"I'm Noel, just like Christmas", was the way he always introduced himself back then. And, I mentally rolled my eyes every time I heard it. Because, the Korean students clearly did not get the joke and why couldn't he at least muster enough awareness to realize they were only smiling and nodding to be kind? ( in time, of course, he did). And, kind they were. I should have taken a lesson from them. At 19, I was still far too shallow to taint my reputation by much hanging around with anyone "un-cool" like that. But, I was pleased that even though he wasn't the "in-crowd", everyone in our group was kind enough to show some common courtesy. Overtly, at least. Courtesy, but not too much real closeness...Well, wasn't it up to the guys to pal around with him? After all, we girls couldn't be expected to get overly involved. I was sure proud of us. Weren't we the "mature" ones?
But, my future-husband, whose judgement about these things I was already understanding could be relied on, thought he was a really sweet, good-natured, well-intentioned guy.
Fast forward a few years. By now I'm a new mom and he is a married man. He and his almost-unbelievably lovely wife were living within driving distance. They came to visit. He was still wearing that awful siren-red windbreaker that I despised in Korea. (He had warned me when he got it that it would last a good ten years. "I hope not" I half-joked back at him.) But, by now people's clothes weren't very much concern to me. Not when I, myself, was wearing a baby-spit-up stained apron with diaper pins handily attached to it. We all laughed and chatted together and he was rather entertaining. I recalled the really good times we had teaching together and how he ended up being very involved with the students-quite well-liked actually. He and his almost-unbelievably lovely wife (and, I could hardly believe that HE managed to nab a lovely thing like her) offered many kindnesses to my teenage brother-in-law who had recently undergone open heart surgery. Knowing that I have a bit of a mean streak, I searched my memory in hopes that I had never showed it to this nice-natured, sweet, well-intentioned fellow human. "Why wasn't he more popular with you girls?" mused my dear husband, who always thinks the best of folks and liked him well enough. "Youth…What did WE know?" I shrugged it off. "I just hope he knows what he's got in that wife he has." I groused back at him. "I'm sure he does." was his reasonable and kindly uttered reply.
We stayed in spotty touch with them as time went by. They moved many states away. Contact decreased over the intervening years. We regretted it deeply when we heard about some of the curve balls life threw at them. Hardly fair for such caring folks to keep running into such hard times.
A few months ago we got an e-mail from him. His work requires him to travel now. He would be in our area in a few days. Could he drop by? "Yes. Of course. We'd love to see you." It was an afternoon that I already had off from work, so, we met and gabbed in the living room until my husband got home and we went out all together to grab a bite somewhere. And what an afternoon it was! I had guessed that somehow it would be a blessing. I just hadn't imagined how much.
After we exchanged notes on the trials and triumphs of parenting and got caught up on the last couple of decades, he began sharing on a deeper and more personal level. Life had not been easy, but they were finally getting on a better financial footing. In spite of it all, he had been active in his own and the surrounding communities. He related magnificent and sometimes miraculous moments when he went to volunteer in the relief efforts after Katrina and other serious storms. These experiences led him and his friends to start a local helping ministry. He can't afford any of this, but, God provides. I listened..astounded at times..enthralled. Had the good sense, for a change, to keep my mouth shut-except to pump for more information.
They were stories that stayed with me, but, I won't tell them here. Don't want to steal his thunder. He writes very well and he really should be blogging. But, I can't help sharing one very moving moment. He told me how it was that his mom left this life. He was taking her to the doctor when they got hit by a diabetic driver who had lapsed into a coma. His mom was killed by the impact. Believing he was going to die, his last words before the impact were "Thanks for the great life, Lord." He lived, but sustained a broken back. The next day he hobbled on crutches into the hospital room of the guy who crashed into them to offer him forgiveness. Offer. Him. Forgiveness!!!
"Did you ever have contact with any one else from the old Korea group?" I asked him at one point during the conversing. "Never at all" was his cheerless reply. And, what else was that I heard in his voice? Forlorn regret? Dispirited sorrow? The sadness of it grieved me greatly. I felt a sudden flash of anger at the lot of them. But, I can cast judgement?
But, at least I was heartened and gladdened that instead of becoming bitter from the vicissitudes of his life, this sweet-natured and well-intentioned example of decent humanity had made something inspirational of it. And, he knew what he had to be grateful for. I mean, really, "Thanks for the great life, Lord?" Except for the wild wonderfulness of helping others, his life hadn't actually been all that great. Oh, and his great wife. Whom he did indeed express great gratitude for in the course of our conversation. With good reason too. I gasped out loud when he showed me her recent photo. She is the epitome of aging graciously and beautifully. To the remarking of this, he cutely responded. "Well, that's what I think but she says she is old and gray now, so, I didn't know what to believe." OK buddy - WRONG answer. When she says that you're supposed to tell her "You are always beautiful to me"-or something like that. Come on, Boy, you've got a brain. Use it!
Ah well, no chance to do it over, so, get it right the next time.
BTW, he wasn't still wearing that old red windbreaker when we last saw him. Well, it was summer and too hot for it anyway. So, no way to know if he is still hanging on to it without asking outright-and I am much too polite to do that (Shut UP! I am too!). Who cares anyway? I didn't notice what either one of us was wearing.