Unlikely Angels

I saw him every day as I walked from the subway to the office building.  He sat on the sidewalk, the same spot, day after day.  He wore a faded blue jacket, and worn gray jeans.  I never really saw his face, he had it hidden under a baseball hat and a bushy brown beard.  A sleeping bag and a knapsack lay at his side.  His knees were pulled up in front of him as he sat.  His gloved hands were placed palms-up on the tops of his knees.  Sometimes I would see people drop a few coins onto his gloved palms.  He would shove the money straight into the top of the opened knapsack, then resume his humble position, head down and feet spread slightly apart.

His presence went unnoticed for a day or two, I was so intent on reaching the office before 9 am. I happened to glance up one morning as I came to his “spot” on the sidewalk.  The next day I noticed him again, and every day after that.  I found myself thinking about him more and more.  There were so many people living on the streets, I saw them all the time.  Why did this particular person grab my attention?  I started to wonder why he had no home and was all alone in the world.  Did he have enough to eat every day?  Where did he sleep at night?  When was the last time someone had smiled at him?  Did anyone love him?

The man on the street started me thinking about my father, whom I hadn’t seen in almost twenty years.  I could still remember the morning he left.  I came downstairs to find my mom crying on the couch.  He had left a note on the kitchen table earlier that morning.  Instead of going to work he had gone to look for a new life.  We never heard from him again.  I remember he was always distant from my mom and I.  My parents never talked much.  Mom would stay home with me while he was out almost every night.  Sometimes he would bring home some popcorn, a movie, and flowers for mom.  Once in a while he believed he could make it work.  The morning he left he must have woken up and decided to stop lying to himself and to us.  I never hated him, I just felt sad that we could never be a family.

I was eleven when my dad walked out, and I hadn’t heard from him since.  Despite the initial shock and feelings of abandonment, the rest of my childhood drifted by happily.  Mom got her feet back on the ground soon after dad left.  We downsized our lives to fit one income.  Mom had a good job and eventually married a man who was kind to her.  I was still the only child and he spoiled me.  When mom died of cancer two years ago, he was there for me.  He believed in me and helped me find my job at the office.

Something in me cried out to help the man on the street.  I didn’t know if he wanted any help, but I knew I would try.  I started making two extra sandwiches a day and bringing two extra juice bottles for him.  The first day I gave him the food I felt so awkward.  He didn’t budge from his normal position.  He didn’t look up to see who had given him the food.  He might have been sleeping, but I couldn’t tell.  His head was down and hidden by the baseball hat.  I left the food and drinks beside him.  I placed them down in such a hurry, I felt conscious of the other people around me.

The next day it was easier to give him the juice and sandwiches.  After about a week of this morning ritual, he actually raised his head and looked in my eyes.  I was frozen in position.  My shadow blocked the sun from his face and it was hard to see him.  We held a gaze for what seemed like an eternity, but must have only been a couple of seconds.  There was a hint of something warm and thankful in his eyes.  I smiled at him, the words escaped me, and I walked on to the office.

Early the next day my heart beat so fast as I approached his “spot”.  I was nervous because I didn’t know what I was doing.  I had no idea what to do next.  There had to be a next step, something more I could do for him.  As I walked closer to him, I saw his head was up, facing the world.  He was looking at the people walking by.  Was he looking for me?  He saw me and focused his attention on me.  I bent down to give him the usual food and drinks that I put in a brown paper bag for him every day.  He reached out to take it from me and said, “Thank you.  God bless.”  A smile spread across his lips and I smiled in return.

I spent the rest of the day thinking about him.  My work went unfinished as I mulled over the man I saw each morning.  At one point in the day I actually got out the yellow pages and looked under the heading Social Service Organizations.  I jotted down the names and numbers of services in the area and tucked the list away in my purse.  That night I made a few phone calls and discovered what facilities each service had to offer.

The sun was shining and the sky was blue the following morning.  On such a day, no one should be alone in the world.  This morning I wanted to give the list to the man on the street.  Maybe he had already visited all these services.  Maybe that’s where he spent the last half of his day, since I never saw him on my way home.

