10 years ago,
I knew that he was different. He couldn’t play dodgeball like us. And he sat on the side to watch while we ran around the playground. Occasionally, if the ball bounced the wrong way and flew towards him, we would frantically wave our arms and call out for him to duck. I wasn’t blind to the legs he physically had but wasn’t able to use. But that didn’t stop us from being friends. We did handstands together and he gave me his crutches to play with. I always skipped over to him to pull him out from wherever he was hiding and challenged him to a game of chess because he was the only one I could beat. And he always sat with me, cross-legged on the grass, while everyone else left to go play basketball. We would watch the other kids and talk about the clouds and the funny things in life.
10 years later, I see him again in a hospital room and we could no longer recognize each other. I have become taller and my face is no longer so chubby. He is a lot more fit compared to the scrawny kid he was then and a hint of facial hair is peeping out on the side of his face.
But some things haven’t changed – I am still pale and he is still super tanned. So when we shake hands again, two contrasting colors touch and seem to blend together as the sun shines through the hospital window. And there are the legs. They have remained weak and unused – wrinkled by the congenital disorder that has left them looking exactly like before.
10 years ago, I liked a boy who loved to play basketball. But he would never talk to me, or even look at me. So, while he played ball with everyone else, I would sit on the grass next to the court and watch him. Even when my friend sitting besides me pulled on my sleeves to go play chess inside, I always found an excuse to stay. A couple summers later on our first missions trip in Houston, all the good karma I had gathered in my life worked its magic and I was assigned to prepare dessert with this boy. As I stood next to him, silently beating the eggs while he chatted with another girl, I somehow felt content. And that quiet giddiness lasted me the next eight years.
10 years later, too much has happened to go back. We have become best friends. And we have both become lovers of Jesus. I tell him that I want him to be happy, but I have become the source of his unhappiness. It seems strange now that I used to notice everything about him, and that when we played hide-and-seek, I would hide close to him in the dark because it made me feel safe.
After all these years, the memories of them two have begun to blur together. It’s practically impossible to think back on my friend without remembering him innocently watching the others play basketball while I had a secret agenda. And any recollection of me bashfully hoping that the shining star of the game would glance over at me, even if only once, would always fade into the crippled friend next to me, urging me to go inside and play chess. While he consistently catered to me and my spoiled demands, my head was always turned the other way, glancing at someone else.
10 years ago, my friend was so good. He never tattled on anyone who bullied him. He always kept his smile while I was the one who needed to become angry in his place and went to push the other kids down for him. The boy, on the other hand, was a typical cool boy. When he wasn’t busy ignoring my existence, he was laughing along whenever his best friend made fun of me. Every time he got into a fight and stormed off, I ran through all the rooms looking for him to make sure he wasn’t hurt. But when I did find him, I would freeze by the door, and wait for someone else to come and comfort him.
10 years later, the boy has become so good, so good that I know I don’t deserve him. But my friend is no longer the kid who sat next to me, willing to do all my biddings. I hear that he has become the prodigal son. When he ran away from home, he inflicted onto his parents the pain his biological parents inflicted onto him when they abandoned him at a train station. He became bitter and depressed, angry at the world for his life. And along the way, he met the wrong people, did the wrong things, and ended up at the wrong places. His parents were devastated because for years, they couldn’t find him and had no news of him. They prayed for him. We prayed for him. Finally he turned up, completely changed. And here he is, in the hospital room after surgery, a more hardened man.
The leaping between the two memories remind me of how enigmatic we all used to be. And so young. Young made it easy to cross the line, to have a penchant for all sorts of funny things in life, and to ask about each other’s broken pieces. Young allowed others to cross the line into my heart and kept me sprinting in search of someone who wouldn’t have done the same for me. But now, 10 years later, I am self-conscious of every moment I smile at the boy I used to like, pinching myself for any lingering ambiguity. And I can no longer grab my friend’s crutches and ask him what he liked and didn’t like about them. Instead, I have to pretend the crutches are non-existent, and that he is completely normal when the truth is that he’s not. But his abnormality is so incredibly beautiful and yet, I don’t know how to tell him.
These 10 years certainly have been ephemeral, and time has never bothered to slow down its pace for any of us. When I finally spoke the truth to the boy who used to be my everything, it hurt a bit as time rewound itself back to that segment of our lives. And on the next day, when my friend, the one in the hospital room, caught my eyes as I glanced at the outline of his weakened legs underneath the hospital sheets, there was a moment of mutual silence, filled with another sort of unspoken truth. Then he broke it by asking me who was better at chess. I smiled and told him we were equally as good. But this was a lie, because he was the one laying in the hospital room. As if he wasn’t capable of handling the devastating news that I was better at chess than him.