On Drifting Back, and Looking Ahead Part 1
When I was writing my Belief Series regarding my faith and belief journey thus far, I got an amazing and timely message from a friend. In that message they shared encouragement and support, but they also shared a story.
Not only is my friend’s story impactful, but it is very well written. More than anything- more than facts and statistics- it is the power of our stories which moves hearts and shifts perspectives. And so I asked my friend if they would mind sharing their writing on my blog and, lucky for us all, they agreed to do so. This week I will be sharing my friend’s 3 part story and I hope you will join us, comment, and share. (My friend is writing anonymously for privacy. The names in their story have been changed.)
We are on our way to K-Ville again. We’ve taken to driving over in the evenings when we’re done with our shifts. Bailey is driving; it’s her silver Honda we’re in. We take turns riding in the front because it’s a pain in the ass to smoke in the back of a two-door car. Tonight, Justin is up there beside Bailey, in charge of the music, and I’m in the seat behind with my legs stretched out sideways across the car.
Karate is always playing on the stereo, and tonight is no different. Their songs have become the soundtrack of our time here. The words have to elbow their way through the thrumming highway winds that are filling the car with white noise: In friends' cars and outside of Irish bars
And underneath the same stars ...
Will shine on me when this all works out like you planned
And I can tell you that I understand, 'cause God don't make things that you can rearrange.
We make it to “our” table at an avant-garde-ish coffee house that’s become our de-facto church. K-Ville has a big state school, but the college kids usually don’t make it into the old part of town, so it’s pretty peaceful. The coffee house and its patio area are up against an outer wall of a huge, repurposed coffee factory that looms over the space. There is a massive B&M Coffee logo painted near the top of the factory wall in big block letters. It’s worn and faded enough that you can see a hint of what had been painted there before, almost like a double exposure.
I look across the table at Bailey. She’s got her auburn hair pulled back with one of those American Eagle half-bandanas that everyone was wearing back in the late 90s. She’s smiling. I’m probably in love with her. It seems like she feels the same way, but it somehow doesn’t seem important right now. The three of us are just happy to be in each other’s proximity during our short time here.
There’s some mild commotion over toward the opposite side of the patio, on a small stage. A cadre of intellectuals are setting up an art installation. It appears to be a puppet show featuring a truly bizarre collection of naked and dismembered dolls. I don’t think we’re cool enough to be patrons of these particular artists, but it’s fun to pretend.
There are about twenty of us total; all of us are between eighteen and twenty-two. It’s been a few weeks since we all showed up to join the summer staff of the outreach ministry here in J City. We’re all settling into our roles and drifting into loose cliques. There are a couple of us from other countries, but we’re mostly just middle-class college students. A couple of local thirtysomethings run operations at the ministry center along with a small collection of volunteers. We also have a foreman who coordinates the home repair teams.
For some inexplicable reason, Shawn, who’s the director of the home repair ministry, is telling us about his personal rule about never being alone with a woman other than his wife. He doesn’t say “rule,” though, he says “conviction.” I find out later that this is part of some set of rules for men that originated with Bible Belt hero Billy Graham. “I’m glad someone finally has the courage to stand up to all these terrible women,” is what I should have sarcastically croaked, but I’m not quite to that point in my feminist journey.
I’m not sure what Shawn’s cutoff age is for womanhood, but he seems to be alone pretty frequently with the college-age women (and men) here. I don’t think something shady is going on. This guy is just a neverending font of tone-deaf hypocrisy. It follows him like the cloud of dust around that Pigpen kid from the Peanuts comics.
Shawn has one of those drawls that’s too high-pitched for his frame and makes you think he could be a disguised septuagenarian church lady with a fan. In his case, it’s less endearing and more creepy because he’s overly familiar with us. He talks to us like we’re his nieces and nephews, but, at the same time, like he wishes he didn’t have to talk to us. It’s unsettling.
Some folks in this part of Appalachia are extremely poor. It’s not entirely uncommon to see a family group three generations deep living in the same single wide trailer. I’m assigned to one of these homes later in the summer; six adults living in about 850 square feet. It’s the most abject poverty I’ll ever see. This week though, one of the volunteer teams from the ministry is putting a roof on Shawn’s house. Some of the others mention that a team is supposed to build him a deck later in the summer. It doesn’t feel quite right from where I’m sitting.
I’m just getting back to the ministry center; Sol sees me and comes over to chat. He’s got this thick Ugandan accent, and he’s dressed in an untucked polo shirt and khaki pants – just like he is every day. He’s been exhausted lately because he’s been waking up at four in the morning to watch World Cup Soccer games.
Jacob and Sol are tasked with taking all of the donations from the roadside drop-off shed up to the ministry center. The ministry is much like a makeshift Goodwill mixed with a food pantry. All of that sits above a sizable garage full of building supplies and tools used by the home repair outreach arm of the ministry.
Sol’s accent makes everything that comes out of his slight frame sound heavy and important. He says “Do you know, M, what makes the world go ‘round?” I’m entranced by the gravitas and expecting some profound truth straight from Kampala, but he smiles and says “Fat. Bottomed. Girls.”
I don’t think I’m as gullible as I could be, all things considered, but he still gets me every time.
Jacob is watching from a few feet away and cracks a smile as he’s pulling his blonde, dreaded hair back. It’s well into summer, and the humidity is stifling this evening. It’s obvious now that they’d been listening to classic rock all day in the old, two-tone, brown Chevy that was part of the ministry’s fleet. Sol loves Queen almost as much as he loves soccer.
These days, they tell me I look so much like my grandfather. They tell me how proud he’d be. I wish I could remember him better. My aunts have always been pretty supportive, but I don’t talk to them as much as I should. My Grandma, ever my champion, extends this grace that I don’t deserve; I feel like she hugs me like she’d hug him. They all do. It makes me remember being small and full of joy trying to wear his cowboy boots. They’re so big they go up over my knees, comically huge compared to five-year-old me.
In 2002 though, he doesn’t even look like himself. His body is curled up in a gentle way on the hospital bed; it’s a strangely intimate position you don’t often see a grandparent in. He is dying. My mom and aunts are concerned about me, but I mostly just feel uncomfortable. I’ll look back on the memory that’s set here and see a child standing by the bed, even though I’m actually about to graduate from college.
I won’t witness him die. The funeral will be a blur. I remember glimpses of the interment when my partner takes me over to the cemetery. She nudges me to go a couple times a year. We clean up his gravestone and leave flowers. She’s great like that; it’s good for me to remember.
As he’s in bed, slipping away, I’m set to go on a trip to volunteer at a home repair and community outreach ministry with some friends from college. I shouldn’t be, but I’m concerned I won’t get to go, as he could pass any day. My interest in making and fixing and helping is because of his influence. It seems ironic, but maybe just in an Alanis Morisette way. It works out that I’m able to go on the trip. Later the same year, after I’ve graduated college, I decide to spend the summer working at the same ministry. I look at it as a way to honor what he’d meant to me. I sometimes remember him as stoic and stern, which was sometimes true, but it’s easy to replace that with the memory of the joy on his face watching me toddle around in his boots.
Stayed tuned for Part 2 coming on Wednesday!