Editor’s note: Andrew Taylor-Troutman’s article on narrative medicine appeared in our recent issue on cancer (and is online here). Before seminary, he was a middle school youth director for a Presbyterian church. These letters arose out of his self-exploration work while studying toward a degree in narrative medicine.
Dear middle school youth group,
Remember how once a month after church we would carpool to that assisted living facility? How the staff would wheel a couple dozen residents into the cafeteria? It’s been more than 10 years now and you are all adults, so you might not recall the seasonally appropriate crafts I designed. Maybe that’s a good thing. My repertoire was admittedly limited. We did the turkeys out of cutouts of our hands and snowflakes with plenty of glitter and shamrocks with just as much all-green glitter. Pretty bleak, I know, especially under the harsh florescent light illuminating the dirty linoleum floor. It wasn’t so long ago that I was in middle school. I remembered well how it was hard to see myself in a gracious light. So I had the idea of encouraging you all to share your talents each month. I think it was Jeffrey who asked: Can we do anything? Or, does it have to be lame like your crafts?
I told you to go for it. A young woman brought her juggling balls, which ended up on the floor quite often, causing residents to lean precariously out of their wheelchairs in order to fetch them. I was imagining this one particularly frail woman pitching forward face first on to the aforementioned dirty floor – when she scooped up the sliver glittery ball and whipped it underhand back to our juggler with shocking speed and accuracy. This brought great merriment to all, including the inexperienced performer. It’s funny what you remember, isn’t it? I wish I knew where you all where now, so I could hear from you.
But I remember Jeffrey bringing his electric guitar and amp, the big one that had to be wheeled into the cafeteria, and he rocked out with repeated power chords, the crunchy distortion turned to the max. After 10 very full minutes, he received a long, loud applause punctuated by those who could rising to their feet. Funny, but I thought about that just last Sunday when the congregation here rose to sing a hymn.
Our holy audience at the nursing home was so supportive that we decided, well, why not allow the resident to share their talents? Do you remember that? It was your idea! We had a gray-haired gospel trio who sang in perfect harmony, even when the singers were on different verses. There was the time a feeble looking gentleman with no teeth pulled out a worn brown fiddle, tuned it by ear and launched into Shady Grove, an old bluegrass standard that I have rarely heard played so effortlessly even on stage. Shady Grove, my little love; Shady Grove, I say; Shady Grove, my little love, I’m going to leave you here.
Not too long after that, you remember how I left for seminary. I rarely looked back. Much has changed. You even called me Drew, which is a name I no longer use. But in my new calling, I visit assisted living facilities often and I remember you. I think of this as a love letter.
Grace and peace,
Dear middle school youth group,
I remember how some of you decided that a camping trip would be an excellent church activity. Since you showed up for just about every idea I planned, I wanted to make this happen for you, although I truthfully knew next to nothing about camping. I was not stupid all the time, so I convinced a fellow youth director to come along with his church. And we had a good time. There was that lovely walk to the waterfall and, getting back, we had time to set up our tents. He was available to help us, thank God. We roasted hot dogs and toasted s’mores, flaming more than a few marshmallows into charred lumps. There was singing with guitars and the telling of ghost stories. But even with the raging fire my colleague had built, the dropping temperature was becoming more and more apparent. By bedtime it was practically freezing and you, my novice campers, were as underprepared as me.
We spent the night in the church van. I would crank the ignition and blast the heat for a few minutes, then kill the engine so as not to run down the battery. I knew that much. I would then doze a few minutes until my chattering teeth would startle me awake. The only saving grace was looking back in the rearview mirror at how you were all sprawled on top of each other like puppies. You were safe — a mess, perhaps, but safe and, yes, the sun does come after the dark night. That often preaches.
But before it dawned brilliant reds and pinks, which I woke you to watch, I distinctly recall thinking that, wow, maybe one day I could even have kids of my own. But I had better marry someone who knew what she was doing. I’m glad to tell you that came true. Blessings to each of you in all that you are doing today,
Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the pastor of New Dublin Presbyterian Church in Dublin, Virginia. He is the author of three books, most recently the novel “Earning Innocence.” His wife, Ginny, is the Presbyterian campus pastor at Virginia Tech. They have two boys, Sam and Asa.