by Tim Mount, CN, CCMH
I came across this unpublished article that I wrote many years ago and felt the need to share it…
In February 2009 I was going through a difficult time in my life. I lived an hour away from my closest friends, and on a visit from Orange County to San Diego to see them, I stopped in to a Subway in Mission Valley for a quick bite. I was disappointed with my melancholy mood and wished I could pick myself up out of a deep depression. My answer came quickly in the form of that “annoying” little voice in the back of my head. I was told to spread some good will to gain a little perspective. What the heck, I figured someone must be worse off than myself, and I might as well try to lift their spirits.
I noticed a petite old lady sitting on a bench. The chill of night was descending, and she was bundled head to toe in a mishmash of dirty layered clothing. Her leathery, wrinkled skin revealed a life of outdoor labor. But behind the tough exterior were kind, vibrant eyes. In India they call them “Untouchables,” and I admit to subconsciously ignoring the homeless after years of city life. This day was different.
“Excuse me ma’am.”
“Yes?” she said concerned. I could tell she had been asked to leave this area before.
“I’d like to buy you a sandwich. What kind is your favorite?”
A look of amazement flashed across her face, then softened to a smiling glow. “Ohhh, I like turkey. But you don’t have to, I’m just fine.”
“Please,” I insisted. Her grateful nod gave me permission.
When I returned from Subway she was still seated on the bench. “Would you like to sit with me?” I asked.
She walked over with a curious, cautious look on her face.
We made small talk for a few minutes, and I could tell she enjoyed having a normal conversation with someone. Rarely had she gotten the chance lately, no doubt.
That little voice in my head urged me to delve deeper. The sandwich was merely an ice breaker, and the real gift was more than just a meal.
“Liu, may I hold your hand?” (At the time I knew her real name, but now I only remember it was something close to Liu.)
Instead of the embarrassed or hesitant reaction I anticipated, Liu quickly leaned forward and snatched my hand. Her grip was tight and cold. I had felt that grasp once before when my mother told me she had cancer. The same fearful vulnerability projected from Liu’s eyes.
“Liu, what’s going on? Are you ok?” I asked sincerely as we locked eyes.
“Yes, I’m not worried about myself, it’s my daughter. She’s 19 and just had a baby. She can’t find a job and the father isn’t around.” She paused briefly, lost in a moment of loving concern. “I’m just so worried, I don’t know what else to do. She rents a small room from a family up the street but barely has enough for food.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that. You sound like a wonderful mother who cares a lot about her. She’s lucky to have you. I’m sure things will work out,” I predicted. Sometimes hope can be infectious.
“Oh, you’re so sweet,” she said blushing. Liu had not been fishing for a compliment, but was happy to receive one nonetheless.
In proud, yet humble tone she continued, “I work as much as I can and give them all of my money for rent. That’s why I’m out here. My daughter doesn’t even know I’m homeless. I’ve lived a long life and she needs a place to live more than I do.”
Her selfless words brought a swell to my eyes. I’d heard the term “my heart goes out to her” before but never experienced the true meaning of the phrase until that day. We sat there, hands clasped, and I felt as if a warm glow was emanating from the center of my chest and enveloping her.
The tone of her voice revealed her embarrassment when she said the word “homeless.” While I couldn’t fix the problem, I could offer support and appreciation.
“Liu, you are one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met, regardless of the situation you’re in. You should be proud that you’re able to support your daughter and grandchild. That’s more than most people ever do in their lives.”
My flattery was accepted gracefully, yet Liu was more comfortable deflecting the attention.
“Tim, I can tell something is bothering you too,” she said with certainty. Evidently she was acutely in tune with the same wise voice that compelled me to approach her.
I felt as if I were speaking to an old friend. “I’m going through a divorce and have had a tough time lately,” I divulged.
With a compassion that dwarfed my own, she looked at me with motherly eyes. I received a pep talk like I’ve never heard before- as if Liu were counseling her own son. Her advice was like an old sage speaking to a disciple, and to this day her generous words stay with me to lift my self-esteem.
I learned a couple of valuable lessons that day:
Listen to the voice in your head. Not only will it guide you to lift someone else’s spirits, but maybe even your own.
Never underestimate the character of a person by their external appearance or financial misfortune. They may have an old soul, worthy of respect and admiration.