Back Story

Tom was one of the men I lived with at l’Arche. He had some quirky habits, one of which was repeatedly asking, “Where’s Gary?” No one in the community knew where Gary was, or even who Gary was, so Tom’s question did not get answered, and he continued to ask.

One time when Tom asked about Gary, I asked him where they had met. Tom named a building at the Provincial institution in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, the place Tom had lived from the time he was a child until he came to l’Arche as a young adult.

“What’s his last name?” I asked. Tom said, “Gary Hunt.”

I called the institution and explained the situation to the operator. She asked me to hold, and a few seconds later a man answered the phone and identified himself as Gary Hunt.

He turned out to be the Gary Hunt. When he came to work at the institution years earlier, he had been assigned to the building Tom mentioned. I told him about Tom’s positive memories of him and how Tom would ask for him. Gary did not remember Tom, but he was willing to meet him.

I then told Tom I had found Gary, and we made plans to drive to Portage la Prairie in two weeks to meet Gary at a restaurant. Tom was ecstatic.

The day of our excursion finally arrived. Throughout the drive, Tom vacillated between moments of pure joy—rubbing his hands together while giggling excitedly—and moments of acute anxiety when he would get very serious and say, “I am trusting Madeline to take me to see Gary Hunt.” I kept reassuring him that I was taking him to see Gary Hunt, even though I did not understand why he needed the reassurance—until we got off the highway and entered Portage la Prairie.

As we drove down the street in the direction of the institution, Tom’s voice dropped to a whisper and he began to sing “Jesus loves me, this I know….” All of a sudden, I understood Tom’s anxiety. I had not considered what going to Portage la Prairie might have meant to Tom. I had been so impressed with myself for solving the mystery of Gary that I had overlooked the mystery of Tom. As tears welled up in my eyes, I realized that Tom was right to question my trustworthiness.

The visit worked out as planned and Tom was thrilled to see Gary. We even captured it on Polaroid pictures. But I was distracted; I kept thinking about Tom’s back story and how Gary was only one small piece of Tom’s history.

That day offered many valuable lessons to me—about trust and moving beyond my past and the joy in reconnecting with someone who once had a positive impact on me. It was also a huge lesson in humility.


2 thoughts on “Back Story

  1. Anne Marie Lom

    What a beautiful story. How compassionate of you to take his query seriously and honor his need to see Gary. It will be a reminder to me today to follow through when someone comments on something and I don’t understand the comment.

  2. Madeline Bialecki

    I think this story came back to me because I am so aware of my own back story, and how people here do not know it. My life has been fairly non-conventional, and I have been thinking of how to introduce myself.


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