I never explained how I first came to Sri Lanka. My journey started with an e-mail that I blew off for three months.
It was an e-mail from my mom titled “Fwd: Deaf & Blind Orphanage,” a forward from my parents’ good friends Jim and Julie Regan. They had written to their friends about an orphanage they had visited in Sri Lanka. “Jim and I visited the facility and were quite impressed…they are looking for volunteers who understand the deaf and blind.”
My mom asked me and my sister, “Can you think of anyone or an educational agency that would be interested in this project?” I don’t think she ever expected that I’d be that “anyone” who went over there.
But it was March 2006, six months before I hopped onto the plane for Asia, and I was still gainfully employed in my first full-time job as a consultant for a government contracting firm in Washington, D.C. “Consultant” is a rather broad term in D.C.-speak and I got to work on a lot of different projects as well as manage DeafDC.com.
Back to the e-mail. “Can you think of…an educational agency?” Eh. Yet another e-mail about some poor deaf school in a remote part of the world. Not really my problem, I thought. I’m a little busy right now. And off the edge of my browser window it went, buried under a torrent of more pressing, more current, more local e-mails.
Three months later at the end of June, I found myself on a quiet Sunday morning cleaning out my Gmail inbox. I remember it very clearly: lying on my back on my bed covered with that awesome striped blue and white Nautica comforter. Exposed brick walls all around me in my basement room at 427 16th Street SE. My knees were raised so I could stretch out my lower lumbar. My iBook G4 resting on my waist.
My mom’s e-mail comes up once again, and this time I read it more carefully. It’s actually a forward of a forward; the original composer is Nerissa Martin, a friend of Julie. “Anyone with skills re teaching deaf kids would be fantastic. Maybe the best thing would be to get them to email me.” And then in the middle of the e-mail is Nerissa’s address.
By then I’ve grown disillusioned with my D.C. life. My dreams–travel! see the world! do something outrageous!–were slipping away as I continued to define myself by a job that I no longer loved. I was weary of endless DPHHs and had recently decided that I didn’t want to go to law school anymore. What was ahead of me but yet more questions?
Even now, I’m not sure what drove me to clicking on Nerissa’s e-mail address and composing a new message.
June 25, 2006
My parents are close friends of Judy and Jim Regan…they passed along your e-mail a few months ago…I’m wondering if you’re still looking for volunteers to participate in the project…I can create a website…write often…supplement learning…enrich their education…I’d like to grab this opportunity to contribute in any way I can.
Adam, you sound great; please come. Uh, Nerissa, I don’t need to do an interview or fill out a form? Adam, nope, just come. Okay, Nerissa, I’ll be there September 19.
Mom and Dad, is it okay if I go to a war-torn island thousands of miles away and teach deaf children for free? Sure, Adam, follow your dreams.
Tonight, two years and seven months later, I’m in my room, having just wrapped up a webcam session with my dear friends Amila and Lakmal. I haven’t talked to them since my second trip there last June, and we catch up on the news. Amila’s now a full-fledged computer teacher and matron at Rohana Special School. I show them my hoodie jacket and a pomegranate fruit, and introduce them to my mom, who promptly asks both of them if they’re married. I wonder if my mom was Sri Lankan in a past life. They tell me that this week nine students are traveling to Tangalle to take the O/L exams.
After saying good-bye and closing the chat window, I consider that I’m in the middle of my first year of graduate school, studying to become a bona fide teacher of the Deaf two years after I taught my first English class. I now have dear friends on the other side of the world, just a phone call away, and a lifetime of photographs and experiences from that special island. Did all that happen with just one e-mail from a friend of my parents?
Earlier today, I watched my parents say good-bye to that friend, Jim Regan. He suddenly departed this world shortly after Thanksgiving, leaving us all behind to ask an anguished “Why?” At the memorial service, set in verdant surroundings that rivaled the Sri Lankan jungles, heartfelt stories were told about a gregarious man who touched countless lives. My father was the emcee; his old law partner Richard delivered the main eulogy.
Last week, I was communicating with Nerissa and David, typing out the details which they needed to know. I ask David if he recalls that the Regans were the reason I found out about them and Sri Lanka in the first place.
He responds, “I do remember that it was through Julie and Jim that we came to know you. It does make one reflect on how a life can leave such positive vibrations behind even if the life itself ends in tragedy.”
Vibrations…through an e-mail. Through a video chat. Through a handshake or a hug. Can entire lives be revealed and resolved through these vibrations?
Thank you, Jim and Julie, for everything–for the journey to Sri Lanka, and for the journey I’m now on.