On Survival: “What I Liked Best”

Desert Sunset, West Humboldt Range, Nevada

“The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.” –Mother Theresa

Many years ago, long before my husband and I began a life of wilderness travel, I was walking on a city sidewalk one stormy afternoon when abruptly I could not see.  Nor feel the rain.  Nor hear the surf crashing on the nearby cliffs.  Then slowly my hearing resumed and I heard a voice ask, as if from a great distance, “Would you help me?”  I peered and peered.  And eventually discerned a youth with blood-red cheeks, frenetic blond hair, sopping jeans and swollen blue feet.

“Of course I will help you.”

I took the young man to a store and purchased for him some clothes.  I took him to a restaurant and bought him a cheeseburger and a steaming coffee.  I gave him my cell phone so he could call his mother but after a moment, he handed it back:  “She wants to talk with you.”

I could hear the emotion in his mother’s voice as she told me that the prior evening her son had called her collect, begging for her help.  The storm was in its third night and he was without shelter or warmth.  He did not believe he could survive until dawn.  So she, from several states away, called every hotel she could find that might take him in.  She explained and pleaded and offered to pay by credit card but no one would accept because her son had no ID.  Devastated, she gave up.  “I got down on my knees and told God, I’ve done everything I can.  Now it’s up to you.”  When I heard her story, I understood that God had used me to answer her prayers.  I drove her son to a bus station and bought him a ticket home.

Last week my husband and I were shopping for a new shirt for him to wear to Christmas dinner.  As he went into a dressing room to try on the shirt, I observed in the doorway an impeccably dressed woman with elegant hair.  Standing near her were a handsome man and a beautiful young boy.  Beside her was an older man who seemed disoriented but was able to follow her instructions.  The older man’s long frizzed hair,  swollen face, soiled shirt and hunched back gave me the impression that he was homeless.  The woman tenderly guided him through the process of trying on a new shirt they had chosen together.  “Your pants will be okay,” she said, “and with this shirt, you will be ready.”  It struck me that she was preparing him to join them for Christmas dinner.  I remembered my experience of long ago with the young man in the storm and felt a pang of longing, the urge to share with someone, somewhere in the world the true meaning of Christmas.

A couple of days later my husband and I, with our son and our dogs, set out on a long drive to join my husband’s family for Christmas.  We discussed the possibility of detouring through the high desert to do some sightseeing, then dismissed the route as being too long.  But as we approached a byway which cut across mountains to the desert, I felt the urge to turn and we did.  We strained our eyes for an hour on a black wet winding road. Finally we arrived in a remote industrial city and popped into to a diner for a quick bite before going to our motel.

The moment we entered the diner, I saw her.  Her crocheted hat sat high atop her fray of gray hair.  Her toothless smile illuminated her delicate sunken face.  At the base of the counter stool on which she sat, were a few knotted plastic bags.

A waitress seated our family at a booth.  My husband and I spoke in whispers.  While he asked the waitress to move us to a bigger table, I slid onto a stool beside the woman.  She was eager to talk and to my delight accepted an invitation to join us for dinner.

When the waitress came to take our orders, our guest said, “I’ll have the steak and eggs, it always looks so good when I see it passing by.”

While we waited for our food to arrive, our guest told us that her husband had abandoned her in that city, that the homeless shelter was full to capacity, that she had once visited Washington D.C., that her husband had killed her twice, that she had never married and that all of her four children had been killed in a tornado, she had seen them on T.V. one day, swirling about in the sky.

The waitress arrived with dishes piled high and doled out our food.  Our guests’ eggs glistened but she managed only a few bites before pushing away her plate.  When we had finished eating, we got her a to-go box and a gift certificate for a few more meals.

It was 21 degrees outside that night.  If you are in urgent need of a military-issue sleeping bag, we are the people to meet.  My husband excused himself and went out to grab one.  The gray-haired lady slumped a bit.

