June 10, 2014

Searching the Obvious

I arrive just in time. The blue-and-yellow building, a small nursing home in Austin, Texas, is right where Terry said it would be. I open the front door and walk in as if I have known this place forever, yet it’s my first visit.

I walk down a corridor where the carpet ends and once-white tile marks the path to the chapel. These are the stained-glass windows she described. Terry is greeting those gathered for worship. I stand at the door, not wanting to interrupt, but she sees me. Her hands touch a chair at the very front of the chapel, and in her soft voice, mixed with tears, she says: “I saved you a seat.”

* * *

I look at my boarding pass and double-check the seat number. Yes, this is my assigned seat. But somebody has already made themselves at home in it. I try to act quickly and kindly, so the line of passengers behind me will not get impatient. Bad idea. The man sitting in my assigned seat is not going to move. He curses at me, at the plane, at the overhead compartments, and even the seat belt gets a few words.

Two flight attendants step in; one deals with the angry passenger, and the other takes my hand as we move to the galley/kitchen area, where I no longer obstruct traffic. He apologizes profusely, promising to find me a better seat. I feel scared and humiliated, and contemplate getting off the plane and taking another flight. The man in my assigned seat is getting louder. I peek into the aisle just in time to see him escorted off the plane. The flight attendant sighs.

“I would say you are welcome to go to your assigned seat. But honestly, I wouldn’t want to sit now!”

Just then a faint voice manages to make the perilous journey from a stranger’s lips past careless passengers walking by and the noise of luggage being thrown in overhead compartments.

“You can sit here.”

* * *

For the next four hours I am grateful for my seat next to my new friend, Terry. She works at a nursing home in Austin. She is the janitor there, and sometimes helps deliver food to the residents. Terry is returning from visiting her sister. Terry tells me that her sister is normal, not slow. She laughs and tells me she’s happy being a few steps slower than others. It gives her time to appreciate what people hurry past, such as beautiful trees, inviting benches surrounded by flowers, birds, light breezes.

From a plastic bag Terry pulls out a Bible, her grandmother’s Bible, a gift from her sister. Terry will soon lead a worship service at the nursing home. She will sing songs and read favorite psalms. She knows the favorite psalms of almost all the residents at the nursing home. She prays God will help her read faster. I watch her hold the Bible, probably lost in childhood memories.

Terry asks what my favorite psalm is. Psalm 91. She opens the Bible, says she’ll practice. I ask her to practice now. She looks at me and smiles. We are in no hurry. Her fingers guide the reading, and I see how calloused her hands are. Her reading is slow but earnest, and I savor every word. The joy in her life moves me, and I quickly wipe away a tear.

At the airport I wave goodbye as Terry leaves in a special van for those who are disabled.

* * *

Through the worship service Terry has led us in song and psalms. She is a blessing to everyone here. As the service ends, Terry shares a story: one day on an airplane a man sat next to her. He saw her deformities, cursed, stood up, walked down the aisle, and sat in another seat. My seat! My assigned seat! He didn’t want to sit next to her.

Terry says that day she learned to love another psalm. I hear her voice, strong, clear, an answered prayer. But she is not reading, she is reciting Psalm 91: “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’”