Saint Henry Of The Lost And Found

I heard Henry's stammer for the first time one morning three weeks after the start of the school year. I had arrived early to our grade four Comprehension class where he was sitting at his desk at the front of the classroom reading aloud from a book about martyrs. Our teacher, Mr. Miller, was looking out the window with a mug of steaming coffee in his hand, and occasionally murmuring "good, good". Nobody else was in the room.
‘“There are ten C-C-Canadian saints in the C-C-Catholic Ch-Ch-Church. Eight w-w-were J-J-Jesuits that the Ch-Ch-Church considered m-m-martyrs during the s-s-settlement of N-N-New France.”’ Until that moment, it had not occurred to me that Henry even had a voice. None of our teachers seemed to inspire him to speak in class and he was never one to raise his hand even when he, like everyone else, knew the answer to the question being posed. I would learn in the months to come that Henry never said anything he did not mean with all his heart and this included answers to the simplest arithmetic questions, questions that did not require much of his heart to answer. Every other Friday, Henry could be seen outside the cafeteria, behind the 'Lost and Found' table. A week's worth of odds and ends ended up there, in a black milk crate under the table, waiting to be identified and reunited with its rightful owners. Henry was never very good at his job from what I could tell. Unlike Lisa from the sixth grade, who worked the table on alternating Fridays, Henry would simply spread the contents of the milk crate onto the table, foregoing the need for blind and detailed descriptions. He never questioned anybody's claim to an item even if everyone else in the school knew it wasn’t theirs; he took them at their word and trusted that they were telling him the truth. Once, I went there hoping to recover a lost key ring that my father had given me. The key ring, etched with my grandfather’s initials and given to my father after the Korean War following my grandfather’s death, was valuable to me because it came from a side of my family that I sensed I would lose ties with irretrievably in the coming years. Henry peered over the book he was reading and smiled at me. I rummaged through the items on the table. Amongst other things, there was a dented Spiderman pencil case, a Nancy Drew book with the cover torn off, a sweat-stained headband, and an array of mismatched pens and pencils. I knew that these items would never be recovered again, were better suited for the garbage can than a lost and found table. My key ring was not there and I left the table feeling deeply disappointed. As I walked away, I heard Henry's voice behind me.
"S-s-sorry," he said. When I turned around, he wore a look on his face that I could only describe as mercy. It was a look that I had never experienced before and would not experience again until many years later when my maternal grandmother gave me the same look days before she passed away.
Henry and I had little in common. He grew up in the same Mississauga suburb all of his life, while I had been shuffled from one corner of the city to the other--- six times--- since coming to this country five years before. This was my first (and only) year at Canadian Martyrs; Henry had been attending the school since junior kindergarten. I was a recent immigrant who could barely string together a simple sentence in my adopted language; he was a born-and-bred Canadian of distant Polish ancestry who stammered in his native tongue. So it was that for this latter reason that we were both singled out from the others at school--- broken English forged our unintended solidarity. During recess, we would often circle each other on the outskirts of the playground like wounded animals, each avoiding the others' eyes and affecting to prize a solitude that was as much unwanted as it was imposed. And I began to see how his volunteer work at the lost and found table was his own way of undoing his isolation from others. Sitting there behind that table, even the most cursory recognition by others that he was serving some function in the school, was a form of fellowship.
It was a very blustery morning in late November that brought Henry and I together.  An unexpected gust of wind whisked my notebook from my arms as I entered the school grounds, scattering loose sheets in every direction. I chased after as many as I could, trapping them under my foot one sheet at a time, but I knew it was in vain. Some of the sheets had gone into the playground, others had been carried over the baseball diamond fence, and still others were littered across the soccer field. Some kids had gathered at the track, pointing and laughing as I ran from one end of the school grounds to the other. I began to panic at the thought of explaining to my geography teacher what had happened to my homework. Then from the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a smudge moving toward me from the other end of the soccer field. Henry was snatching up what he could and stood leaning against a goal post at one point to catch his breath, his pants flapping around his ankles like trapped and desperate ducks.
“F-f-found some,” he shouted, holding some of the sheets in his hands. I thanked him and we walked to our homeroom class in silence. And though most of my homework was lost, that morning I had gained a friend.
