“Mom, he’s lost his shoe.”
After a late afternoon swim at the community pool, Bren and I are driving home. I’m feeling languorous, having whiled away the hours reading a romance novel, dipping into the pool when the heat was too much. Bren has been on one of his lap swimming binges, forty laps today, so he’s a bit tuckered as well. We are wrapped in the pleasant aura of a well-shared afternoon, mild fatigue, and the anticipation of a leisurely dinner on our shady deck.
Today’s route home is a short cut. It veers off the more widely traveled streets and onto a side street, At one point, it crosses over the heavily-trafficked street we are now approaching. My stomach clutches as I realize the man he is referring to sits in a rickety wheelchair and, I think, is attempting to cross without a crosswalk.
Is this guy crazy? At this light, drivers turn right on red after touching their brakes with barely a glance at traffic. They would not be expecting a pedestrian in this no-walk zone. Just because he’s in a wheel chair doesn’t mean he should cross improperly. I feel my anxiety spike, worrying about what he is going to do and hoping he doesn’t decide to start across as we draw near.
The light cycles to red so I have ample time to brake as I approach. At this reduced speed, I take a closer look, and I am shamed by my quick judgment. He is of indeterminate age. His grizzled white beard and wrinkled face could be those of a man in his late sixties or perhaps even a younger man treated unkindly by life. His tee shirt is greyed from age and too large for his slight frame. His out-of-date athletic shorts reveal legs covered with dark red areas, one oddly map like, that might be either scars or places where infections have recently healed. The wheel chair is a relic, the stainless steel scuffed and bearing residue from past adhesive tapings. Bren is right; one foot is bare, and the missing grimy, tattered gym shoe is sitting in his lap.
Oh. He is not waiting to cross; he is waiting for cars to stop so he can beg for money. My resentment flares again. If he’d been holding a sign, Hungry, need money for food or Please help, need money, I’d have understood sooner. I wonder if the shoe in his lap is a ruse, something designed to garner sympathy.
Then I hear my mother’s voice. I know many people chastise others for giving money to beggars, saying they are fakers and the money really goes to feed their drug or alcohol habit. Maybe that is so, but I was raised by a mother who always said, “There but for the grace of God, go we.” She stressed that we never know when we are entertaining angels. Seeing beggars as possible angels makes it easier to be charitable. If indeed, the money is misspent, that result belongs to the receiver, not to the giver. Her voice echoes, “Give with a pure heart.”
I scramble to gather a few dollars from my purse. The man realizes he has a chance at some money and wheels toward the car.
To my discomfort, he wheels toward the back door where my son is seated. Bren is already rolling down the window and smiling at him. And he is smiling back at my boy. Perhaps now is the time to tell you that my son is a person with disabilities. Bren is thirty-seven but small in stature and could easily pass for a youth. He is visually impaired and developmentally delayed but truly gifted emotionally, often seeing straight to the heart of matters. I pass the money back to Bren but he doesn’t heed my words, “Give this to him.” The beggar says, “Thank you for stopping, God bless you.” He reaches into the car, locks eyes with Bren, and pats the hands my son extends toward him. There was more said but in a lowered voice, meant just for Bren. I tap Bren’s leg and he pulls one hand loose to take the money and pass it on.
“Ah, God bless, God bless you…” the man continues, not breaking their eye contact and holding Bren with one hand while he takes the proffered money with the other.
“God bless you too sir, but I need to drive on. The light has changed.” Only then does he glance toward me, nodding his head and maneuvering his wheel chair away from the car. It’s a glance that speaks volumes: You are a lucky woman. You have a good boy. Count your blessings.
As I drive away, I’m thinking I need to remind Bren to wash his hands as soon as we get home. I’m fretting that the redness on the beggar’s legs might be an infection. As I am focusing on these fears, Bren’s focus is, “I hope that man is okay mom. He was nice. ” First impressions are supposed to count most, highlight what’s important. My son saw a lost shoe; I saw a dangerous situation.
Turns out we were both wrong. The obvious is not always paramount. It wasn’t about a lost shoe. It wasn’t about danger or even money. We had just met an angel unaware. He connected to us skin-to-skin and heart-to-heart. I gave him a few dollars; he gave me perspective on my life and reminded me what true blessings are. He affirmed Bren’s wholeness, his just-rightness, his perfection. I needed the lesson; perhaps Bren didn’t, but he welcomed it nonetheless. For many, many days after, and occasionally even now, I remember that man in my prayers. I remember him not as a beggar or a person in a wheel chair. I remember him as a teacher, and I am grateful.
Jude Walsh Whelley lives and writes in Dayton, Ohio. She writes personal essays, memoir, poetry, and fiction. She shares her life with her son Brendan and three lively dogs.