I had no idea Kayla was watching.
The little girl with her impossibly long light brown hair in braided pigtails. She had such a somber face, her hazel eyes always watching and studying. She dressed like she was in a time warp, in a long skirt, and a conservative blouse so that she looked like a little Amish girl, or a milkmaid. And she couldn't have been more than eleven.
Then again, I shouldn't have been surprised that Kayla was watching me. Tara and I were friends with her older sister, Danielle. Whenever we talked, Kayla was always looking in our direction, no doubt wanting to be a part of our conversation.
That Sunday was no different from the others in the past year I had attended the huge, beautiful church set so far off the road in the woods it was hidden from view. Worship was plentiful, complete with dancing and praying and crying. Then a message was shared, and finally, the congregation was excused. But usually, this was closely followed by an announcement that anyone who wanted prayer for financial concerns, depression or physical healing was invited to come forward.
I remained seated. Ever since the healing conference I had attended had gone inexcusably wrong, I made up my mind that I was fine just as I was. Cerebral Palsy, crutches, and all.
But from her seat across the sanctuary, Kayla was concerned, and leaned over to whisper to a friend of mine, who was beside her.
"Why isn't she going up? Doesn't she want prayer?"
No doubt, in her mind, prayer was a help. Physical healing would make me better and happier. The fact that I would decline it confused her.
My friend explained gently that I didn't want healing. That God didn't heal everybody, but that He made me perfect just the way I am.
Infiltration was my least favorite night game.
But high school week at the Bible camp where I worked, meant that Infiltration was going to happen. The kids were divided into two teams, and the goal was to try and bring back multiple items back to a certain location without getting caught by guards (counselors) who were positioned around the building - making their entrance with a canoe paddle, popsicle stick, or any other random item - impossible.
If they were caught, the kids were sent to jail, for a predetermined amount of time.
Traditionally, I was the jailer. This meant, I was set up in the dark, unoccupied part of the chapel with a stopwatch, freezing, and struggling to keep track of which campers' ten minutes were up, and which ones still had time left.
But my second year working there, Andrew took over my position. He was a year older than me, with light blonde hair and dark eyes. He was definitely handsome, and also had a sense of humor, and deep compassion that we all appreciated. He also possessed a deep intelligence and knew the Bible admirably well.
Andrew had Muscular Dystrophy, which affected his balance and coordination. At camp, he rode a blue motorized scooter. On a purely selfish level, it was wonderful to have someone else on staff with a physical disability. It meant that I didn't stand out, and I didn't have to stand alone. It was a comfort to have him there.
I was elated to be free of jail duty, until I realized I would be at headquarters, which was the recreation building - the farthest thing away from the rest of camp - helping count up the random things the kids were turning in.
By the time the game was over, it was 11 PM and I was exhausted. Counselors only got two one-hour breaks a day. We were on-duty all the time. At least with high school kids, I didn't have to worry about homesickness, or bed wetters or any of the other commonalities with younger kids.
The lights were flipped in the rec building, and it was flooded with light. The garage-style door was raised, and I squinted. It was so black outside, I couldn't see my hand in front of my face.
"Oh, no..." I moaned, laughing nervously, talking as much to myself as to any of my several coworkers who remained.
"How the heck am I gonna get back now? I can barely walk across the grounds when it's light out. I tripped over a pile of gravel in front of my cabin door this afternoon! It was totally obvious..." I went on, seriously worried for my safety.
All around me, other staff were striking confidently into the inky darkness, heedless of the uneven ground, the hole that had yet to be filled in, or the sludge-filled moat that separated the girls side of camp from the rest. All hazards.
Instead of leading the way on his scooter, as he had past weeks, this time, Andrew drove up beside me and maneuvered his body so there might be room for me to ride as well.
"Get on," he said, in a tone that left no room for argument.
"Are you sure?" I asked, knowing that my Cerebral Palsy affected my balance considerably, and one of the hallmarks of his form of Muscular Dystrophy was in balance. I imagined us both toppling off in the night, while his scooter continued to drive, boasting a bumper sticker that read: IN CASE OF RAPTURE, THIS VEHICLE WILL BE UNMANNED.
"Yes. Come on. Somebody will carry your crutches."
So, I climbed on.
The last thing I expected was heckling.
Calls of, "Ooh, Andrew!" and "All right, buddy!" were heard from the remaining staff members.
"I'm just doing a sister a service!" he snapped, and we carefully headed out, each hanging onto a handle.
We didn't crash. We didn't fall off. He got me safely to where I needed to be, just as he promised.
Camp was something of a summer tradition when I arrived at a fellow staff-member's house to carpool the hour-and-a-half north. Several had spent the night there, and the first person I saw upon climbing the stairs, was Ryan.
