From the back of the trail I see her swaying back and forth on a bench by the playground.
I push forward anyway.
I don’t want my boys to be afraid or uncomfortable around homeless people. I don’t want them to hide behind my legs or pretend they aren’t within earshot of a stranger as they run up stairs and whoosh down slides. I want them to look the man or woman that happens to be homeless in the eye, smile, say hello, and choose to overlook their unconventional appearance or unpleasant odor.
As we approach, it’s apparent the woman is clearly out of control. Her voice matches the volume of music belting under blankets and clothes piles. As she half yells/half sings, her mouth displays gaps where teeth should be.
The boys look up at me and I wave them to Play! Have fun! Don’t be scared.
Within ten feet I stand, memorizing her face from the corner of my eye, listening to her jumbled sentences- the smell is hard to ignore. What’s her story? I wonder. How has this lady come to be here on this bench, completely unaware that children are playing right in front of her. What has polluted her body that makes her incapable of sitting still? How long has she been without a bed to sleep in? When was the last time she sat down at a Thanksgiving dinner. Ever?
Rabbit trails, my mind runs down them.
Bench lady becomes agitated and raises her yelling to fitful protests. I nod at her but am met with an empty stare. We are invisible to her private world.
Up stairs, down slides. Giggling and laughing the boys chase each other, creating circle eights in her path. They stop and cock their ears, listening to the garbled screams coming from her lips, ignoring a potential friend who isn’t involving herself in their child’s play.
Suddenly she grabs at the clothes pile, stands up and begins to undress. I’m a $@#%ing freak! she screams. I’m a $@#%ing freak! Her yelling escalates as she gets more and more frustrated with her pants.
In that moment, my heart breaks in a thousand tiny slivers. Part of me wants to run to her, and grab her face and say, You are not a freak. You are loved, and seen, and God wants more for you. The other part, the mom part, wants to whisk my children away and protect their eyes from seeing the ugly in the world, the situations that seem scary and uncomfortable.
I relate to bench lady.
I too, feel like a freak. Sometimes a $@#%ing one. Loss does that. It messes up our insides so we can’t tell which way is up, where reality ends and dreams begin. I often feel like a freak but unlike bench lady, my sober conscious prevents me from verbalizing out loud. Every day I feel uncomfortable in the new me, this skin and face that wears grief and struggles to choose grace in the pit. But in the pit is where I find God, and every morning I embrace that although I feel like a freak, I trust I am loved. And that must be enough.
If only bench lady can know that love. Would it be enough to hang up her addictions, to take one small step towards whole?
Crazy thing is, you and I are only loss away from becoming bench lady.
Job loss. Bankruptcy. Unpaid bills. No family. No friends. Suddenly we are all out on a bench, our kids hungry, our voices screaming at the wind.
The huge difference is that this would never happen to you or me! Even if we lost our jobs, we’d have someone that would open their home and help us get back on our feet. We are privileged and we don’t even think twice about it. Or at least I didn’t until I entered bench lady’s world. Where are her people? Where is her church? Where is her family?
I know I’m just one person. I realize in that moment hugging her and telling her about Jesus would be asinine but I hope she knows we see her and we are not scared. We want her to know she is loved. We hope the voices telling her she’s a freak will one day disappear.
I motion the boys back in the double BOB and we meet the trail the way we’d come. Halfway, I stop and look at their wide eyes. What are you guys thinking? How did that lady make you feel? What did you hear? I’m calculating how much money I should add to the therapy jar.
I explain that the bench is her home, her bed, her closet. We wonder aloud if she has kids, a mom and dad, or friends. Offering words for their unknown questions, I talk about why she doesn’t have control over her body, and can’t sit still, and why we don’t ever call anyone a freak. Ever. Jesus loves her the same as he loves us.
We walk in silence and I suggest we pray for her. Tanner and Ty turn their heads up at me. The oldest whispers, I already have been.
Perhaps we won’t end homelessness or poverty overnight. Perhaps it’s about seeing one person at a time, really seeing them; acknowledging their presence and affirming their value as a person.
Starting with bench lady.