Sunday, March 27, 2011

Untitled, part 2 of 2

(Part 2 of 2) -- still looking for a good title. Click here for part 1.

I was so busy glancing around, I almost passed it. But, there it was; a pay phone. I didn’t even look both ways before galloping across the street as I swung my backpack around and fumbled through my wallet for my phone card. I force-fed it down the slot. Zero balance. It spit it out faster than a nine-month old rejecting string beans. If I ever needed a miracle, now was the time. Did I have enough faith? I said a prayer that the card would miraculously work and reinserted it. Rejected again. Briefly the story of the ten virgins flitted across my mind as I turned away and ran down another street. I didn’t have time to deal with a mental reproach on preparation.

Then, I saw a light. It was too bright to be from a personal residence. It had to be some sort of store or business. Then I heard some music. It was faint, but it was definitely music, albeit music with more bass and drums than actual melody. But, music meant people. Unfortunately, these people were even farther away from my companion and I hesitated, wondering if I should run back and check on her. Part of me was shouting to return to my companion and I didn’t know if it was the spirit prompting me, or just the voice in my head who couldn’t deal with the sense of aloneness. Being with a companion was so ingrained into my psyche that it was very difficult to finally pursue the trail of the music. But, I knew it might be my only option for finding a phone.

I had to run about a block and a half before I came to the light. It was a movie theater that doubled as a bar and what appeared to be a tiny nightclub. I sprinted to the entrance and then skidded to a stop. There is something fundamentally wrong with a sister missionary entering a bar alone late at night. Just plain wrong. I hesitated on the steps, my mind and spirit battling out my eternal redemption. My stomach actually lurched backwards as I crossed the threshold. I had broken so many rules in the past twenty minutes, what was one more! I ran to the bartender and asked if I could please borrow the phone.

I’m not sure if it was my accent or my long skirt and tag denoting that I was a “sister” for some church, but she gave me the weirdest look, turned and walked hastily away. What? Not now! I was rejected over and over again all day long when I was trying to talk to people about spiritual matters. That came with the calling. But now? I could not get rejected.

“Ma’am!” My tone got her attention. I started to beg as I explained my emergent circumstances. She finally sighed and went to the counter, returning slowly with a black rotary phone. I reached out for it and she pulled it back. Then, she looked me square in the eyes and said, “Are you going to call England?”

I half grunted a release of tension. “No, no, just here in Ljubljana! I promise! Local call!” A ha! Maybe she hadn’t been rejecting me after all. She had been worried about long distance charges. But, it was nice of her to finally let me use the phone -- even for a local call. Every call, local or not, cost money. All the same, she stood as close to me as the bar allowed and watched me dial every number, ready to disconnect my call if it exceeded the six numbers necessary for a local call. I didn’t attempt to turn away for privacy.

I dialed the Elder’s number, praying the whole time that they had been more rule-abiding than I had been. They answered on the third ring.

“Elder Reynolds! It’s Sister Groberg. Sister Basker’s been hurt. She sprained her ankle or broke it or something. Hurry to our bus stop. We are downtown and will catch a bus to our apartment, but we need your help to get off the bus and up to our apartment. She can’t walk at all, so you need to stay at the bus stop and wait for us. She also wants a priesthood blessing. Please hurry. We could be there in as little as 15 minutes. And however soon you make it there, DO NOT go up to our apartment until we get off the bus. Hurry!”

He said they’d be there. I hung up, thanked the bartender, and gratefully exited the bar. Racing back through the silent, dark streets to my companion, I was overcome with fear. Why had I left her all alone? I had only been gone for about 20 minutes, but it seemed like forever. What if she was gone? She had only been in the country a few weeks and didn’t know her way around or speak the language that well. Dozens of awful scenarios skirted the edges of my mind.

It was with an immense smile that I turned the corner and saw her sitting on the sidewalk, holding onto that signpost like it was the iron rod. I got back just in time for what would be the last bus of the night to take us to our apartment. I helped her get up off the cement and we hopped, painfully, over to where the bus was loading. We started up the stairs very slowly. I tried to bear all her weight each time we had to go up a stair. Another man behind us stepped up and grabbed my companion on the other side and helped us up. A young couple on the bus noticed our predicament and helped us find a seat near the back of the bus so we wouldn’t have to go far once we got to our stop.

