Saturday, January 25, 2014

Foreward - by Donna Howell

This story really begins several months before it begins. I belong to a great singles group at my home church. We are tight knit and very active. Several years ago while driving to our monthly “Game-night Get-Together”, I heard the local Christian radio station, WDJC, advertising their annual singles cruise. It was scheduled for four days in the Yucatan Peninsula in August 2005. Since one of the DJ's sponsoring the event, Carrie Cates, was in our singles group, I decided to try to stir up some interest. When I arrived at the party, I told the gang about the cruise, and quickly had several who were very interested.

One of the interested parties was my pal, Justin Fisher. Justin had joined our group about a year prior, and, despite his disability, he was very active in virtually everything we did. Justin, or “Hoss” as I call him, has cerebral palsy, but he doesn't let it slow him down. Justin had also taught our Sunday school class several times, and when Carrie discovered he was coming on the cruise, she invited him to be the speaker at our chapel service.

Because of this high profile role during the service, and because the wheelchair makes Justin immediately recognizable, he became somewhat of a celebrity on the ship. (It also didn't hurt that Justin did a stirring rendition of the Ray Stevens' classic “Ahab the Arab” in the karaoke lounge on the first night of the cruise!) You couldn't get on the elevator without a gaggle of people unloading and stopping to talk to Justin.

Our singles group was large in numbers and several had been able to come along for the trip. We were tight knit, always had fun together, and the cruise turned into one big party. We settled in the vacation mode quickly and the first night at dinner I heard Justin mention he would love to snorkel if the onshore event could handle his handicap. I made note of the conversation but tucked it away in the back of my mind. I was not sure if that idea would work or even be a good idea.

Several of us disembarked the next day to visit the sites and sounds of another country and I noticed the tourist events posted and I thought of Justin and the snorkeling idea. We were walking around the shopping area at the port and I asked Justin if he still wanted to snorkel. He said he did. I grew up in Baldwin County, AL near the Gulf of Mexico. I have always been comfortable around water especially the ocean. I am an avid scuba diver, a water skier, and a one time lifeguard in Gulf Shores, AL. I remember thinking, “Why not?” so off I went to investigate the snorkeling option available to tourists at this port.

The outdoor activity coordinators were at small desks with thatched roofs to give an authentic island look to the tourist. I spoke with the gentleman stationed there and explained that I was willing to help my friend with this activity but he had cerebral palsy. The coordinator did not seem concerned and agreed that the boat operator would help me with Justin’s unique challenge at snorkeling. I returned to the shopping center and told Justin we were all set.

Our friend Kimmie decided she wanted to tag along. (I think partly for the fun and partly to see how in the world I was going to tactically accomplish this idea.) We headed back to the coordinator area and I introduced Justin and Kimmie to the event coordinator. The coordinator had acquired a taxi for us and after Justin asked some brief questions to satisfy his curiosity that he would be able to snorkel, Kimmie assisted him with his crutches and started walking towards the small passenger van.

Justin uses a big power wheelchair that was going to have to be left at the thatched roof kiosk in the care of the coordinator. With Kimmie helping Justin into the taxi, I hopped onto his wheelchair to safely park it between the small booths in the customer activity area. Now, I have never operated a motorized wheelchair. It has a small joy stick on the arm rest for Justin to maneuver himself around. I pulled back on the joystick to operate the vehicle in reverse, raced backwards at a surprisingly fast speed and promptly slammed directly into the booth!

This sent the event coordinator into a full sprint towards me with a frightened look. I could tell that he was not concerned for my safety or for the safety of the wheelchair. No, he was worried I was going to trash his little thatched roof booth to shreds. I calmly stated, “I got this.”, very gently moved the joystick forward, very gently inched away from the thatched booth and then very violently slammed into the booth again! It may or may not have been tilted slightly off the ground and three inches back from its original location when the earth stopped shaking.

The event coordinator was almost done with me, so I then decided to exit the wheelchair to try maneuvering while standing next to the vehicle. This worked a great deal better and I finally parked it between the two booths. The event coordinator looked relieved that I was no longer driving the wheelchair and I got the distinct feeling he wanted to comment on women drivers. However, he was polite and handed me a ticket for our snorkeling, pointed me to the taxi, and left me with only one instruction, “Ask for Pedro.”

With the wheelchair safely tucked away next to the booth with the distinctive slash marks from my attempt to be a designated driver, I entered the front passenger seat of the taxi. I started a casual conversation with the driver about his life and the area we were traveling. He revealed he was not Mexican but Mayan. He could trace his family lineage back to the era of the conquistadors. He took control of the conversation to complain how the Mexicans had taken over his homeland and destroyed the Mayan way of life. He literally spoke about 4 paragraphs without taking a breath. Now, I am not a historian, but I remember from my World History class in the 10th grade that the Mayan Empire declined in the 1500s. This guy acted as if it happened last week. He was still fired up about it!

I changed the topic to local food and agriculture and he steered the taxi into a small fishing village on the edge of a small stretch of beach. When we reached our destination, Kimmie helped Justin out of the taxi while I paid the driver and exited to find our guide, Pedro. The fishing village was tucked in a short cove and had a small road consisting of broken sea shells and gravel. I surveyed the area and the village contained several thatched huts with short porches on the front. There was even a county store of sorts that had a faded Coca-Cola sign on it and three gentlemen were sitting on the porch repairing a net.

There were two short piers, about twelve feet in length, extending out to the ocean from the beach and both piers sat just a couple feet above the ocean surface. The ocean was a flat calm but there was not a boat anywhere in sight. Having in no other options, I followed the instructions given to me. I called out, “Pedro!”, and, evidently that's a common name in those parts, 'cause at once FIVE guys started towards me!

