A few weeks ago, I stopped at a Subway to grab lunch on my way to work. I don't typically go to Subway, since there isn't a drive-thru, but on that day I was craving a ham sandwich.
I followed an older couple inside and made my way into the line. They stood in front of me, a typical couple that had been married for many years. When they got to the front of the line and the Subway worker asked what they would like, the man handed her a small notebook. I realized then that this man and women were both deaf.
There was nothing about them that suggested it, nothing you noticed visibly. Until that moment, I saw them as "typical" people. But when they handed the notebook to the young woman behind the counter, my view of them changed. Suddenly I found myself wondering how they had gotten to the Subway. Could you drive a car if you couldn't hear sirens? What was their everyday life like? How had they met? I watched the Subway workers put together the sandwich, every ingredient written carefully in that tiny little notebook. What was it like living your whole life having to carry around a notebook to be your mouth and ears? To have to rely on the kindness of strangers to be patient and considerate?
As the man and woman waited for their sandwiches, another woman got into line. She was younger, probably in her thirties or early forties, and wore scrubs. When she passed the couple, she touched the man's arm and spoke clearly to them, greeting them like old friends. The couple smiled at her, and turned back to get their sandwiches.
As we got to the checkout line, the wife went to fill up her drink while the husband pulled out his wallet to pay for the meal. The woman at the checkout told him that the man in front of them in line had paid for them. The husband did not understand, and so the woman wrote it in his notebook. The man began to sway, and I watched his face, wondering if this was a common occurrence in their life. But as I watched, I realized that his swaying was not a reaction to this random act of kindness. Something else was wrong.
The man leaned forward against the counter, his face turning grey. The wife hurried to his side, while the woman in scrubs rushed and shouted for someone to grab a chair. Being the next person in line, I grabbed one and put it behind the man. As he sat down, he vomited. The woman in scrubs instructed the Subway workers to call 911, and proceeded to check on the man.
As these things happened all around me, I stood in uncertainty. What was my role in this moment? As a pastor, did I have a task I should be doing? Should I comfort the wife, who was standing by her husband looking frightened and confused? That would require pushing through the throng which surrounded the man in the chair. I didn't know her, and she didn't know me. There was nothing about me that identified me as a pastor, as a person who seeks ways to help.
I stayed there for longer than I should have. After I paid for my sandwich and filled my drink, I watched as the paramedics arrived and began questioning the wife and the woman in scrubs. I stood, wanting - needing - to do something. But there was nothing for me to do but to leave the chaos behind and give the people who were helping the room to do just that.
I've thought through this story many times over the past few weeks. I'm still not certain what to make of it. There are so many parts to untangle, so many layers to go through. Who was the man who paid for their meal, and why was he inspired to do so? What does it mean for this deaf couple (who seemed perfectly abled beyond their deafness) to receive this random act of kindness from a stranger? Why does our view of someone change when something such as deafness is discovered? What do we do in moments like this, when we feel the need to do something, but there is simply nothing to do.
I did say a prayer. A short and small one. I didn't know the couples' faith, or if they had one, but it was the only thing I was certain I could do. And while prayers are important, they never quite seem like enough.