From time to time, in those fleeting moments that seem to disappear as quickly as they arrive, life does everything to grab your attention and make you stop, if only for a minute, to realize the kind of world we pass by with numbing regularity.
Take for instance that slice of reality that unveiled itself to me early in a dense-fogged morning even before the sun rose to burn off the vestiges of night and get our engines revving. I stopped for about twenty minutes to enjoy a cup of brewed energy and a couple of soft scrambled eggs, find a nice quiet little place where the only noise was the yawns of the waitresses and the bell that sounded whenever the front door was opened. It was peaceful yet tense as my mind began to race as to the demands of what looked like a very busy day ahead. “I’m ready,” I thought, as I paid, left a friendly tip, and made my way to the car.
Once I passed the dimly lit parking lot, I had to turn onto to a road that saddled a large field where once stood one of the city’s oldest and endearing nursing homes. Back in the day, at least when I was in school, everyone knew someone who had a grandparent, uncle or aunt, or even one of the Carmelite Sisters who used to operate the facility. It had been summarily torn down after a failed attempt to raise the funds to upgrade the home of more than 100 residents and what was once an architectural and historical landmark was just empty space with a sign that maybe, just maybe, there was going to be a quickly accessible gas station and mini mart.
Before I could turn on to the major street to make my way to the office, something unusual caught my eye. In the middle of this somewhat wide-open abandoned field, I could see what appeared to be the vague shape of a human being sitting on a lawn chair surrounded with small boxes, or that was at least what my quasi-active imagination was conjuring. Being involved with homeless people as I am, I thought it would be safe enough to park at a distance and approach what might be a future client for one of our shelters. Sure enough, I was almost right: it was a man, attired in layers of old and ragged clothes, sitting, not on a lawn chair, but several plastic water cartons with several discarded fast-food containers, which I presumed were half eaten leftovers that he either found or was given by folks who felt sorry and were caught up in the moment.
From a slight distance and measurable distance, I called out to him and spoke my name gently asking if he needed any help. “I’m so sad,” he said. My tender response was a most sincere, “I’m so sorry, is there anything I can do for you?” After a few seconds of both of us realizing that we represented little or no threat to each other, he began to explain what was happening. Even though his moving narrative took only about two minutes, I felt as if time had stopped and the glowing lights of dawn that I could see in the distance formed the most amazing and dramatic backdrop to the scene in real time, as they say.
The mercifully abridged version of this one-act human play was simple. He had been a long-time resident of the nursing home which once stood there. His wife and their only adult son had died and the only family and circle of friends he had for the past eleven years were his fellow residents including a few priests who were convalescing there. When the decision to close the facility was made, so were many, many promises offered as to the humane replacement of those who called that place their home. As fate or life or Karma or whatever is the more popular cosmic rationale employed these days, he literally fell between the cracks. Let me explain. At the nursing facility he was transferred to, he fell over a rather large opening in the front sidewalk and was taken first to the hospital then to a rehabilitation facility. In the meantime, that facility was sold, reorganized, and apparently his files were lost or misplaced. When he returned, there was a grave misunderstanding, words exchanged that should never have been spoken, and a very angry, dejected man finding his way back to his old home, now just an empty field with only the sounds of crickets and passing cars for a lullaby.
He returned to the only place where he could share his memories, and even though there was nothing there anymore, he still remembered and still cried, and still hoped. I rushed to my office to call some colleagues in other agencies to see what we could do, but when we returned later that afternoon, he was gone and thankfully, the water cartons and fast-food remnants were still there to provide proof of my encounter to my fellow case managers.
I have driven by that field of memory quite often these days wondering what ever happened to that gentleman and if he was safe somewhere. Of course, I pray for him even today as I share with you this memory.
Where are your memories kept and shared? Do you cherish those with whom you tell and retell the most amazing facets of your life? Are you happy to be alive?
I know I am.
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“Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean, tears from the depths of some divine despair rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes, in looking on the happy autumn fields, and thinking of the days that are no more.” ~Alfred Lord Tennyson