By the time I heard the story I’m about to share here, my daughter had already filed it away in the nothing-left-to-see-here-folks-move-along-now category of her thinking. But it had left its imprint inside her, like a scar that never quite fades away. It happened in the spring, not far from where she lives with five other UMASS students in a townhouse in Dorchester. It feels terrible and sad each time I think of it, because I wish the story had a happier ending.
She was walking along Mt. Vernon Street one afternoon, thinking about what she wanted for dinner. The route to the grocery store had taken her from the relative safety of the townhome community to the sidewalks bordered with chain link fences and a scattering of maples. Earlier in the day, a homeless man had found a spot on the sidewalk on which to park his shopping cart, and sat on the sparse grassy area next to it. As she drew closer she smiled at him, but he didn’t smile back, or in any way acknowledge her presence. In a split-second assessment it was obvious to her, based on his unkempt, grimy clothing and the fat, black garbage bags in the shopping cart, he was destitute and sadly in need of help.
This observation had no obvious flaws, and of the competing feelings in her pretty head, empathy won out over fear and selfishness.
She thought to herself, “You know what? I think I’m going to make him a little care package.” It was an impulsive decision, and once she made it, no other thoughts intruded that would bring her to doubt herself or misinterpret the situation. She was on a mission, one that could possibly change the homeless man’s entire day.
That part of the story didn’t surprise me. Olivia always had a sweet disposition and a firm mindset against social injustice. The older she grew the more I saw in her a desire to please, even if it might invite disappointment, even if it seemed the other person wasn’t appreciative. She was given to similar impulses of charity, giving away things she owned and caring for sad-eyed abandoned dogs.
In her early teens, she spent an entire summer bereft over her best friend’s alliance with a group of nasty teenagers who called Olivia hurtful names. I’d sometimes find her either crying or psychoanalyzing everyone involved. That kind of betrayal is never justified, but eventually she found it in her heart to forgive her friend, because her friend needed forgiveness more than Olivia needed to remain angry.
The rest of the story goes like this: Inside the store she took her time thoughtfully choosing items a homeless man might need: a package of tissues, mouthwash, deodorant, snacks, bottled water, hand sanitizer and Advil. These items she packed in a separate bag at the register. It’s safe to assume here (she blew past this part of the story) that she didn’t have enough money left to buy all of what she’d intended for herself.
On the short walk back home, she made a plan to put the bag down and walk away. But when she was close enough for the man to hear her she spoke, wanting to make sure he understood it was for him.
“Hi, sir, how are you today?” The man glanced up at her and looked away. He continued eating the remains of whatever he held in the greasy paper bag on his lap. “I got something for you”, she told him, and he shook his head no without looking up. “Oh, are you sure?” He didn’t answer so she continued, “Okay, well, I’m just gonna leave this for you,” and she put the bag down.
Instantly, he grabbed the bag and threw it into the street, the contents spilling onto the road and oncoming traffic. Olivia was momentarily stunned. She backed away and mumbled, “Okay…point taken.” She gathered her gifts one by one from the road, and walked the rest of the way home, shock morphing into complete and utter devastation.
She wasn’t angry at him; the tears that pooled in her eyes came from hurt and self-doubt. She wondered if her small offering had come from pure altruism. Or did I do it because I wanted to feel good about myself? Was I on some kind of a control trip? I mean, he shook his head no and ignored me. But I went ahead anyway, because I thought I understood what he needed. For the rest of that day and the days that followed, the memory of it faded a little, but not the sting.
The homeless man story was several weeks old by the time I heard it because she had suffered from the incident and wanted to understand it better before she told me.
“I felt bad about myself, you know?” We were at our favorite breakfast place on one of her visits home.
“It would have been less hurtful if he had said, like ‘get out of here you uppity little girl, you fake do-gooder wannabe’ or whatever, than like, taking the stuff I just bought and throwing it into the street.”
I nodded, not quite understanding the nuance. “So what did you do with the things you bought him?”
“At first I thought I’d hold onto them and maybe give them to some other homeless person, but I was shut down at that point. I eventually ended up eating the snacks and drinking the water, of course, but the rest of it is still in my room. I don’t know, now I’m afraid to try that again because maybe it’s not a good thing to do anymore.”
That’s how we left it. I wanted to tell her she had it all wrong; there was not one uppity fake do-gooder wannabe bone in her body. But I knew she had already processed the whole affair for herself. Some people can’t be helped, and there’s no way to know who fits into that category for sure. We act on instinct most of the time and she had only followed the giant heart beating inside her body. It was a good lesson. It seems to me the ones you learn on your own form an irrevocable pulsing mark of understanding, much more so than anything even the wisest parent could offer.
I only wish I could ease the sometimes painful progress of her life, of all my children’s lives.
That’s just not how it works.
It’s the lesson I learn over and over. Not that it keeps me from trying.