Even though the church was small, Reverend Hansen estimated it was less than half full. Only the immediate family and a few acquaintances had bothered to come together on this blustery January day to pay their last respects to Donald Phillips, a man who, during his eighty-plus years of life, had survived a multitude of challenges that included being ignored and rejected by those around him.
Among the handful of people in attendance was one true friend. Although Timothy Ellison was only half the age of the deceased, they had become close over the last few years. As Timothy listened carefully to the words of the Reverend, he looked over at his friend’s widow, sitting in the wheelchair she had used for the past decade. Betty had been married for fifty-nine years to the love of her life. As the funeral progressed, she was struggling to control her emotions, but so far, she had kept her composure. However, it wasn’t easy. Her heart was broken, and she felt lost.
When Reverend Hansen concluded his prepared remarks, he looked at the sparse crowd. With tenderness, he said, “At the request of Donald and Betty, I would now like to invite Timothy Ellison to come up and tell us about his feelings for his friend.” He smiled and nodded toward the next speaker before taking his seat.
Slowly Timothy stood up and carefully made his way down the aisle. His balance was an issue due to the fact he had Down syndrome. The resulting intellectual and physical challenges led to a lifetime of being unfairly judged by his physical appearance and mannerisms. With each deliberate step he took, that form of judgment occurred all around him.
Timothy knew that his verbal speech could be difficult to understand under the best of circumstances, but it became even more of a problem when he felt stressed or when he was upset. Sadly, losing his dear friend was the most upsetting thing he could think of. That is why he had spent the previous day practicing over and over again exactly what he wanted to say.
As he got into position at the front of the sanctuary, a soft murmur went through the small crowd. This man appeared to be different, and they wondered why he, of all people, was speaking at a funeral. But over the next few minutes, they discovered what a unique friendship he’d had with Donald Phillips.
As Timothy looked out at the faces focused on him, he could feel his heart beating faster, but he was determined to tell them what his friend had meant to him. He was not going to allow his fear to keep him from talking about someone who had been so important in his life. He took a slow deep breath, just like he had practiced, and began.
“Hello. My name is Timothy, and I work at a coffee shop in the mall.”
Because he was nervous his speech was slightly slurred, but it was understandable.
“Many years ago, I began to notice Mr. Phillips coming in each day to walk in the mall. Lots of folks do it to avoid the weather, but the reason I noticed him was that he had to be careful with his balance just like me.
“He used a walker to steady himself, and although he wasn’t very fast, he showed up every day and kept at it. Each time he got through walking, he would sit down on a bench right outside our shop. But I noticed that people never spoke to him, some looked away when they saw him, and some just stared at him like they do me sometimes.”
A few people shifted position in the pews, aware that they had been guilty of staring at Timothy.
“Day after day I would see him, and it bothered me the way people didn’t speak to him. So one afternoon, when I got off work, I decided I would talk to this man. I bought a cup of coffee and took it over to him. When I asked if I could sit down and join him, he looked up at me and smiled. I could tell he was surprised. We sat there while he drank his coffee, and before long an hour had gone by. Finally, it was time for Mr. Phillips to head home to his wife Betty.”
Timothy paused and pointed at her. “This is Betty right here, and she is one of the nicest people I have ever known.”
His directness was startling to some in the church, but his sincere affection for Mr. and Mrs. Phillips made them realize they were listening to someone who was speaking from his heart.
“Me and Mr. Phillips had been friends for a while before I actually got to meet Betty. That happened when I was invited to their house for a Sunday afternoon meal. I don’t drive, so I took the bus. We had such a good time that it became a tradition. On the first Sunday of every month, I would visit them. That was when I found out how great she was. I’ve never been married, so I don’t know much about it, but I know they made each other very happy.
“Over the next few years, me and Mr. Phillips would sit together every day at the mall. We talked about all kinds of stuff, and we found out that we liked a lot of the same things. He was the easiest person to talk to that I’d ever met. Some people won’t speak to me, but he really listened because he was interested in what I had to say. And he was so funny. Sometimes when we were together my sides would hurt from laughing.