“I enjoyed talking,” she could barely raise her eyes, “but it was tiring.”

I nodded, hoping my eyes conveyed understanding.

She continued, “Thank you for dinner.  Thank you for asking me to join you.  What I liked best was when you told me that I have a nice smile.”

We said our goodbyes to her and continued on our Christmas journey.  The following day we arrived at my brother-in-law’s for dinner.  He lives in a large lovely home in a neighborhood of comparable homes.  Each house and yard was alight with Christmas scenes so elaborate, they evoked a sense of wonder.  Inside his home were a tree, a table laid for a feast and a mood of convivial warmth.

After dinner I collected our dogs for a walk.  Outside, with leashes in hand, I paused again to marvel at the many beautiful lights.  I thought of our guest at the diner and how much she would have loved this.  I wondered where she was at that moment.  I wondered at the great disparity in our lives and gave thanks for the blessing of our meeting and that we had something to share.

Happy New Year, everyone, and may you have something to share in 2014. 

38 thoughts on “On Survival: “What I Liked Best”

    • So much about this experience was heart-warming: that the woman in the diner never once complained about her circumstances, that she was able to graciously receive our offerings. We have since contacted the diner and learned that others are also giving her gift certificates. The diner, too, plays a beautiful role in this story because it serves the woman free hot coffee and allows her to spend hours at a time there, keeping warm.

      • To encourage giving is one of the reasons why I wrote the post. I know that when I read a story of giving, I am often moved to reflect on it and consider how I might interpret it, integrate it into my life.

  1. Words cannot convey what I felt while reading this post-angels do walk the earth-Thank you for the reminder. A friend always says to me “all is well-all is always well.” To this I will add your affirmation-“Blessed be.”

    • I reflected for a long time before I wrote this. In our faith, giving is done in secret. Your response has affirmed for me, the decision to post. I am grateful if I have given you even a moment of comfort.

  2. God had sent these strangers to your life. And you have responded in a way God approves. You are truly blessed and thank you for the gift of story. Blessings.

    • Thank you for your kind words. We are all blessed when we recognize and respond to the opportunities that God give’s us to reflect His love. I am grateful that you enjoyed this story. Blessings to you.

  3. If we do not share those things that unite us as compassionate beings, we do less than we should. Should one’s charity be secret? For me, only if sharing is to garner praise for yourself. It is obvious that you were moved to help these people, that you hoped sharing would encourage others to do the same. Those lives are better for your care. Bless you and thank you.

    • Because I strive to live by the scriptures, I habitually reflect with the goal of discerning. A large part of my motive for writing this piece was the knowledge that many people want to help the homeless and mentally ill, but at the same time do not quite know what to do for them. So I wanted to illustrate the powerful impact of something as simple as kind words.

      Yours are a balm, thank you.

  4. I have been away for a few days – traveled to Calgary Alberta where it was minus 25. Winter is the time when it is the most difficult for the homeless. This was an excellent post – one that I will carry with me into the new year…

    “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,” Matthew 25:35

  5. What an incredible story – to me it tells us to always be listening and to be obedient when Father calls us to give and to respond

  6. Such a beautiful story Vivian. You have such a big heart, full of love and generosity and these are qualities I greatly admire in people.
    I love this wonderful photo 🙂

  7. Thank you for your tender words, Jocelyne. It is God’s enormous love which has healing power and reflects so brightly in each kind act or small gift that we extend to the suffering. I’m happy that you enjoyed the photo!

  8. I enjoyed looking through your site and reading about the people God puts in your path. Life is an adventure wherever you live and God is always dropping others in your path to enjoy it with you. Best wishes!

  9. after a very long time i read a wonderful blog…love it
    the best feeling is when you are happy because you have made someone else happy

    • Thank you Nosheen for your beautiful note. I apologize for the delay in my response, I have been away in the desert. You are so right, it is truly a gift when we are able to give someone else happiness. Many blessings… Vivian

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