Grade four was a time when childish mischief could harden into adolescent malice in a blink of an eye, when bullies seemed to materialize out of thin air like villains in a comic book. It was all around us, this vague menace, ready to pounce on unsuspecting innocents. There was that one Friday before Christmas break when Henry and I wandered to the mall during lunch break. He had wanted to buy a Christmas card for Mr. Miller, a man whom he worshipped, a surrogate to his own father who had passed away when Henry was four years old. As we crossed the parking lot, four boys cut in front of us, blocking our way. At the head of the group was Gord, a beefy grade six student with a bunched-up face and coal-black eyes who, it was whispered around school, was a kleptomaniac.
“Hey, looky here,” he announced to the others. “It’s the chinaman and the retard.” The others snickered.
“You gonna go steal something in the mall, you little shit?” He was poking at my chest with his gloves. He looked over at Henry, his breath spewing out of his flaring nostrils like the bull. "Finders keepers, losers weepers, eh? Hah!" Just then Henry, who was at least a head shorter than I, stepped in-between us. He raised his shoulders, pulled his toque back from his forehead, and locked eyes with Gord for what seemed like a long time. Gord appeared surprised by this.
“You want to say something to me, retard?” He shoved Henry to the ground, then looked to the others for approval. They began closing in around us. I could feel the anger rising in my chest, up through my neck and into my face. The tension in the air seemed to gather and concentrate to a tiny point between Gord’s forehead and mine. I had never been in fight before and, though I did not know why back then, I became suddenly fearful of something.  It wasn’t Gord or any of the other boys there; it was something else I was afraid of, some violent tendency inside me ready to explode. It was as if I was standing on the precipice overlooking a bottomless hole and wanting to plunge myself into it. I felt that I might begin hurting someone and not be able to stop myself. I held my breath and clenched the fingers of my hands. And as if he was reading my mind, Henry got up right away and planted himself in front of Gord again. Everybody stopped. After what felt like an eternity, Henry opened his mouth to speak.
"You change your life."
It was no more than a whisper, but the four words had the force of a punch against my solar plexus, allowing me to exhale. The words seemed to rise from some deep clarified place within him. Henry held Gord’s gaze for a while longer, pulled his toque back down over his forehead, and pushed his way between the others. I followed behind him.
“Retard!” was Gord’s last word, lost in the din of cars and voices rushing in to fill the void between us. For the rest of lunch break, Henry barely said a word. We picked out Mr. Miller's card and hung around the mall until it was time to return to school. After my last class, I went by the lost and found table and asked Henry if I could join him. We talked about our math homework and our teachers and what we hoped to get for Christmas, but we never discussed what had happened earlier that day. I wanted to say something about it, but did not know what to say. That night, lying on my bed, I thought about Henry and those words and I was proud to know him.
March Break came and went, and Henry had not returned to school. After the fourth day, I asked Mr. Miller if he knew where Henry was. He seemed surprised by my query.
“But I thought you and Henry were close friends?” He said. He went on to explain what had happened to Henry during the break. He was at a Sunday mass with his mother, but had complained of a headache that morning. After joining the line to receive his host and wine, he collapsed to the floor. The ambulance came and rushed him to the hospital where he stayed overnight. Blood tests were taken, his heart and head checked for any irregularities. At this point, Mr. Miller paused for a moment before continuing. The doctors had discovered that he was suffering from a rare condition that attacked the nervous system, the same disease that had taken Henry’s father’s life.
“He’s at home,” he said. “Recovering.” From the look on Mr. Miller’s face, I could tell that “recovering” was not quite the word he had meant to use. Words, I was only beginning to understand, were blunt instruments, particularly as they were used to explain sickness and death. I stood by Mr. Miller’s desk and said nothing.
“Here,” he said handing me Henry’s address and telephone number on a scrap of paper.