They were very friendly and we found out they were headed to our same stop. As we neared our destination, I looked around in vain for the Elders. Where were they? They lived one measly stop away. It would take them 5 minutes, tops! Ten if they walked the whole way. I had been very specific that we needed help getting OFF the bus and to hurry! Where were they?

Fortunately, the nice, young couple helped us get off. As the bus pulled away, I looked up and down the street for the Elders. No sign of them. I could tell the young couple wanted to leave, but they also felt bad abandoning us. I explained we had help coming. They looked around and back at me, their eyes silently asking where the help was. It was awkward for a few moments, until Sister Basker started shaking from so much pain, grabbed my arm, and promptly sat on the ground. It spurred us all into action. I knew we had to start the trek home with or without the Elders. First dilemma: crossing the busy street. I suggested we make a sort of chair by linking arms with the young man. We tried to get my companion to slip her legs through. But, partially because of her long skirt, and mainly from her pain, it was evident it wasn’t going to work. Across the street was an ice cream shop that was just closing. The young lady ran across the street and asked if she could borrow one of their chairs. She ran back across the street with it and we all lifted my companion into it. Then, all three of us tried to lift the chair and carry it across. We made it about ten feet before we toppled and my companion fell, once again, to the ground. Fortunately, she protected her previous injuries and wasn’t hurt further. We were now well into the first lane of oncoming traffic. None of us had any desire to retrace the last ten feet. Instead, I got one side of her, and the man got the other and we hobbled and jumped and carried and stumbled our way slowly across what was normally a very busy thoroughfare of a street. Twice the young lady had to hold her arms out to stop a car until we could cross. But, eventually, we made it.

With each painful and miserable step, I got more and more frustrated with the Elders. Sister Basker was now safely across the street, but the effort and movement had put her over the edge and she sat there crying on the sidewalk. I felt so helpless. And angry. What part of hurry did the Elders misunderstand? The nice young couple asked again if we were sure we had help coming. I promised them, though there was no forte in my voice. They stayed there with me and my crying companion for a few more minutes, then the young lady said, “Look, my car is just a few blocks away. Can I go get it and give your friend a ride up the hill?” The last ten minutes had taught us all that the three blocks up the hill to our apartment were going to take most of the night and the rest of Sister Basker’s capacity.

I looked up the street towards the Elder’s apartment once again, turned back, and nodded my assent. She ran off to get her car while he waited with us, like a protective father. If I wasn’t so upset about the lack of Elders, I would have talked to him about the gospel. They both seemed so kind and deserving.

Ten minutes later, she returned with her car. Still no Elders. I could not possibly think what was keeping them. If something was really wrong, I entertained the notion of them deserving it. We carefully and with a few tears loaded Sister Basker into the passenger side of the car. The young man got in the back. I started to tell them where our apartment was, but the young lady stopped me. “We know where you live. We see you walking all the time. We’ll get her home safe, I promise.” Not only was there not room in the car for me, but also I knew that once the Elders deigned to show up, they would undoubtedly obey my instructions to wait at the bus stop until we got there. I had no choice but to leave my companion, once again, in the company of strangers and trust in God to watch over her.

I waved as they drove off, praying again that I was doing the right thing and turned to stew in misery at the lack of Elders. Ten more minutes dragged on, giving me ample time and energy to plan out several tirades to give them. A, B, and, oh! especially tirade C! That would show them. If they ever arrived.

Finally, a straggling bus came puffing down the road and screeched to a stop in front of the ice cream store. The back door creaked open and down came two young Elders, all dressed up in suits and ties, with hair freshly combed.

“Finally!” I screamed. “What took you so long?” I didn’t even wait for an answer. “She’s not here. Some nice people gave her a ride to our apartment. I can only hope she made it there alive!” They explained that when I called, they were already in bed. They had to get dressed and ready. Also, neither of them had ever given a blessing before. They had to track down some consecrated oil and look up in their handbooks on how to give a blessing. I could see in their recently wetted hair and brushed teeth that they were extremely nervous.

I let them off the hook with a watered down version of tirade B as we ran up the hill and got on the elevator. The whole ride up, I kept praying that she’d be home and safe. Why had I let her go? Again? What if they had robbed our place? Okay, probably not. We didn’t have much in the way of material goods. Unless you count skirts that had been through four sets of missionaries.

