My gracious, little blog, it's been quite some time since you and I talked. I have plenty of excuses lined up if you'd like them, but honestly, I'm ready to just move forward.
Are you ready?
During Closing Retreat for Amate House, each of the three houses spent a week on the shore of Lake Michigan. That week, that creepy little house in the woods, that rocky shore, that living room carpet, that king-size bed, that silverware drawer, that lake water...I will be carrying all of these things and so much more into my next adventure.
I'm still at a loss for words on how to communicate this past year to those who weren't actively a part of it. I have tried. Time and again, I've tried. But I've almost resigned myself to believing that the art of story and language simply won't cut it this time. Perhaps this past year and everything it was and was not...perhaps it was all for me. Then again, it's only "all for me" until that "me" goes elsewhere in the world and changes it because of the changes she experienced there. So it really wasn't all for me after all.
I'm making my own head spin. In any case, that's not the point of this post. The point of this post is to share a little bit of this past year with you. During Closing Retreat, we were tasked with writing a five-minute Witness Talk to sum up our year with Amate, which we shared with our community. It was an exhausting undertaking to say the least, but what I eventually eeked out is transcribed below. I hope it will tide you over (and me, too!) until I know what else to say.
I Am Not Needed: A Witness
I have seen the face of God. I have seen the face of God in a gap-toothed fifty-year-old man who thinks he's a Vietnam War veteran, has unrivaled affection for the color yellow, knows all of the dance steps to Thriller, can throw his voice to sound like Darth Vader's when you least expect it, and calls me his angel.
My relationship with Kevin is my milemarker for this year. When I first met him, on my first day of work at West Suburban, he didn't really stand out to me. As weeks passed and I fought to fit somewhere--anywhere--in the agency, I began to notice him. He often sat at the table with the other clients, but he couldn't have conversations with them. He would talk himself in nonsensical circles around being fifteen, jobs in Chicago, taking care of people, being underwater, money, and a handful of other things. But you couldn't be sure that even a single sentence of what came out of his mouth was going to make a lick of sense. He would do it even if no one was listening.
He was over six feet tall, and as one of the only clients who could and would ambulate of his own volition, I avoided him. In a very vague way, I was afraid of him because I couldn't understand him. But then one day I found myself sitting at a table with him and one of the Certified Nursing Assistants in a room separate from all of the other clients. He began talking, and he didn't stop. It was probably the most lucid I had seen him to that point, or perhaps it was just the first time I actually listened. He talked about being fifteen and watching his father get shot. He talked about how he had to go to Chicago to get a job so he could take care of his family. He went on and on and on. At first, I hung on everything he said. But then I realized that I couldn't be sure he was telling the truth.
I looked at him as he babbled and tried to make words connect to thoughts in his addled brain. And I made a decision. I decided that I would take him on faith. In our sharing covenant back home, I had written that we should not deny each others' realities. Why should I treat Kevin any differently?
I began to respond to his tone and would pick up on what felt like key words in his unbroken monologue to ask questions. I searched his eyes as he spoke and he stared right back and let me feel his meaning on some inherent level. I didn't understand him at all, but suddenly, I knew him. I saw him as completely as he could share himself with me. And I knew him.
From that day on, Kevin and I were as thick as thieves. I could count on getting smiles out of him. He would tell me I was beautiful entirely unprompted. Some days he would say things to me that frightened me. He would tell me I was "the only one." I didn't know what it meant, and I couldn't even make any conjectures about it. After a while, when I was given the responsibility of some desk work, I would look up from the grant I was writing and find him watching me from the other side of the room. I would smile at him when our eyes met, and then he would mouth, "Are you okay?" And I would nod, "Yes," and mouth back "Thank you." He would mouth back "I love you." And I would just smile at him as the tears welled up in my eyes. I cried because I believed him. Almost more than anyone who has said those words to me in my life, I believed Kevin when he told me he loved me.
Kevin's care for me became something I could rely on. He became my role model for sincere authentic empathy. The mouthed conversation would happen regularly. Sometimes I would initiate it by asking him if he was okay first. He always was. "Oh yeah!" he would say as if he had never been anything other than okay.
My relationship with Kevin drew open my relationship with all of the other clients, too. I learned from him that I could communicate with each of them if I was patient and observant and found a way to reach them.
But there were days I couldn't reach Kevin. Some days his meaning was too far away from his words and he could feel it. He wouldn't make eye contact. He would stand up and sit down in several chairs around the room and just prattle to himself. I could feel his agitation from wherever I was in the room. I began to really comprehend just how much of a gift it is to be able to think about what you want to say, say it, and feel as if your meaning and your words connected. Not only that, but that your meaning was understood. He made me thankful for God, for the fact that I could trust He knew exactly what I meant, knew the very straining of my heart no matter how poorly or clumsily I spoke.
Trying to understanding Kevin started to feel like trying to understand God. I knew on some inherent level I could know him. I knew there were certain rhythms we could both find that would align us like prayer. Dancing with Kevin was one of those rhythms. If I extended my hand to him, I could trust he would take it. I would raise his arm just a little and he would understand I wanted him to twirl me. I don't know how to put words around what it felt like to let his body revel in rhythms tucked deep inside of him. The best I can do is to say that it made me think of each of us and our prisons and how we have those moments of grace where we release each other and set each other free, if only for a moment. For a man whose memory forsakes him all day long, I could only wonder what it meant for him or felt like to remember exactly how to move and lead a dance partner. I can't wait to ask him someday when he and I are both no longer on this side of paradise.
That day will likely come much sooner for Kevin than it will for me. I found out a few months ago that Kevin has prostate cancer. As if his body hadn't already betrayed him enough, it was now mutating and making him suffer from pain he has no way of expressing. I found out the day he began radiation therapy. He wasn't on the bus, and when he was dropped off later in the day, he looked like he hadn't slept for weeks. As he stood looking out the window at the red sports car across the street that he liked to tell me belonged to his brother, my co-worker and I watched him. She said, with a hint of anger in her voice, "I don't understand how he could be double-whammied like that." I said nothing because I had just been thinking that my God was no different now that I knew Kevin had cancer than He was when I had laid down to sleep the night before.
Kevin became harder and harder to reach in my last days of work. He became more and more paranoid. He wouldn't sit on the bus to go home. He would tell me, "I'm upset with myself." Every day at the end of the day before Kevin's beautiful young wife would pick him up, I'd lay my hands on his shoulders and look into his eyes as I prayed silently, "I know my God can heal you." On days when he wouldn't look me in the eye, I'd just rub his back and pray the same. After praying, I would tell him how much I loved him, how good of a man he was, and how much wisdom I had gleaned from him. Somewhere beneath all of his suffering, I knew he heard and felt my prayers and love.
When I first started working at West Suburban, I struggled because I needed to be needed and I wasn't even wanted. But Kevin taught me, and community repeated over and over, that what I actually needed was not to be needed, but that I need to be known. And now, I know I can be known. To the depths of my soul, I can be known. And I am known. I will never have to ask for anything more.