This piece from Steven Estes is a gift, a reminder that we are told to welcome and love — and we are not told to measure success or failure. This piece convicted me and made me shift my focus. For that, I am forever grateful.
The mood has been festive on this December night of bone‑stiffening cold. We walk a Philadelphia sidewalk beside the hospital. I hear her before I see her.
Our family and others have been Fah‑la‑la‑la‑la‑ing through the halls. Joyful for having made a few lives less dismal. Watching our kids give ornaments they’d crafted for the residents.
Lessons a classroom could never teach.
Now we’re outside, but between the laughter — barely audible — I hear sobbing. Then I spot her. Late thirties? Hard to tell. She leans against a granite wall, face in arm, oblivious to our passing.
“Follow the others to the restaurant,” I whisper to my kids. “We’ll catch up.” My wife stays with me . . . a hand on a shoulder . . . how can we help? Wisdom please, God. We are green at this. Bunglers. A quick decision. Within the hour she’s bundled in our van, headed to the countryside where we live. To a motel near our home. We’ll see you in the morning, sort things out.
Sort, we did.
She had, but didn’t have, a child. The authorities had declared her unfit, taken him away. Her jobs hadn’t work out. Yet something about her drew us. That weekend she did what we did — ran errands, decorated, attended church. Sitting on our couch she clutched our infant son to her chest like a doll; we couldn’t tell which of them looked the youngest.
But life goes on. “We need to find you someplace more permanent.” On the phone, making inquiries. Yes, she had heard of a certain mission in the city. She wasn’t enthusiastic, but what was the option?
So on bitterly cold Monday I drove her back to Philadelphia, my twelve year old daughter in the back. And during that drive, the saddest transformation I ever remember — the woman’s relaxed face stiffening by the mile, her demeanor hardening, her language growing coarser.
Downtown. She knows the street, will give me directions. Turn here. Two blocks, left there. Left, left, right. A bit further. Somewhere near here. Go right. Turn left.
“What’s going on?” I interrupt. Then I realize. She has no intention of entering any mission. It’s too constricting — at least the street has no rules.
“Pull over,” she snaps. I do, we sit. From her pocket she pulls a new pair of gloves. “These are for you,” she tells my daughter. Obviously, they’ve been lifted at the mall . . . but she can’t bring herself to keep them. So then, a conscience.
“Thanks for your outreach,” she mutters quickly. Then, “You people are so *%!#@ naive!” Stone‑faced, she slips into the icy air, slams the door, and blends into the hurrying crowds. Soon she fades, like the puffs of breath on the sidewalk.
Stillness. Silence. Sodden eyes. A twelve‑year‑old’s hand in her father’s.
Our hospital outreach? It “worked.” Our homeless outreach? Not so much. My daughter, now in her early thirties?
. . . No one slips by her without a hand on the shoulder.
. . . No one without a soft, if bungling, “How can I help?”