped picking up my calls.

Three days to this, to this day

and I have no place to live.

I'm about getting on the flight

and I'm not sure where I was going to stay.

My brother came up with this idea that

he had some friends, he believes they live

in maybe New York, in Virginia.

He wasn't even sure,

but he managed to convince me

to get onto the flight to Washington D.C.,

while he goes to negotiate to see if they could find

a place or they could accommodate me.

And I kept wondering, I was anxious.

I kept going to the bathroom because I wasn't sure

what was going to happen next.

I kept asking myself, "What if?"

What if the people that he's gonna...

he could not reach them or they will not pick up his call

or his negotiation fails,

what if they don't have the capacity to host

another person in their house?

And I only have $200 on me, given to me by my godmother.

The flight landed.

I have not heard from my brother,

and there was no way to call him.

I sat at the airport for close to eight hours.

And while I sit, I look in the face of every Black person

or person of color--

hoping they know me or I know them

or we have some kind of connection

so they could bring me home.

I was wondering, was this a good idea?

Maybe I should go to the authorities and tell them

to put me back on the next flight and bring me home.

But I also kept wondering... that would be so disappointing.

I cannot feel such... my family.

Everyone who was looking up to me,

hoping that this is a dream.

They were so excited for me.

So I sat at the airport.

I was so famished, I was so hungry,

at some point I thought of,

maybe I should take my money and buy something,

but I was-- this is my life

and I didn't want to spend that money.

And the worst part of it, it was so hidden in a point

that I literally have to go half naked

if I want to reach that money, so it was just not an idea.

I sat down for a while, I dozed off, on and off

and literally would open an eye and, of course,

keep looking at people-- if someone ever knew me.

At one point in time I dozed off for a little while

and woke up and saw a gentleman with a placard

with the name, "Mustapha," written on it.

Obviously my brother's plan worked, at this point.

Wow!

But I heard a gentleman shouting, Mufasa, Mufasa,

Mufasa, even though he was holding a placard with Mustapha.

But hey, I couldn't be angry with him.

All I could do was just be excited and wave.

He walked up to me and he introduced himself

as Adae and we spoke for a while and he said

the host family had sent him to pick me up.

So he just closed from work and then he arrived.

He picked me up, we drove for about an hour,

and then we go to Haymarket, Virginia.

I was given food and you can imagine,

I shoved everything down my throat

like I had just been released from prison.

I had a conversation with the head of the home,

Uncle Philip, and he was such a firm believer in education.

He was so excited to see that

I'd been able to get a scholarship

even though it was 80%,

without accommodation,

and of course I only had $200 in my pocket.

He was worried that if I head to Boston,

I could become homeless unless a miracle happens.

He would leave for work and come back and wondered

what could be done at this point.

And I got so anxious every day

because I was wondering whether a plan will come up.

One day he comes back and says, you know what,

I know a family that lives in Massachusetts,

but I haven't spoken to them for like four years.

And he didn't even know where to find their phone number

or any way to contact them.

Until at the point in time he kept going through his stuff

and then he found an old diary

that had a phone number in there.

He called a few times and he leaves voice messages.

And at one point he got someone on the phone

and they arrange a time to talk,

and they talk about the entire situation,

the need that I have.

It took a while to convince them,

but this family decided

to have me come live with them.

It was such a blessing.

The good part of it was that the family lived

in the same town as my school.

So it was, it was like a double do.

It was a jackpot for me.

The joy of my face was just, like, you can't imagine.

It was time to go to Boston and it's,

it's a 15-hour journey from Virginia to Boston,

but I could care less, I was just moved

by sheer determination, I was so excited to arrive.

I arrived at South Station in Boston

and was met by these two elderly women.

They were laughing, giggling,

they were smiling, walking towards me,

so excited to see me.

But I looked at them and was like,

was I supposed to smile back?

I was more confused, they were identical twins.

I could barely tell one from the other.

I moved into their home.

We live together, it was so beautiful.

We shared moments.

Of course these sisters had their own fights,

they had their own misunderstanding,

and I had to be as neutral as I could be

because I was the only one in their home.

Someday I sit down and it's like...

I came to America to study peace and conflict studies

and it was as if my practicum was handed to me from day one.

In Ghana, family is all about blood.

But for me, it's not just blood,

it's the people that you connect with,

and these women became part of my family.

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