I put the key in our lock, took a deep breath, and opened the door. I called out to Sister Basker and she answered with a sweet grunt of pain. She was lying on her bed in agony, but she was there, safe, and alone. I said a prayer of gratitude for that young couple and for all they had done for us. At least we had given them one of our Books of Mormon. It was the best (and only) repayment we had.

Our apartment was a studio apartment and the only place to sit was on our beds. Awkward. Not only was it weird having these two Elders in our apartment, but they were in our bedroom, sitting on our unmade beds. I thought about how many more rules we were breaking and then decided to stop keeping track.

After oohing and aahing (more like eewing and eeeehing) at Sister Basker’s ankle, the Elders sat back down on our beds. And sat. And sat. They started asking about the accident, about our appointments, about our evening. Sister Basker was trying so hard to maintain some dignity, sprawled out our her bed, crying. The Elders were so nervous, they were just stammering small talk. Finally, I shouted, “Look! We didn’t invite you over here for punch and cookies! Just give her a blessing and leave!”

It got their attention. They produced their oil and proceeded to bless her sincerely and powerfully. She was promised that she would regain full use of her ankle in time and our work would not suffer as a result of her injury. After they were done, they started to sit back down on our beds. I’m sure they had read in the handbook that you should visit with those you are blessing, or something like that. I finally had to shoo them out, and promise that we’d call them in the morning to let them know how she was doing.

I found some aspirin for Sister Basker and eventually she fell asleep. As I lay on my straw mattress trying to calm my brain down, I realized how the Lord truly watches over his missionaries. Even when they forget to put money on their phone cards or leave their companions alone, or go into bars, or curse Elders in their minds. I was reminded of the scripture in 1 Samuel 16:7; “but the Lord looketh on the heart.” Even though I had knowingly broken enormous rules that day, I knew the Lord saw my heart, and all was well.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


(Part 1 of 2)

There are certain cardinal rules to be kept by missionaries: Never leave your companion. Don’t get into cars with strangers. Be home by 9:30 p.m. Don’t have physical contact with men. Don’t enter bars and night clubs, especially alone. Never let the Elders into your bedrooms, let alone your apartments. By the time I fell asleep that night. I had broken all of them, multiple times.

I rarely woke with the intention of breaking any rule, let alone five or six major ones. It wasn’t looking to be a rule-breaking sort of day. We had zone conference scheduled for all morning and afternoon. And, we had two appointments scheduled for that evening. Two appointments! A day with just one actually scheduled appointment was a treat. But two appointments in one evening? Well, that was South America.

And, oh! what a spiritual feast of a zone conference it was! Caught up in a wave of religious fervor, my companion, Sister Basker, and I both stuffed our backpacks plumb full of pamphlets and Books of Mormon after it was over. Even though we had two appointments (two appointments!), we weren’t going to let a minute of our missions go to waste. We had half a dozen bus rides between now and the end of the day. We thought of all those wonderful sitting ducks just waiting to bloom spiritually. We made sure we had plenty of tools at our disposal to make it happen.

As if taking our positive cue, both our appointments were not only home, but also excited and ready to meet with us. We stayed too long at our final appointment, and it was almost 9:30 by the time we were walking to the bus stop. Our appointment had been on the outskirts of town, and we needed to take three different buses to get home. But, it had all been worth it! We had return visits scheduled for both our appointments.

As we waited at the bus stop, my companion turned to me and said, “It has been such a good day! Interviews with the President, Zone Conference, I didn’t have to give a talk, I memorized Doctrine & Covenants 4, we had two awesome appointments. NOTHING HAS GONE WRONG ALL DAY!!!”

“Be careful, Sister Basker,” I replied, “it’s not over yet!” But, I didn’t really mean it. It had been a most perfect of days.

At that exact moment, I looked up and saw our first bus approaching. It was yet another good sign. We situated ourselves comfortably on the near-empty bus and reminisced on our wonderful appointments. After riding it a few stops, I looked behind us just in time to see our second connecting bus. At this time of night, it was the last bus of its kind. If we didn’t make it on that bus, we’d have a long, long walk ahead of us.

I grabbed my overstuffed back pack and jetted to the back of the bus, shouting to my companion to hurry or we were going to miss it. I waved frantically at the bus behind me to get the driver’s attention. He saw me and, instead of pulling out of the bus stop, he opened his doors again and waited for me to get on the bus. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sister Basker rumple off the bus as she tried to zip up her back pack.