I had known him since he was fifteen. In fact, my first week on staff, Ryan was a camper. He wore bright, Hawaiian-style button-down shirts and he was a pale, skinny little guy with a head full of curly copper hair.
If I ever wondered where Ryan was at camp, he wasn't hard to find. Usually, he was a row behind me in chapel, using the back of my pew to keep drum beats. I was used to the deep congested cough that came with Cystic Fibrosis - something he considered his greatest blessing.
I was used to his sarcasm, his wit, his talk of death with the same casualness that others might discuss an upcoming test or exam. I was used to his crazy antics, eating chunks of butter out of the dish, offering fellow campers some digestive enzyme pills that "he didn't really need" and telling them passionately that "Jesus wants you to have a good digestive system!"
In the coming years, Ryan beside me, as a coworker. He would hold a door, or crack a joke. Once, he convinced his entire cabin full of seventh grade boys that he had fought in the Vietnam War. On my birthday, he serenaded me with a morbid song about being one year closer to dying. I burst out laughing, because it was Ryan.
When I walked in and saw him as we all prepared to go back up to camp, Ryan was wearing his vibrating vest as part of his respiratory therapy. It was a common sight. So, I greeted him, and went on.
"Okay! Let's get going!" someone called.
I started back down the stairs, only to discover that I was in trouble. I had been rushing to rejoin everyone, and hadn't fully dried my hands after washing them. The railing was on my right side, and that hand was known to be a little more spastic. I couldn't even sit down to scoot.
"Um...guys?" I called to the group of ten gathered around the door.
"Oh, do you need help?" someone asked.
"Yeah, I do," I said, because it was either admit it, or take a nosedive.
There was a murmur, but no one moved. I heard someone offer "piggyback ride" like it could be conjured out of nothing.
"I'll help you, Tonia," Ryan offered, crouching, with his back to me. "Hang on."
I did so, hesitantly at first, and then stronger, because I didn't want to be dropped.
His body shook the whole way down the stairs - he was slight, and possibly less muscular than I was - weaker from the battle to simply breathe. Still not yet eighteen, Ryan was a true gentleman, and the only one to step up and offer to help.
I had no idea that, ten years after Kayla watched me in the church sanctuary that Sunday so long ago, I would consider her one of my closest friends. But she is, and has been for the last few years.
One August, she invited me to the State Fair with her.
Two girls, closer to my age were also going, and I agreed, leaving my crutches behind, and opting for my manual wheelchair which could be dissembled and put in the back seat of a car.
The process of taking apart the chair was more complicated than I had thought, but the girls managed it, and finally we were on the road.
"We have to stop by church and pick up Bekah first," Kayla told me, and I nodded.
So, we did.
But I wasn't planning on an impromptu bathroom break, once we pulled into the parking lot. I knew I had no way in, unless I could convince the girls to somehow put the chair together for me to go in and take it apart once I returned. It was too much hassle, and I sighed, wishing I had thought to bring my crutches in case of unforeseen circumstances like these.
The other passenger, closer to my own age got out of the car, and started for the church.
I closed my eyes.
"Do you need to use the ladies room?" Kayla asked sweetly, startling me out of my thoughts. She stood, waiting for a response. Then, she offered me her arm.
And I was speechless.
Kayla was seventeen, and had grown into a stunningly beautiful young woman. Her hair was still long, but she wore it pulled back simply. Now, she dressed like a modern, conservative teenager, wearing capri pants and fancy bright colored tops. In recent years, she had discovered jewelry, and wore earrings, bracelets and necklaces. She loved to coordinate pink and brown, and was attracted to anything sparkly.
She was patient and steady, dealing with my balance issues and lack of coordination. She was quiet when I needed to concentrate. She steadied me when I needed it.
Kayla walked with me all the way in, and all the way out, like it was the most natural thing ever. She treated me with more wisdom and sensitivity than people twice her age.
I didn't know that what she heard five years earlier would continue to resonate so strongly within her. But it had. The moment Kayla was told that I was perfect just as I was, she stopped thinking of me as someone who needed healing, and started thinking of me as someone.
It wasn't just that Andrew, Ryan and Kayla helped me, it's how they helped me that made an impact. They each respected me and honored me enough as a human being to not ignore a simple need. All three of them treated me not only with kindness and compassion but also with a natural sense of ease and matter-of-factness that I craved.
I find it a little bit ironic that it's the people in the most vulnerable positions in life, the ones who struggle for the simplest things - moving, breathing - who act first when there is a need. It's the young, the innocent, with faith still like a child - who have made the most difference in my life.
And I so deeply appreciate their love.