“But each day as we sat there, people would either stare at us or turn and look the other way. It was sad because the only reason people avoided Mr. Phillips was because of the way he looked. Some of you know that he was burned many years ago, and he almost died. It left his face with scars that made him look different. Some people even said he looked scary, but he was the kindest person I’ve ever met. He was not scary at all. That’s why I don’t think we should decide whether or not to like someone before we even meet them. I know what it’s like to have people judge you because of how you look. When they do that, it hurts.”
Reverend Hansen shook his head. He had never heard anyone speak with such honesty.
“But I liked Mr. Phillips without even knowing his story. I didn’t think it was right to ask him about the scars. I only found out how he got burned a long time later when Betty explained it to me.
“She told me that her husband didn’t like to talk about the fire, but after we had been friends for a while, she told me all about it. Betty said that one night he was driving, and he came upon a car wreck. There was smoke everywhere, and he could hear people crying for help from inside the car. The mom that was driving managed to get out, but Mr. Phillips had to rescue her little daughter. Betty told me that after the accident Mr. Phillips struggled for the rest of his life – but not from the burns and the pain. It was because there was a second little girl in the car, and when he rushed back to pull her out, the gas tank exploded. Because he was hurt so bad, Mr. Phillips couldn’t save her, and that was what changed him. Betty said that he never got over it.”
Many mourners had never heard the full details of how he acquired his injuries, and they were visibly moved by his story.
“Betty said there were nights when he would have nightmares and couldn’t sleep. She told me there were times when he wouldn’t eat very much. She also said that for many years he was so sad that he would barely leave the house, and when he did go out, people saw his scars and treated him like he wasn’t a person. But she said no matter how bad things got, they always had each other, and that’s how they got through it.
“The way people treated Mr. Phillips wasn’t right. He couldn’t help that he had scars. He got them because he was being brave. People didn’t understand that when they stared or pointed at the man who’d been burned, they were looking at a hero.
“But at least there was one good thing that came out of that accident. Mr. Phillips and Betty met because she was a nurse at the hospital where he was taken when he was hurt. She told me it took more than two years of surgeries for him to be healed. But she said she fell in love with him because she didn’t see his scars, just the person. She saw someone who had the courage to risk his life to save another person. And, of course, Mr. Phillips fell in love with her too. He always said that Betty was his greatest blessing. He told me once that the best thing that ever happened in his life was when he married the nurse who helped save him.
“I know that meeting Mr. Phillips was one of the best things that ever happened in my life. The day I took him a cup of coffee, I didn’t know I was going to meet my best friend and end up standing here talking to you. I just wanted to sit with him because I didn’t like the way he was being treated. And it turned out he treated me nice too. I guess we had that in common.
“We always enjoyed spending time together, no matter what other people thought about us. When I met Mr. Phillips, I felt like I’d found a wonderful secret that no one else knew about. I knew I was lucky that I got to be his friend.
“That’s why I couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t see the person that I saw. I remember one time a customer in the coffee shop asked me who the disfigured man was that I talked to each day. I didn’t know what disfigured meant, but I found out it’s just another way to label someone without knowing them.”
Timothy paused for a moment.
“I am so sad that Mr. Phillips died. It really hurts to lose someone you care about. He was such a good man; I wish more people knew that.”
He hoped that those in attendance now understood what kind of person his friend was.
“I guess that’s all I have to say. I’m sorry I’m not a better speaker, but thank you for listening to me. Now you know how much I cared about Mr. Phillips and Betty.”
Then with tears filling his eyes, he concluded his remarks by saying softly, “I just wish the people we love didn’t have to die.”
As he stepped down and carefully started making his way back to his seat, there was stunned silence in the sanctuary as those who had been so quick to judge Timothy now realized he embodied the true meaning of friendship.