I was a little taken aback but I showed them the ticket. They spoke some short phrases to each other in Spanish, then turned and walked away! This did not help me find Pedro so I protested in English and they answered me in Spanish and pointed to one of the piers. I got the point. Evidently, my Pedro was out on the water with a snorkeling group and would soon return.

Justin, Kimmie, and I headed towards the pier to wait. It was a small stretch of beach but it was a long stretch of sand. You know how your feet sink into the sand a little when you walk on the beach? Well, crutches have a smaller surface area than feet, and they sink deeper. It was a painstaking for us watching and for Justin walking, but we worked out way across the sand and the three of us settled onto the beach to wait.

Within about fifteen minutes, a small skiff came around the end of the cove headed towards our pier and spot on the beach. The skiff was a white, wooden boat about 15 feet in length. It contained two Hispanic gentlemen at the motor end and about six tourists. When the skiff docked, the tourists thanked the driver and exited the boat to head up the beach.

I inquired of the driver, “Pedro?” and to my relief, he nodded. I explained our situation and he spoke to the other gentleman. They assisted Justin into the skiff. The other gentleman grabbed snorkeling gear for the three of us and off we went. We traveled out of the cove and around a point of land that jutted out of the mainland. He slowed the boat over a small reef and killed the engine. I decided the best course of action for this adventure was for me to get into the ocean and have Pedro and his friend lower Justin into the water.

Kimmie helped Justin put on a mask and snorkel and a life vest as I waited for him in the ocean. This area had no current so I though it would be perfect for our adventure. With Justin floating in the ocean beside me, however, I soon decided this excursion might have a higher level of difficultly than I had anticipated. See, Justin does not have the best motor skills and independently all he was able to do was lie in the water floating on his back. I finally got him upright and gave him some quick instructions on how to snorkel so he would be comfortable.

However, I forgot to explain how to clear a snorkel. Justin had been on his back for a couple minutes so as I flipped him forward to put his face in the water, he immediately started coughing and choking. I got him upright again and pulled the snorkel out of his mouth and stupidly said, “What is the problem?” Justin sputtered, “There is water in the snorkel! I can’t breathe!” Now, my dual reaction, as is often the case on adventures with Justin, was first of embarrassment and then laughter.

I told Justin, “my bad” and then explained how to clear the snorkel. With the snorkel clear of water and back in place in Justin’s mouth, I flipped him forward again with his face in the water. I held him there a minute and heard the sound of his breathing through the snorkel. It was a bit like an old cassette audio recording of Darth Vader but I could tell his breathing was normal and had a natural rhythm to it. I asked Kimmie to hand me a mask and snorkel and then proceeded to move Justin along the reef and away from the boat.

I was not prepared for the next twenty to thirty minutes. In all the preparation of this adventure, I had worried about his handicap and my ability to make this work. I had not considered his reaction to an activity he had never experienced. I worked our way over small schools of fish and plant life that was bursting with color. Purple seaweeds, yellow and red coral, and bright neon blue fish were vibrant in the shallow water below us. I could hear Justin giggling into the snorkel beside me.

Some of the sea weeds were growing up about 3 to 4 feet off the ocean floor and were within reach of the surface. I moved Justin close to one and he reached out and touched it. There it was again …that giggle. I then heard a muffled “Donna” and so I stopped and up righted myself and then Justin. I pulled the snorkel from his mouth and Justin stated, “I want to see you swim to the ocean floor and touch the sand and some stuff. I can’t do that but I can watch you.”

I have to pause here to say that this comment more than put a lump in my throat. I had been on so many scuba dives and ocean swims and, I must confess, I have never considered how precious it was to be able to perform these tasks. I got Justin settled back in the water face down. I took a deep breath and swam down to the floor of the ocean and stirred the sand. I dazzled Justin with somersaults and brought some sea shells up for him to view.

Within a few minutes, Pedro pulled up next to us. Our time was up. Pedro and his shipmate got Justin back in the boat and I climbed in. Noticing that I had Justin well under control, Kimmie had eeven decided to snorkel. We picked her up and then headed back to the cove. Upon docking, we discovered that we only had about tenty-five minutes to get back to the cruise ship or we would have to make the small fishing village our new address. I stressed this to Pedro and he sent his shipmate to the main road to hail us a taxi.

Pedro then called to a couple of the guys on the beach and they picked Justin up to carry him to the taxi since his journey on his crutches would take entirely too long. Kimmie and I gathered our towels and things and then laughed histerically at Justin being carried to the taxi. Justin who has never ceased to use his handicap to his advantage was singing as he was being carried through the village convincing the locals that he was not handicapped but probably intoxicated. I'm not certain, but he may have slurred, “I ain't drunk. Put me down!”

We made it to the taxi and back to port in time and continued our cruise. It still blows me away that Justin put complete trust in the fact that I would take care of him that day on the ocean. I have since dared myself to have that kind of abandonment with God and my life. It has caused me to ask myself who was more handicapped in the water that day? I was numb and blind to the wonderment of God’s creation in the ocean. My friend was not.

Vacations must always come to an end and this one ended over ten years ago. I, however, have never forgotten that day. I thought I would help a friend out who wanted an adventure beyond the limits of his handicap. What I found was a friend helping me learn a lesson in blessings and about the things I take for granted. The sound of that child like giggle in the snorkel has stayed in my head all these years. I am grateful to God for the wonderment we can experience as adults just as we did as children, if we will only trust Him with our lives. We only need to disown our handicaps.

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