This last trip, I spent some time reminiscing about how we got our start in Pearlington to begin with. Our first trip we went with the PC(USA) Disaster Assistance Program, they are the one's that assigned us to Pearlington. We knew within days of our arrival that we would be going back. But the PDA changed the game on us. Those under the age of 18 weren't allowed anymore, for legitimate reasons, but I couldn't NOT take the youth who felt invested in Pearlington, so we joined up with the Pearlington Recovery Center for trip number 2. Oh my.
While much good came out of the Recovery Center, I knew right away that I couldn't go through another experience with them. The hours we spent waiting around for jobs to come available was maddening. There were other issues as well, but by about halfway through I was pretty convinced that we wouldn't be heading back to Pearlington again. And then we met Tom. Tom gave us jobs. Tom was nice. Tom was funny and dedicated to putting volunteers to work. So for trip number 3 I decided that our team would work with Tom.
Tom is from Colorado and had come down as a first responder to help immediately after Hurricane Katrina. He was heading up an organization called Mountains to Mississippi that was created specifically to help Pearlington. Tom introduced us to Ben, a local who was helping Tom with the different volunteer groups working with Mountains to Mississippi. While there were still down times, we worked hard. Ben was helpful, made us laugh and genuinely encouraged us to do our best. When it came time to think about the 4th trip, the decision was easy. We were sticking with Ben and Tom.
Tom hasn't been able to be around since our 4th trip, so we've been working solely with Ben, learning a lot about the South and growing closer. On our 5th trip, Ben gave us the insider's tour of Pearlington: lunch at the Turtle and a drive to Logtown. We started exchanging emails, which Ben would always sign "Your friend, Ben". A friendship was being forged.
In December of 2008 Tom called with the information that Ben was in the hospital. I assumed that Tom was calling because we had a trip planned but as we got into the conversation Tom said "Ben doesn't want a whole lot of people to know, but his friends should really know what was going on." His friends. Ben's friends. It took a moment to realize that I was in that group of friends. I admit, I got teary.
This last trip, Ben and I spent a lot more time together. He teased me and tested me on my "southern" as usual. But he also gave me responsibilities he hadn't before. We drove out to look at a work site together, where he promptly handed me his notebook to write down all that needed to be done and the supplies that were supposed to be bought. He talked about his family, sharing pictures of his grandkids. He opened up about his frustrations and worries more. He slipped up and said "you're welcome" when Debbie said "Thank You"...for which I promptly called him on the carpet. "How come Debbie can say Thank you and I can't?" (I made the mistake of saying "Thank You" the first time I met Ben. He informed me there was nothing to Thank him for, that it was us that deserved the Thanks, not him. I've learned to say Thank you without saying the words...but I slipped up this last trip and said it the first day. Ben promptly scolded me saying "I thought I taught you better than that." ) We shared in a lot of laughs and one day I couldn't stop myself, I said the words "I love you, Ben". His hug got a little tighter, his voice a little gruffer and I got a kiss on the cheek. I knew that I'd hit the soft spot in his heart.
It was the last day, though, that Ben ripped my heart open. After shaking hands with the young adults and hugging Jolynn, Ben looked at me and as he went to give me a hug said "now this one, she's like my sister". I held it together, barely, as those words washed over my soul. His hug was precious and ferocious. We both were fighting back the tears (though he won't ever tell you that) and with a "love ya" and a blown kiss he was gone.
I have a new brother. He's 60-something, he's really a brother of the soul but it doesn't matter. I love him just the same.
Me, Ben and Yo Momma March 2008