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At the Reception

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That she might marry seemed so unlikely that the possibility never even arose. Her physical condition–she’s a quad, has been since birth–put marriage somehow out of the question in my mind, but not hers. Her Facebook page, I couldn’t help but notice, began to suggest there was an admirer, and love, holding on to another’s deep and committed affection, is a blessing, no matter what synods say. 

She’d been a student of mine, always accompanied by her mother, her sidekick in several classes–both lit and writing, a fine student. I’d recommended her for graduate school in fact, and I knew she’d graduated from a writing program not so far away. 

But that was years ago, so when a note appeared in my in-box, it came as a surprise; I hadn’t seen or heard from her for years. She was getting married, she explained, and she’d really like it if I came to the wedding and read something at her reception, part of the program.

I’ll admit it–I was stunned, even though her Facebook page had hinted a significant other had come upon the scene. 

The request itself wasn’t unusual. I’d read things at wedding receptions before, and felt greatly honored by her asking. She had to be nudging 40. No was not an answer in play.

“So tell me about this guy,” I said in a note, a question I would have asked anyone getting hitched at her age. She told me she met him on-line, a dating service for people with special needs. Their relationship was no fly-by-night-er. He’d come from far out-of-state and lived near her for some time, and through a year or more they’d determined they wanted to seal the thing and live their lives together. 

I was skeptical–I’ll admit it; but two moments in the first few of that wedding made my heart sing. First, a Cheshire-cat smile spread broadly over the groom’s face when his bride, in a wheelchair, came rolling down the aisle, pushed along by her big brother (her father had died years ago). That lovely wide grin rose straight up from blessed devotion.

He was smiling at his bride, the requisite bouquet in her lap, while the theme music from Chariots of Fire was piped into the sanctuary. Yes, Chariots of Fire. I couldn’t help but giggle. She’d deliberately chosen the immediately recognizable percussive melody from a famous movie about faith, yes–and Olympics-level competitive running. The choice was no joke, more like a metaphor–and it was beautiful. Whatever skepticism I’d carried into that sanctuary was put to rest before the vows were even spoken. The two of them were going to be okay, and I was smiling. All of this, I told myself, was legit.

When I’d asked her what she’d like me to read at the reception, she’d been almost careless–“well, whatever you’d like,” an answer that didn’t assuage my apprehension one bit. So I kept questioning, but she kept giving me a blank check. (All of this is by email.) Finally, she told me, if it would help, she’d send me something she wrote. She did, so I packed her thoughtful essay in a three-ring binder with a couple of five-minute love stories from the 19th century Great Plains.

When the emcee–an uncle, I believe, some relation anyway–lobbed jokes at her and about her, jokes that got belly laughs all around, it seemed suddenly clear that the crowd knew her far better than I did. Many knew her from her childhood. Some had watched her grow. They’d known–and laughed about–her Chariots-of-Fire sense of humor. They saw in her a character, a personality I didn’t know or hadn’t witnessed in the classroom. The reception crowd was, in a broad sense, her loving family. 

I had this awful feeling that what I’d set out to read would blow away even in a late May prairie breeze. My love stories were not going to ring any bells with that crowd. When I got the mike, I read one of them to polite applause, then shifted gears quickly and reached for the essay she’d sent me, her words.

And thus began the most treasured “reading” of my literary life. Her essay confessed her anguish at the realization she came to on the morning she had discovered she had no voice at all, nothing there to move the cursor over the screen, nothing but silence. Her only voice was despair.

Some time later, she’d discovered a computer that could read her eyes, a technology to allow her to continue, literally, speaking, and teaching writing, and writing stories. The essay she’d sent me explored her deep anguish–and then relished her joy at the miracle she’d been granted in gaining back what most of us could never imagine losing.

But while I was reading her words, I couldn’t help but realize that what her friends and family were hearing at that moment was not the voice of an aging prof, but the voice of a woman they’d never heard before, a voice emerging from an essay she’d written in words that documented her anguish and pain, as well as her immense thanks for what she’d quite miraculously recovered. I couldn’t help thinking, at least metaphorically, what they were blessed to hear was a story about faith and Olympics-level running.

Their rapt attention had little to do with some ex-prof appearing from her educational past. Their silence grew from their hearing, for the first time, a voice that chose words she’d learned to love and wield in ways that brought what it was she was feeling into honest testimony. From me, those who for years had loved her were hearing a voice they’d never heard before.

When I came home, I told my wife that I’d never done so blest a reading, and what I’d read wasn’t even my words, nothing I’d written. I just delivered the goods. My blessing was allowing her to speak richly to people she loves, people who love her.

I’m not sure I can explain how great a blessing it was to be thus used. 

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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