I was in the middle of thanking the second bus driver for waiting for us when I realized there was no us, just me. Our previous bus was pulling away from the stop and there was no sign of my companion. Had she not made it off the bus? Impossible! I had seen her start in her seat and follow me to the back. I was sure she made it off. Where was she?

The bus driver stared at me, as I had stopped speaking mid-sentence when I realized I had no companion.

“Samo malo,” I murmured, just a second. I turned around, and started to descend the steps I had just sprinted up. And then, I saw her. She was sprawled on the sidewalk of the bus stop. Her back pack had fallen open and Books of Mormon and pamphlets were everywhere. Before I could even laugh or get frustrated with the thought of picking up all the fallen paraphernalia, I heard her cry out and I knew something more serious than scattered papers was wrong. I quickly exchanged glances with the bus driver and he nodded his understanding. I jumped off the bus and helped her gather up our supplies and get to her feet. Leaning slightly on me for support, she made her way up the stairs and onto the bus while the driver graciously waited.

It was adrenaline that had helped her up the stairs. As soon as we were safely on the moving vehicle, she sunk down into the nearest chair and clasped her ankle. I looked down and gasped. It looked as if her leg had attempted to swallow a tennis ball, but it had got stuck in the crook of her ankle.

This was no ordinary sprain. Half panicked, and half laughing at the absurdity of the situation, she just looked up at me in pain and confusion, pleading to know what to do. All I could think was ‘elevate’. Elevate. How do you elevate someone’s ankle when they are in a dress and you are on a dirty, moving city bus, full of only men, late at night? She leaned up against the window and put her ankle on my lap. I could see the pain registering deeper and deeper with each breath she took. I didn’t want to look at her ankle, but I couldn’t take my eyes of it. It already resembled a mottled palette of reds and purples.

Think. Breathe. Think.

“Is anything else hurt?”

Slight shake of her head.

“Your bleeding. Your chin and your ankle.” I had removed her shoe, as the swelling was horrendous by now and was causing further pain.

She wiped at the blood on her face and winced with the slight movement that rippled through her body.

“I’m so sorry!” I cried. The guilt for making her race off the bus swelling as much as her ankle.

No response. I wanted to pull out a vacuum and suck away her pain, and the swollen ankle. I donned the role of senior companion and resorted to figuring out our immediate plans. Even if she could get off this bus and up onto the next one, we still had a three-block walk uphill to our apartment. We were not going to make it. We needed help.

Approaching our second connecting stop, a man, as if he heard my silent plea, came up and offered his help. I knew we needed it. Disregarding the rule of not letting strange men have physical contact with us, I gladly accepted. Balancing both overstuffed backpacks on my opposite shoulder, I got one side of Sister Basker, and let the stranger take the bulk of her other side. I glanced up at the bus driver and he waved, to let us know we could take our time going down the aisle and off the bus. Those three steps down seemed like cavernous abysses. Finally, we were off the bus and on solid ground. Our assistant helped us over to a sign post indicating the bus schedule and bid goodnight. I thanked him for both of us, as it was all Sister Basker could do to grabbed onto the post with both hands to hold herself steady and try keep her weight off her ankle. Now what?

Our not-so-little adventure off the bus quickly confirmed that we would need help getting off the bus at our final stop and getting up to our apartment. Sister Basker was bigger than I was. We needed help. The Elders! Of course. There was a set of Elders that only lived one bus stop away from ours. But, how to get ahold of them? The public phones were in the post office and that closed hours ago. Nothing was open. It was almost 10:00 p.m. There would be one, maybe two buses left that could get us to our apartment that night. But we needed help once we got there. Before I could even think long enough to change my mind, I turned to Sister Basker.

“Stay here. Hold onto that pole. I am going to go find a phone to call the Elders to meet us at our bus stop.”

“Ask them if they will give me a blessing.” She said as she slumped down on the cold cement. No resistance to my abandoning her in the middle of downtown, late at night. She understood the gravity of our situation as well as I did. I waved acknowledgment and crossed the street. I looked right and left. No lights. No open doors. No sign of life anywhere. The few people out on the streets were back at the bus stop. I knew I’d have to start going down some of the dark streets to find anyone who could help me with a phone. I turned around and took one last look at my companion, gripping the pole like a child clasps his mothers leg in a crowded store. I sent a prayer out into the night, hoping she’d still be there when I came back, turned and ran away.

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