I love ocean crossings. I took one recently, from Seattle to Victoria, through Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It promised pleasant vistas of farms, lighthouses, rock cliffs and forested hills, with snowy mountains off in the distance. With a bit of luck, orcas might break the surface of the ocean. If that were to happen, I was determined to be outside on the windy deck, camera in hand, ready to take photos so I could revisit the memory over and over again.
It didn’t happen. Oh, the orcas might have surfaced and I know we passed beautiful landscapes. But I saw none of it. I was otherwise occupied.
For nearly the whole three-hour ferry crossing, I sat inside the ferry, sharing a table with two people I’d never met before. Aniko and John were great companions. We set out our shared food of crackers, cheese and almonds, toasted our journey with wine and beer, and then, John began to tell me the story of his life.
I could try to retell it as the story of a five-year-old boy uprooted from his family by the firm grasp of welfare workers who transplanted him time and time again. But that’s not the whole story.
I could try to retell it as the story of a nine-year-old boy who breaks a wish bone for the first time in his life, and discovers fairy godmothers are not so illusive after all. But that’s not the whole story.
I could try to retell it as the story of a young man whose first job turns into a career creating better social housing options for the people who must live there, not just because that’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the right thing for him to do. But that’s not the whole story, either.
I can’t tell you the whole story because it’s not mine to tell. I could not do it justice; I could not tell it nearly so well as John, the owner of the story, told it to me.
But I can tell you this. John is a master story teller. I felt like I was watching a movie as I listened to him. I felt the exhaustion of a small boy made to stand in his room long after everyone else had gone to bed. I understood the careful calculation in his child’s mind when he asked for his toy cars to be packed in the suitcase that accompanied him from one home to another. I sensed his confusion when, at age 18, he knocked on a door and was greeted by a strangers who were startled into swearing as they looked into the grown up face of the five-year-old who had disappeared from their street so many years ago. I shared his deep sense of gratitude as he told me about the tears his social worker shed when he finally settled John in a permanent home.
I had moments of intense sadness as John told me his story. But mostly I felt grateful because John exuded gratitude. He and Aniko were on a retirement vacation, relishing the more than 30 years of family life they’ve lived together, raising their own family as they pieced together the scattered strands of John’s childhood.
When I boarded the ferry from Seattle to Victoria, I was intent on seeing, of absorbing the new vistas we would pass as we sailed through Puget Sound.
And see vistas I did. But not the ones I expected. On that journey I learned this lesson: sometimes we need ears to listen in order to see.