The townhouse complex was three blocks from the school. All the units in the complex were tall and narrow, taking up two to three floors. Henry’s unit looked inward into a playground placed high above street level. I knocked on the door and a woman who might have been Henry’s grandmother answered. I asked if Henry lived there. She lowered her eyes and nodded, stepping aside so that I could enter. It was as though she knew who I was and had been expecting me for some time. The entire house smelled of simmering sausage, garlic and spoiled milk. We passed through the living room. The chesterfield and matching chair was wrapped in transparent plastic. On one wall hung a large wooden crucifix with a rosary strung around it, and on the other, a black-and-white graduation photograph of a young man. The far-away, pensive expression in the man’s eyes spoke to a promise of a prosperous and happy life somehow just beyond his reach. It occurred to me that the man in the picture was Henry’s father: they had the same bushy eyebrows and broad nose. The old woman led me up the stairs and into another room where Henry lay in bed. There was a stale smell in the air, as though the windows had not been opened for years. A white sheet was pulled up over his chest and he appeared to be sleeping. I could see the outline of his body beneath the sheets. His head was disproportionately larger than his body. He had shrunk dramatically since I last saw him, and although he had always had a small frame he was now no bigger than an average grade two student. By his bedside, on a night table under a pool of yellow light from the lamp, was a leather-bound Bible and a small plastic box full of trinkets. I recognized some of the items in the box; they were the ones left for months on the lost and found table, given up for good by its owner. And on top of the sheets, our grade four Comprehension book about martyrs was lying face-down. Henry opened his eyes, adjusting them slowly to the light, and gave me a wan smile. It dawned on me at that moment that I had never really noticed the color of his eyes before. They were turquoise, the right one just a shade greener than the left.
“You m-m-met my m-m-mother,” he said. The old woman was now sitting on the opposite side of the bed. She could not have been more than thirty-five years old, but her face was creased with deep ridges like an old baseball glove. It was a face ravaged not by the usual passage of time, but by some nameless agony of having to witness her husband, and now her only child, waste away before her eyes. If she had ever been beautiful in her youth, I would never have guessed by her appearance that day. Sitting immobile by her son’s bedside, she was just another broken woman resigned to a life beyond her capacity to grasp it.
Henry said very little during my visit; I said even less. When it was time for me to leave, I stood by his bed and touched his hand. I told him that I would come to visit him again soon. His face beamed with gratitude, for I knew that he was pleased that I had come at all. I turned around at the bedroom door and we looked at each other in anticipation, as if the same thing were on our lips but neither of us could find a way of expressing it. I just waved and he waved back. In the living room, his mother invited me to sit down beside her on the couch. She asked me if I wanted something to eat, that she was preparing dinner for Henry and that there would be plenty to eat. I told her that I had to be home soon, that I didn’t want to worry my mother.
“Henry has always been so good to me,” she said. “Like you, always thinking about his mother.” She sighed and looked up at the ceiling. The silence was like another presence in the room, fat and gloomy.
“He always talks about you,” she said, rising from her seat. “You are his only friend. Please come by any time. It will make him very happy to see you.” She walked me to the door and wished me a safe trip home. I was happy to be outside, out in the crisp spring air, and out of the airless space that was Henry’s house. I thought about my own mother as I walked home, as different from Henry’s mother as I was to Henry, and prayed silently that when the day came, she would pass away before I did.
Henry did not return to school the rest of that year and I never visited or called him. That summer, our family moved once again, this time away from the humdrum perils of the suburbs and deep into the inner city. I forgot all about Henry. I was too busy re-configuring my life to yet another environment and another set of friends and enemies. It would not be until many years later, while flipping through my elementary school books, that I was reminded of him again. A yellowing scrap of paper fell out of my grade four Comprehension book. It was the same one that Mr. Miller had given to me that day by his desk, the one with Henry’s address and phone number on it. From my apartment in downtown Toronto, I picked up the phone and dialed the number on it and was not surprised to hear Henry’s mother on the other end of the line. Her voice had not changed in all these years, each word pulled down by a ghost note of sadness. I thought I could hear her sighs between sentences. She commented on how much better my English was, how proud my mother must be that it had improved so much over the years. And yet, it was as if we were still continuing that last conversation, the one in her living room, while her son lay dying on his bed.
“You were his only friend. Thank you for calling.”
Henry had died almost one year to the day I last saw him. The only persons from the school who attended the funeral were Mr. Miller and the school principal. When I got off the telephone with his mother, I recalled that scene outside the mall so long ago. Henry had stepped between me and all that was ugly in the world, sparing me from having to behold it a moment longer, holding me back from the darkness into which I was ready to plunge myself, perhaps never to return. I remembered those words, whispered, but sounding as if he’d bellowed them from the rooftops of the world, and directed them, not only to those standing around him, but to all people, saint and sinner alike, through all ages.
“You change your life.”
And I remembered how it was at that precise moment that I felt I was hearing Henry’s voice for the very first time.