I’d like you to meet my friend John:
Mike and I met John four years ago through my mom (you know, the Volunteer of the Year), who met him through Bridge Ministries several years prior to that. Bridge Ministries connects persons with disabilities with several volunteers to create a “Circle of Friends” to hang out with once a month. Though Mike and I approached this as a service opportunity, we quickly realized upon meeting John that we would never feel like we were “serving;” he is just our buddy whom we take to Mariner’s games, bowling and mini-golf.
Being friends with John has taught me more about selflessness, compassion and love than a Lifetime movie could hold, but I won’t press play on that montage. Given that, one would think that learning from John shouldn’t surprise me at this point, but it never ceases to.
Last weekend Mike and I, along with Steve (also in the circle of friends) checked the forecast and saw that it was supposed to be 95 degrees on our mini-golf day, but we reasoned that it wouldn’t matter much. We also had it on good authority that the course was easy to navigate and didn’t involve a lot of walking, so we left his wheelchair at his house. He took his walker because we thought there’d be places for him to sit and rest. He has a hard time standing or walking for longer than a few minutes, and he is 61, after all.
Not five minutes after we arrive we all look at each other wondering what we were thinking. We are sweating and we haven’t even stepped onto the green, and the route is very hilly. Fantastic.
There is no one on the course as far as we can see, and this is reason to celebrate because we know we will take longer than anyone else to play. The process goes something like this:
1. Help John walk away from his walker to approach the right place to tee off (do you tee off in mini golf?).
2. Support him as he stands, and try to position the club so that he can hit the ball the right way.
3. Point to where the green is headed because he can’t see very far.
4. Wait. We wait as he stands perfectly still before slowly moving the club back and hitting the ball.
4a. If he hits it hard enough to make it close to the cup, we position him back in his walker and begin the slow trudge to wherever his ball is.
4b. If he hits if off course or not hard enough, we go back to step #2.
All of this normally happens while a family of four waits behind us. Oh, and the three of us have to take our turns. Can’t forget that!
On this particular day we have barely started playing before a family of four (why is it always a family of four?) approaches the first hole and stands waiting for us to finish. My immediate reaction is always to abandon our game and let them play, because it is excruciating watching them wait for us as we move at a glacial pace. But today it occurs to me: why should we move aside? Shouldn’t John’s right to play be as respected as theirs? Mike and I discuss it and he walks over to the family to tell them that after this hole they can pass us and we will follow them. This seems like a fair compromise.
On the next hole, the three of us stand near John as he pulls his yellow golf ball from his pocket and slowly bends down to place it on the ground. He leans over, slowly, slowly, moving inches toward the ground. We mentally grit our teeth as we realize the group behind us is finishing their hole, and at this pace we will not be done with this round for another ten minutes. Steve finally says, “John, it’s OK, you can drop it on the ground, it won’t break,” and he’s laughing but he’s also visibly frustrated. We all are, and we’re only on the second hole.
The thing about John is that he can’t be rushed. He doesn’t operate on our timeline, and he doesn’t see the people behind us. He also can’t move any faster than he already is, so he’s doing the best he can. And what’s so hard for us, what seems impossible to us, is that there’s nothing we can do about it. We cannot change John, nor should we. He doesn’t need to hurry; we need to slow down.
I am a pusher. I like efficiency. I like speed. But none of those coins are accepted as currency in John’s world. And now that I’m in his world, I can hear how I sound.
“Great John! OK, your ball is right over here, we’re just gonna tap that right in and then we’re on to hole 4! Yep, that’s it, no don’t worry I got your walker you just hit that ball and we’ll be rolling right along.” I am forcing him to conform to my expectations, and even as I’m saying it, I detest myself. I know I’m thinking about the people behind us, wondering what they’re thinking. I know I’m thinking about my plans for the rest of the day. Why don’t I consider that this is John’s only plan of the day?
By the sixth hole we are all sweating, both from the heat and the effort it takes to maneuver John’s walker over the greens; the hills and pavement are making it difficult for John to get around. I ask John if he’s too warm and if he needs a rest, but even as the words are coming out I realize I have no way to help him if he answers yes.
He replies, “I’m hot,” and begins unbuttoning his shirt — but he doesn’t stop at button two or button three. Suddenly Mike realizes that he’s about to completely strip down and says, “John! Buddy! You can’t take off your shirt on the golf course!”
“But I’m hot!” John replies. “OK?” Then he laughs and laughs. He knows how we’ll react. I never give him enough credit for being sneaky. Of course, he still leaves his shirt totally unbuttoned, just to show us who’s boss.
I tell Mike that we are only on hole #9 — exactly half-way. There is no easy short-cut to go get some water to help us make it the rest of the way. Mike, my hero on this Earth, volunteers to run through the last nine holes, interrupting everyone along the way, to get us all water.
After deciding that we will quit after Mike gets back, we sit on the only bench we’ve found the entire day, and chat about the fact that I am wearing a huge black hat to protect my Irish baby skin. John looks over at me and says, “That looks like a witch’s hat. The witch of the West!” I slug him in the shoulder. “No, really, where’d you get that thing?” he asks. “A little place called J.Crew,” I reply, “though I should have checked the witch shop.” He laughs until he can’t breathe.
Soon Mike comes running back with three bottles of water and some M&M’s for J-Bone (Mike’s nickname for John) because there is no faster way to put a smile on the man’s face than chocolate. We are all delirious with happiness until we realize that we still have to get John back to the car. Mike is in full problem-solving mode, and says, “OK, if we can get John up this hillside, we will skip four holes and it’ll cut our time in half.” Steve and I look at him like he’s crazy. The hill is at a 45 degree angle and it’s dirt. There is no way a walker is going up that hill.
But Mike insists, and John shocks us all. As Mike and Steve carry him, he moves his feet as fast as he can. I bring up the rear by carrying the walker over my head. We are giving the patrons of the mini-golf course quite the entertainment.
As we lead John through the course backward, we are humbled again. We know we are doing what is best for our friend, but it’s embarrassing to ask every single family to let us walk through their course before they begin, so we can get John to air conditioning. All the kids stare at this man who is bent over his walker, sweating and moving at an unbearable pace. As I ask each one if we can pass through, I get the distinct feeling that God is using John to show me how my etiquette obsession has its limits. Serving John trumps accommodating others every time.
What surprised me most about this particular day were the people we encountered. We never saw one angry expression, not one impatient tapping foot. Despite the 95 degree heat, everyone was gracious. Mike and I felt the need to apologize constantly, to thank people for being so understanding, but they didn’t seem to mind. One even said, “I’m just enjoying this beautiful day, so please, take your time.”
I suppose that is what John silently says to us every time we see him: please, take your time. Life passes quickly, but that doesn’t mean that we have to move just as fast to keep up. He shows us the value of life not through brisk efficiency and sturdy accomplishments, but through finding joy in a mini-golf game. He knows it’s a gift.