Sunday, July 29, 2007


I once met a man who changed my life forever, and I never asked his name.

I was sitting in a small, ramshackle room on the second floor of a rented building. Old wobbly school chairs lined the four plaster walls, and the floor creaked. Around me were 17 or 18 Albanian villagers and one pasty white engineer from San Diego; this was the Albanians' church, and the pasty engineer was Eric, my less-than-fluent translator.

Church service had started, and we had sung a few praise songs to an old, out-of-tune guitar and 17 or 18 pairs of off-beat clapping hands. We were sitting down listening to the pastor - a 30-something man with a weary but passionate look about him - speak from 1st Peter, when a man came in to the service late. He walked with this apologetic stoop; he seemed as if he wasn't sure if he had walked into the right place. The only open chair was beside me, and he sat down. Eric had pulled a stack of Albanian New Testaments out of his bag, and had began passing them around. I handed one to the man.

He took the bible, which I had handed to him upside-down, and opened it. He looked at it for a moment, closed it slowly, and handed it back to me with the same apologetic expression he had on when he walked in. I realized he couldn't read what I had given to him. I felt as small as an ant. And I looked directly into his eyes.

These eyes were unlike any eyes I had ever seen. Most people have eyes that are blue, or brown, or green. Their eyes have depth, and this depth has a bottom. Depending on the person, eyes can be bright or sullen, kind or calloused. This man's eyes were none of these things.

The core of his eyes were as ones forged of frigid, harsh steel, embedded in a spehere of fractured ice. Looking at them was like staring into an arctic sun, so utterly cold. I could see so many years of suffering in those eyes, and so much shattered hope. They were filled with these things, and they were bottomless.

My team returned to this village a couple days later, and this man came and found us. He wanted some of us to come to his house and pray for his mother. I wanted to come.

His house was smaller than my living room. His mother, wife, and two small daughters lived in this house, and they were there when we arrived. His mother was very, very old, and her sight and hearing had all but gone from her. His wife's teeth were askew, and she was completely deaf. When she communicated, she used violent hand motions and made puffing sounds with her mouth. I wasn't sure whether she was telling us a story about war and protest, or demonstrating a recipe for bread.

The man began talking with us about his life and family. He brought out a small photo album with pictures of his extended family, and his wedding. (everybody in Albania does this.) He began to tell us about how his marriage had been difficult, because of the challenges communicating with his deaf wife presented. He also said that he would never trade it, because even though it is so very hard, he loves her.

He talked about his daughters with a smile, telling us that both of them can hear perfectly. His daughters are beautiful, he says, and he is right. One of them is about six years old, and sits on his lap. The other is newborn, and is sleeping in the back room, which is about the size of an American walk in closet. He then speaks of his mother with a grim and joyless look on his face; she is dying, he says. His mother continues to sit beside him, smiling and talking to herself.

We gather around and pray for his family. I keep my eyes open, and I look at this man. His head is bowed, his knotted hands clasped together. I shed a tear for him.

And though this man may have forgotten me already, I will never, ever forget him. His eyes will pierce my memory, those eyes of steel and cold, cold ice.

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