Late Wednesday afternoon as I pulled up to a red light, I noticed a young man holding up a sign asking for donations. It went something like this: “Please help. I will take anything.” He was going from car to car showing his sign, barely making eye contact, his head down, his shoulders slumped as if they were carrying the weight of the world, his clothing dirty and faded, his eyes haunted.
He looked to be somewhere around my own children’s ages (19 and 24) and at the same time around 100. As if life had beaten him down so much that it had aged his very soul. I’ve never seen a sadder sight in my life. I’ve never encountered such a level of despair and helplessness in a person so young, someone that under other circumstances could have been a friend of either of my daughters; going to school with them, working with them, hanging out with them. It pierced my heart.
Living on the street under the constant threat of illness, exploitation, drugs and violence is no picnic. No one is born wanting this. Most youth are there because they have nowhere else to go. And I wondered what had transpired in his life that led to this. Was he a runaway? Was he suffering from a mental illness? Was there abuse in his home (a primary reason youth end up on the streets)? Was he dealing with a drug and/or alcohol addiction (self-medicating to cope with abuse, neglect, stress, traumatic experiences)? What was he eating? Where was he sleeping? Was he lost and confused and afraid? Was there anyone that worried about him? Missed him? Loved him? Where was his family? His parents? These and a thousand other questions went through my mind.
I was heading home with a car full of groceries that I’d stopped to pick up after I finished my hospice volunteer shift that afternoon. I was wondering what the most amazing man in the world and I would have for dinner. What movie we’d watch later that night. I was listening to music, tapping my fingers on the steering wheel and singing along. I was thinking that I should call my mom later that evening and text my brother to say hi. I was wondering what my older daughter was up to and wondering how the younger one was doing in her new job, her first couple of weeks of school. And then I saw this young man, this broken spirit, and the contrast between our lives and his could not have been more striking.
By the time I retrieved some money to give him, he was too far back, the traffic light had changed to green and I had no choice but to move forward. But I couldn’t go home. I circled through the neighbourhood and turned back to where he was, hoping for an opportunity to give him something and say a few words. Thankfully, the timing was right and I rolled down my window, waving to him. He ran over and I handed him a few dollars. “Please take care of yourself” I said. His eyes lit up as he smiled and said “thank you so much thank you so much thank you so much”. For a few seconds he stood up straighter and about 80 years seemed to melt right off his face. I could suddenly see the young man he was meant to be, hope struggling to stay alive inside him, a tiny flicker of light in the darkness that has swallowed him up.
This incident has haunted me ever since. Everybody’s got a story and there is no doubt that he has a very heartbreaking one.
Have a wonderful weekend, everyone. And count your blessings.