WHO IS YOUR NEIGHBOR?
NOV 23, 2012
I was rushing to a meeting with a new strategic planner and felt a little unprepared. I’m a bit of a stickler for getting places on time. I threw my briefcase into the car with some bottled water and tried to stay under the speed limit, since here in Point Roberts, Washington there is one policeman, known as Officer Slick, who has little to do but give tickets for tiny offenses. He is Point Roberts onlypoliceman.
I pulled up to the four-way and turned onto Gulf Road, making sure I came to my full stops at every stop sign, one of Officer Slick’s pet peeves. It was raining cats and dogs as it frequently does here in the Pacific Northwest. I glanced at the clock. I was just going to make it to my meeting.
Suddenly there he was. Al, a very old man in a green wool sweater shuffling down the road. He seemed to barely move and was soaked by the driving rain. “Should I stop?” I glanced at the clock and kept driving, seeing that it was straight up 11am. But, there was that feeling in my heart that I have often, making it impossible for me to continue. I spun around doing an illegal U-Turn, hoping that officer Slick was nowhere in sight. I pulled up next the man who had not even made it three feet since I past him. I rolled down the window and asked if I could take him somewhere. He was disoriented. Maybe he couldn’t hear me correctly or maybe he was not used to being helped. I pushed open the door and asked him to get in out of the rain.
He could barely close the front door behind him and sat slumped in the passenger seat. His wool sweater smelled of a dog or maybe a wet horse. “Where are you going on a day like this?” I said, smiling. He took a moment to look over my car and then answered, “Food for Isabella?” Was she his wife? His friend, I wondered. He was shivering as I pulled back into the street. “Are you going to the Marketplace?” “Yep, she woke me up this morning and said she was hungry”. How could that be? I thought. “Is Isabella you wife?” Al turned and smiled. “No, miss, she’s my cat.”
This man looked in his late eighties or early nineties, worn out by a life I knew nothing about. He then started to talk about what a friend she was to him and the best cat he had ever had. I pulled up to the Marketplace and said I would wait for him and then take him home. I called my strategic planner and said I would be…quite late. So much for strategically planning my day down to the hour.
Twenty minutes later there was no Al I sight. I got out and dashed into the store only to find that he was lost somewhere between the cat food and the Skippy peanut butter. I helped him find the last item on his list: Gator Aid. Checkout took forever since in this man’s life everything moves at a snails pace. I taped into my deep reservoir of patience and finally got him in the car with packages and all.
He talked of his cat and then tried to remember what street he lived on. We had to backtrack a little and then he pointed to his house. The classic home of a recluse, a person who barely subsists, even though when you look at the house you know it used to be something special at one time. There was a broken down truck in the driveway since they took away his drivers license he said. An old skiff for fishing in the front yard that looked like it had been there since I was born. All the drapes were pulled tight and held in place at the windowsill with pieces of firewood. I worried that he heated with wood.
We got him out of the car with my umbrella, packages almost too heavy for him, yet he insisted on carrying them himself. Then a thank you. Then a sideways smile. Then he disappeared to the back of the house and was gone.
I sat in my car for a moment nearly having forgotten I had an agenda. All I could think of was Al. His life. His devotion to walking in the rain for cat food and his love of his dear Isabella. All I could think of was his living alone and in dire need of what most of us take for granted. I was no longer in a hurry.
This past year I have aligned my life with a cause to help children in crisis situations who have no parent, no food, and no shelter. Children who have lived through the unthinkable like the earthquake in Haiti or the Tsunami in Japan. I left thirty years as a psychologist to pursue a larger passion. It is very important to me to be living from the center of what I believe I was called here to do. Helping children have their basic needs met and helping others open their hearts to people they may not know is now my work. And, yet, Al lives right down the street and he is in dire need too. Al needs food and help. Al needs love. All is my neighbor.
I don’t need to go to Haiti or Osaka to look right outside my window to see loneliness or need. In fact I wonder if the nightly news of chronic devastation, war and poverty desensitizes us to recognizing who lives on our own street when we watch nightly crisis and dramas around the globe? How many houses do we pass with overgrown yards, drapes pulled and old people shuffling out to try to bend down to pick up a newspaper? How many homeless people could have a square meal and tell me their story, if I were to simply stop ‘strategically planning’ my day and take the time to take them for a lunch?
If I woke up every day expecting to witness something around me, some person, some animal, some situation that could use my attention, my dollar, my car, my excess and be better for it…I would be better for it. Our world would be better for it is we each committed to this action of love. Millions of people would be helped in a single day. My question to every human and to myself is this: Why don’t we all live like this all the time? What will it take for all of us to start? Who is the Al in your life?