There are people you meet and you know that your life won’t be the same just from crossing paths with them.
I noticed him right away in our lunchroom. Even after just a couple months of being here, someone new stands out.
He was layered in coats and sweatshirts. His eyes were downturned. His hair so unruly and matted. His beard had decided to grow in its own directions. His skin was so weathered from the cold it looked sunburnt and sore.
I approached him with some caution. Not everyone who comes in welcomes a conversation and it is important to know the signs when they don’t. Many times people just want to eat and be done. He looked up as I approached and the desperation and sorrow in his eyes nearly buckled me at the knees. I smiled and in my smile was some secret weapon that unlocked his exterior defense and tears immediately cascaded down his cheeks.
I sat and all I could ask is: “What can I do?”
He tried to talk between his tears; “No one has smiled at me in a long time. I need shelter. Please. I can’t take the streets anymore. I am so lost.”
It was then that I noticed his hands. Dry skin can’t even touch the cracks and rough edges that were his hands. Blood was oozing from so many broken places and dried dirt and caked mud were everywhere. He saw me looking. “My hands.” he murmured.
“Yes,” I agreed. Nothing more needed to be said.
I went to the kitchen and filled a basin of hot water and soap and found the softest cloth I could find.
I carried it over and asked if I could wash his hands. He agreed.
As softly as I could I tried to clear the blood. His hands felt like the bark of a tree. He flinched in pain even with the softest touch of the warm water. His tears kept flowing freely.
“I am sorry I smell” he whispered.
“You are fine” I replied. He did in fact smell. A mixture of wood smoke, grain alcohol, and unwashed body.
“This is not who I am. I am a father. I have kids. I had a job. I was somebody.” He said this as if in a mantra he has sung many times before and it was as if he was begging me to hear him.
“I know” And I do know. I know that no one decides this is who they want to be.
“My daughter was the first baby I ever held.” He began to explain, “I was only 19 when I had her. I wanted to give her the world. I worked so hard. I raised my kids. And I helped with my grandkids. I had money in the bank. How did this happen to me?” His eyes beg me for an answer.
“My kids are right here in town and I won’t bother them. They don’t need to be bothered by me. I am ashamed. I am sorry for my smell.” He repeats.
“I bet we can get you a shower. If you want to come back tomorrow I think we can bring you to the truck stop and get you showered. It doesn’t bother me, but I think you would feel so much better.” I offered
“Yes,” he replies. “Please.”
He keeps talking and telling me stories about his kids. We, at one point, laugh uproariously over a story he has just told me. As soon as he catches himself laughing, he stops and assesses me. I nod in encouragement and he laughs again as if somewhere along the line he forgot that he is allowed to laugh for the sake of joy.
Finally, I ask the question I have been waiting to ask. “Is it alcohol?”
“Yes,” he admits. “Been drinking my whole life. But how did this happen? I don’t know how this happened.”
I know he is not ready for anything more than this acknowledgment. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has to be met in his life before we can do anything about what is at the root. He has polished off two trays of food while we talked. He will need to get a shower in and some clean clothes. I find him a bottle of lotion for cracked and dried hands and I tell him how often he should apply it. Those hands. They tell me everything.
Tomorrow if he returns, I will take him to shower. I will continue to listen and hold his stories. I will pray for a way that he can get sober and rebuild his life. But the steps to get there are many.
Today Ray gave me a gift. He let me sit with him in his pain, and he let me wash his hands. Today he shared his humanity with me. He reminded me as so often happens in this work, that all of us are so broken and so wounded. Ray and I could have, at any moment, been interchangeable. If I would have chosen right instead of left then I could have been in his chair.
Ray’s broken hands in mine gave me a sense of God’s vast mercy and love. Gentle acceptance is sometimes all we need to crack open the door to hope.
Karen Cassidy (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Karen is a mother of three amazing adult children. She works for a non-profit organization that serves some of the most marginalized and vulnerable individuals. She is passionate about people and believes every person has a story just waiting to be told.