We sat by each other at Floyd Casey Football Stadium—probably about this time of year. But the unmerciful Waco autumn weather felt more like July. At least the sun had set, granting some relief.
I can’t remember what we talked about over our popcorn and Dr. Peppers. Maybe we mocked the Milli Vanilli songs we’d listened to countless times that summer, or laughed (again) about the Caddo “C” Julie Caldwell and I mistakenly finger-painted on a camper’s sleeping face in our midnight attempt to aggravate our Osage friend. We probably tried (unsuccessfully) to make sense of the strangeness we’d encountered in our James Joyce class. Whatever was said, I’m certain it included laughter—Troy’s specialty.
Partway through the game, the Flash photography girl appeared, so we called her over to take our picture. Laughing, I mentioned that my eyes would probably be closed like usual. But just before she snapped the shot, Troy reached around from behind me and, with his fingers, he propped open my eyes. A few days later, I bought the picture. Troy’s trick had worked.
We finished our graduate studies, and Troy and I didn’t communicate as often. Soon, our lives went in different directions. After many adventures with Camp Ozark (which many of us envied fiercely), he landed a teaching job in Seattle and settled in. In some ways, his life’s trajectory seemed to change by a few degrees. Yet in other ways, it seems to have been steady, sure.
The path I chose included some years of sharp, rocky terrain, and my steps grew uncertain. Disoriented, I stumbled often and with no small consequence. Those years chipped away at my courage and came frighteningly close to stealing my hope altogether. Had I been willing to admit my struggles, I know I would have benefited from the encouragement Troy and other friends would have offered. But I was afraid: I didn’t really believe anyone could offer answers that would actually feel like answers. So I hiked on, plodding and blundering.
Somehow, I managed to arrive at the end of that stretch. There, I was simultaneously stunned and grateful to be met by Mercy. It was embodied in so many forms: a family’s unflinching acceptance, a loving marriage, amazing children, and—more recently—an opportunity to use the degree I’d worked so hard to earn. An opportunity to teach English to community college students here in Tennessee.
Which, of course, reminded me of Troy. So I messaged him, sharing my excitement about the job and asking his advice about managing the workload. Troy’s response was another embodiment of that Mercy. My misguided stumbling didn’t matter. Instead, our last exchange ended with his reply, which resonated with his characteristic and kind combination of wit, wisdom, and encouragement.
I spent hours on Saturday sifting through a box of college memorabilia, looking for that particular picture. So far, the search has been unsuccessful. But it doesn’t really seem to matter: I won’t be forgetting it anytime soon. But I’m newly resolved to open my eyes wide, to watch for opportunities to laugh, to talk, to receive Mercy.
And to extend it.