Tuesday, I awoke with the exciting and slightly paralyzing thought of playing football with Bruce and his friends at the weekly ‘Dads & Lads’ match. I had been playing a weekly game in World’s Fair Park back in Knoxville for a couple months, hoping that I wouldn’t get effectively steamrolled when I got the chance to play. Still, I was the obese American in the pack, and the calf muscles of these athletic Scots began to remind me of Ninja Turtles that I used to have. I was a little apprehensive about the match, feeling like the kid eyeing that last present and hoping it’s the coveted Lego model and not the knit sweater. But first things first, we had to dig a trench in Bruce’s backyard.
For those who think that missionary duties are glamorous endeavors filled with mass conversions and successful ESL classes, you haven’t dug a trench. The idea was to control runoff and keep it out of the conservatory, the back wall of which was half-buried in the side of a hill. The problem was that we began to dig up history as we went along, finding the cumbersome remnants of an old set of stairs right where our trench was supposed to be. The romantic in me decided that we had found the last Archbishop of Canterbury’s private whiskey cellar. But as we tried to pry it up, my back quickly countered with the argument that it was merely a heavy stone wall, meant with all authority to stay put. So, we dug half a trench, and commenced with puzzling over what was to become of the Archbishop’s whiskey cellar. I felt bad for Bruce, knowing myself what it was like to have partial yard projects staring at me from around the lawn. But he said it was best to leave it for the moment, and we went to eat as I begged to borrow clothes for football.
It should be noted that Bruce and Carolyn’s conservatory becomes the dining room of whatever group is present. With the six of us, Bruce and Carolyn, their two boys Aiden and Ewan, and Bruce’s mum Rose, it became something of a tight squeeze (but not nearly as tight as the seventeen-person American team in March). The benefit of this, however, is that Carolyn’s cooking far outstrips the greasy spoon options of the chip shops and kabob stands in town (though I love the greasy spoon options). The table is usually festooned with vegetables, bread, juice, and some sort of ingenious creation of her own. I will never eat tuna salad again without thinking that I should put corn in it.
Bruce loaned me a pair of trainers and some shorts and off we went to pick up Richard, Gary, and Johnny before heading to the athletic center. I have to say, the weekly football games in Knoxville (with foreign exchange students who had all had footballs in the womb) paid off. After I had forcibly removed my liver in the locker room to make space for more lung capacity, I didn’t get too terribly winded. I actually scored a couple of goals, and felt pretty good about myself, having earned the great American victory of not appearing totally foolish.
Here is where we lose our way for a moment, as my memory is a little cloudy. I remember going to Liz Donald’s flat on Roseangle down near the west end. Liz has been a dear friend and an honest and kindred spirit to me ever since Ted and I stayed with her last March. But this time, I got to meet her son Aaron, who, if he is not a genius, could certainly pass for one. He is as interesting a person to talk to as you could ever meet. We spent nearly an hour simply talking about the animated works of Miyazaki and the Japanese films Yojimbo, The Hidden Fortress, and The Seven Samurai, though I don’t recall the director’s name. Aaron is the other person on Earth to whom Japanese classic film is interesting. Others from our group gradually drifted to Number 38 Roseangle, and I decided, as I often did, that I would rather be off by myself. I don’t remember much after that.
I do recall that we had later taken a bus out to some part of town to meet Tammy McKay’s mother, sister, and brother. And her dog, Patch, who seemed to be glad to see both Mindy and myself. It was at her mother’s flat that she asked us if we would “like to go meet the blind and deaf lady.” I was slightly aghast at this carnival-barker diction, but I have never known Tammy to be politically correct, or calm, or speak perfect English. Also, I have never known her to lack in caring for someone. I walked down the dismal stairs and through a banged-up door into the flat across the hall. Trash bags were sitting in the hallway, and none of the lights were on. I shouldered my way in among Ted, Mindy, Eric, and Todd, who were standing in a bedroom in the blanched light of the afternoon that filtered in through a dirty window. On the floor, a woman sat on the edge of a mattress, while Tammy knelt beside her, talking to us and drawing with her fingers on the woman’s hands. The woman’s name was Fiona.
Fiona was not born blind and deaf. I’m not aware of the circumstances in which she lost her sight and her hearing. I don’t know if she counts it a blessing, but her un-wholeness is certainly the avenue through which blessing came to us, standing there watching miracles happen before our eyes, because Fiona was the picture of joy. Tammy, who had taken the time and money to recently buy a book and learn how to communicate with Fiona, squatted down beside her and told her our names. Watching them talk, sorting through the frustration like they were friends putting a puzzle together, we saw them full of love and patience. They persevered where I might have given up and resigned myself to bitterness.
Ted asked if we could pray with Fiona, and she said that it would be alright. So I knelt down and put a hand on her shoulder as we prayed, but I could find no petition, only thanks. Thanks that I had been given this humbling gift of being present for a dance between two worlds – the world that is my own, and the world that Fiona has access to beyond my Veil of Unsight. She walks unhindered by her eyes and ears, and left only with the inner Light of the Holy Spirit. She got up to hug us all, helped by Tammy, before we left. I put my arms around her tiny, wiry frame and felt her grin vibrate in the air above my right shoulder. She is privy to sights I will never know this side of death, this side of Paradise. Only in small rapturous moments in music, in seeing that Renoir of the woman in the sundress with the umbrella, in seeing the conflict and harmony of lines in a good photograph, can I brush up against that sight and sound to which she has an unencumbered gateway. She was a wellspring.
Tammy had also convinced us to go to Cadets with her that evening. The Sea Cadets are like a marriage between ROTC and the Scouts. They have no connection with the Royal Navy. It’s merely a program to ingrain discipline and responsibility into young people that sometimes have no other paradigm against which to judge right and wrong. We didn’t know it when we were standing outside the fence in the cold evening air waiting to be let in, but Tammy was to receive an award that day. We were ushered in to the main room – bearing décor suspiciously reminiscent of a British warship – and into an upstairs gallery to watch the proceedings of the assembly before being led on a tour of the facility by Tammy and her friend, being shown the boats, and having a lesson on tying a Spanish bowline.
The C.O. himself was something of a cross between Wilford Brimley and a serious Richard Attenborough. He was everything you could ever want in a gym teacher, except he carried himself with that famous high-born class that allowed him to inspire healthy fear into these kids with only his ample presence. At the closing assembly, as we looked on from the gallery, he called them to attention and admonished them with words like, “Rubbish!” which made us snicker under our breath, because it’s such a great word to bark out at people. He called out names a few at a time, and Tammy was the last (I think he meant it that way because we were there, bless him). She had a hard time hiding her grin beneath a stoic exterior as he handed her a small red patch with black bordering and shook her hand. I wasn’t aware of it then, but we were the only ones who had come to see her receive this small piece of embroidery for which she had worked so hard. We were her family by invitation. I hope I don’t soon forget it.Part IPart IIPart III