He was looking for me again when I walked up to him.  He took the brown bag from my hands and thanked me with a sparkle in his eyes.  I crouched down to give him the list.

“These are all the social service organizations in this area.  Have you been to any of them yet?”

“No, I just got to the city and I haven’t walked around much.”

As he talked I noticed there were no wrinkles on his face, his teeth were shiny white, and his beard was well-kept.

“I think these places can help you.  I’ve written down what each shelter can offer you.  Some have meals and overnight beds and others let you live there while you get back on your feet.”

He looked at the paper and his eyes rested on the name of a particular place.  “Can you show me where this is?”  His finger pointed to a name on the list.  Welcome Home House.  It had dormitory rooms, counselling services, and a work program.  I started to give him the directions, but he looked confused.

“Miss, I won’t remember any of the streets you’re telling me.  Would you please take me there?”

“Uh….”  It was ten after nine and I was already late for work.  I’d never been late before, but my boss wasn’t so bad and I thought she would understand.  “Sure, I’ll show you the way, it’s not far.”  I made a quick call on my cell phone and told my boss it was a personal emergency and I’d explain when I got to the office.

We started walking.  He was a tall man, with broad shoulders and a handsome profile.  There was an air of mystery around him.  I wondered how he had come to live on the streets.  He didn’t offer me any clues, but chatted about the beautiful weather and the tall buildings of the city.  I felt no fear walking with him, only peace.  There was an invisible light that came from inside him.  It was only noticeable when he talked and looked me in the eye.

A few blocks and fifteen minutes later we reached our destination.  He turned and looked me full in the face.  “Thank you for your kindness.  I appreciate you going out of your way to bring me here.”  His hand reach out to shake mine.

“Your welcome.  It was my pleasure.  Please take care of yourself.  Good luck for the future.”

“I ask one last favour of you.  Could you come inside with me?  Please do this one last thing, I will ask nothing else of you.”

I stared at him, not understanding why he would want me to go inside with him.  His eyes pleaded with me.  I was already late for work anyway, and I was curious as to what this place was like.

“Okay, I’ll go in with you.”

“Thanks, Teresa, you won’t regret it.”

Before I had time to ask him how he knew my name, he had walked inside the doors of the building.  I followed him, curiosity getting the better of me.  A woman greeted me as I walked in.  I asked her where the man I was with had gone.  She said she had not seen anyone but me enter in the last few minutes.  I stood in utter confusion.  How had he gotten by this lady so fast?  My eyes searched the large, open room before me.  There were tables and chairs set up everywhere.

“Can I look in here for just a moment?”

“Sure.  We have a few stragglers left over from breakfast.  Sometimes they like to sit and chat with each other or our workers.  Feel free to look around.”

“Thank you.”  I walked towards the middle of the huge room.  A few people were scattered around the tables.  I noticed one loner, separated from the others.  He had his back to me and was staring out the window.  The faded blue coat and baseball hat looked familiar and I walked towards the solitary figure.  A closer look told me this wasn’t the man I was searching for.  This man’s beard was speckled with gray, the hat was a different colour, and the jacket was not as faded.  Yet there was something so familiar about him.  I couldn’t help but walk around to the other side of the table to look at his face.  I stood in front of him and his eyes slowly lifted to mine.  One look at the almost-forgotten smoky gray colour and I felt eleven years old again.

“Dad?”

“Teresa?”

We met each other at the end of the table for an embrace that spanned all we’d missed the last two decades.  There was no thought to holding back or not forgiving him.  I loved him still as I always had.

He unwrapped me from his arms and took both my hands in his.  “I’ve prayed for so long that God would show me where you are.  I came back to the city I left so many years ago, hoping I’d spot you somewhere.  I’m a broken man, Teresa.  It’s taken me a long time to admit my failures.  I’m ready to make my life right again.  I have nothing to offer you except my love and my apology for abandoning you and your mom all those years ago.”

As I talked to the father I thought I’d lost forever, I couldn’t help but think of the man who had brought me here.  Maybe God had heard my father’s prayers, and maybe He’d answered them.  I said a silent thank you for the angel who led me home.

– Written in 1999

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