The man’s tears were unsettling. There is something about a man crying uncontrollably that shakes me. His dying wife was in the bed across the room, speaking occasionally, but mostly lying with eyes closed, comfortable but waning. He cried for her. He cried for himself. He cried for the fact that he was losing the life they had shared for decades.
In particular, he was anxious about finances. Long the family provider, he now saw bills filling the mailbox day after day, from the usual utilities to the extraordinary medical bills, and he knew the funds in his bank account were insufficient to cover them. The one area he had always controlled was now beyond his control. As for other matters, he knew he was in over his head. He knew he had to trust the doctors and medical experts with regard to his wife’s condition. And he didn’t worry much about his kids any more. They had grown and were taking care of their own lives now. But the moneyâ€”he had been careful about that. These should have been their golden years, when the money he had earned and they had saved together would support them in a life of modest comfort.
Instead, he found himself with a futile finger in the dike, water leaking and spraying around it into his face, the wall bulging and threatening to overwhelm him with a torrent of flood waters any moment.
I didn’t know what to say to him. Thankfully, I’m part of a team and we have wonderful social workers who are creative and knowledgeable about sources of help in time of need. I made a note to call his ASAP. As for me, I listened to this sad man, prayed with him and his wife, put my hand on his shoulder and tried to encourage him as we sat together, the oxygen concentrator humming away in the little bedroom of their humble house.
As I left, a story he told me during my visit grabbed hold of my heart and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days afterward. It both saddened and inspired me. As I meditated upon it, I realized that this man was not only upset about his money situation. He was losing his life. A way of living and relating to others in his community was passing away. However, there was still a heartbeat, still a bit of breath, still enough life in the old neighborhood to give one hope.
My friend and his wife were in the habit of patronizing a little corner store and cafe down the street. Over the years, they rarely missed a day sharing a cup of coffee or a bowl of soup for lunch. That’s where they read the paper, saw their neighbors, caught up on the latest news and, ahem!â€”gossip. This is where the people in their world bragged about their kids’ exploits, argued about local politics and school issues, complained about the weather, and played the roles they had adopted among their friends.
They loved that little restaurant and gathering place. It was as much a part of their life together as their own living room. However, when his wife got sick, it became more and more difficult to go. Finally, they had to stop altogether.
The man felt bad about this. He felt so bad that one day he called and talked to the owner. Told him he was sorry they hadn’t been by for awhile. Expressed his regret that the store had to lose their business. Apologized. As if it weren’t right that the business should suffer just because his wife got sick.
If my mouth didn’t drop when I heard that, I don’t know why. Who does a thing like that these days? Who goes out of his way to make a phone call and say “I’m sorry” to the owner of a business when he and his family can’t afford to support it any longer? Come to think of it, who still thinks of shopping or eating out as “supporting a business” and its workers? Who considers merchants personal friends? Who sees life in the community as so intertwined and organically connected that one thinks he needs to apologize when he can’t do his part because of difficult circumstances?
Then he told me more. He shared how just recently he heard a knock on the door. Leaving his wife’s side, he answered it and was greeted by a young woman who worked at that corner store. She carried a big paper bag in her arms, filled with food. Along with it, she handed him an envelope that contained a get-well card and a couple of twenty dollar bills. A small token of love. Probably about all that a struggling inner city shop owner could afford to send to help a neighbor in need.
The message? Apology accepted, or rather, apology not necessary. We understand. We’re in this together. Thank you for being part of our lives. You still areâ€”whether you can buy our stuff or not. You live down the street. We try to take care of each other around here.
As I climbed behind the wheel of my car and pulled out, I shut off the radio and drove in silence. In an old neighborhood where few travel, where the sidewalks are crumbling and the streets are uneven, where on some streets grass grows unmown around boarded-up houses, where people have lived and worked and raised families since after World War II and some have never left, an old woman lay dying, a man wept, and I caught a glimpse of God’s image in a simple story. Grace. Neighborliness.
It took my breath away.