Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Miracle of Our Own

I caught God watching me. He wasn’t being sneaky about it; He was right next to me, hanging out in the passenger seat as I drove up Beacon Street on a weekday morning so indistinct in its tedium that I almost didn’t take notice.

Every morning I thread my car through a snarl of glassy-eyed commuters heading to work, all of us knitted together by the dull resignation of gainful employment. At a busy intersection near Fenway Park I pass an old, wilted gentleman who plants himself in the middle of Kenmore Square. When the ridiculously long red light above his head instructs our vehicles to stop, he goes. He patiently weaves himself between the myriad of hulking shapes and colors muted by the low-hung mist of daybreak and exhaust. He moves slow and hunched over with one crooked hand gripping the tip of a cane and the other shaking a large plastic cup in a jingling plea for support.

He’s always there. He was there in April when the pouring rain sluiced down his dark, leathered cheeks. He was there in January when the countless layers of frayed clothing failed to fully contain his tremors. He was there in July when the sun baked the already cracked and brittle brim of his Celtics Championship cap that faithfully shadowed the resolution in the sharp gaze he directed in silent greeting to each and every car he passed.

I drove by this man for almost two years and never once reached out to help him. Not when his stooped left shoulder passed within inches of my opened window. And not when I watched him pause to rest, dropping his chin to his chest, the faint white fuzz of his scalp highlighted orange in the pulse of the Citgo sign.

In truth, I wanted to put something in that cup. But if I did it once, would he make a wobbly beeline for my distinctively battered Ford every time he saw me? What would happen if I established eye contact, or smiled at him, or made small talk? Would I be obligated forever? I drive by him every morning. What level of commitment were we talking about here?

And so whenever I got stuck at that infuriatingly long light, I’d keep myself busy by synchronizing the windshield wipers in time to the Rolling Stones; or fiddling with the air vents so they positioned the heat at me just so; or tugging the visor this way and that so my sunglasses wouldn’t have to work so hard. Yessiree, my dashboard was chock full of important, all-consuming, do-or-die manipulations that HAD to be executed the exact moment that man lifted up his eyes and pointed them in my direction.

Until the morning my son joined me.

We were vying for space in the only available lane not eaten up by the yellow construction crews busily installing craters where the rest of the street used to be. The sky glared solid white without a hint of color or texture. It was the kind of sky that wouldn’t let you look at it without blinding you in retribution. Not that there was anything to see … not even the promise of a storm cloud. The thin light washed everything in blah. It was the alter ego of the golden morning light that set fire to the tips of the Cherry and Elm trees famously lining Boston’s streets. Now those trees looked flat, as if someone had swiped an eraser across them. That’s what I was thinking when my son asked me a question. I was wondering where all the light went.

“Mom, can we give that man some money?”

“No, honey, I don’t have any cash,” I said automatically, barely absorbing the question.

“Yes you do,” he replied in his sweet 10-year-old voice. “We have all these coins you always say you want to use.”

He was right. Both our cup holders runnethed over with sticky pennies, nickels and dimes that were, for the most part, superglued to my plastic car interior, or to each other with a miracle gunk that mocked all my weak and half-hearted attempts to pry them loose.

I looked at the shaking cup clattering with coins. Is it an insult to give pennies? I turned to see my son balancing two precarious handfuls of coins that somehow included a respectable amount of quarters. I lifted the console lid and saw an additional grouping of silver in the corner along with the two “emergency” dollars my husband insists we keep in there for whatever anticlimactic crisis might actually be resolved with a couple of bucks.

I shifted a broken Supertramp CD case and a charger for a phone I owned four phones ago and found an inch-thick layer of coins coating the bottom. Like the loaves and fishes my meager offering grew and grew before my eyes. My son and I quickly gathered the goods and I rolled down my window to get the man’s attention.

We made eye contact.

He held out his cup and I filled it up with four heavy drops. He thanked me.

We made small talk.

He asked God to bless me. He leaned in, gave my son a smile, and asked God to bless him too.

The street light had already turned green but I couldn’t drive yet because he was still leaning in my car. Yet not one car in the backed-up, rush-hour, construction-caked traffic beeped. Everyone patiently waited for him to make his way back to the median beneath the suddenly intense blue sky that cushioned the yolk of a very bright sun.

I turned to my son and he was smiling a huge grin bracketed with deep dimples. He lifted his dark brown eyes and they were shining brilliant amber. Behind them I swear I saw a wizened crinkle.

“See, Mom, that worked out well for everyone.”

It did indeed. And remember that commitment I was so afraid of? Well, there is one. But it's one I should have realized long before. Now, whenever I drive past that man, I make eye contact. I wave and say good morning and, on occasion, I add to his cup.

But always, always, I smile. And I get a smile back. 

And I remember the day I caught God looking at me right there from the passenger seat beside me, and the very basic human lesson He and my son taught me: Kindness, charity, compassion and respect are everyday miracles that can be delved out in clumpy handfuls or delivered with a simple smile and a bit of eye contact. And they're best served in front of your children, who learn by example and are your biggest and best miracles of all.