A and I were running errands, and as we were leaving Michael's craft store, a young man stopped us to ask if I might be able to spare 65 cents for him to get on the bus so he could get to work. My first instinct is always to dig in my purse and look for spare change, but my second instinct - the one that starts whispering things like, "Is he really going to use my change to get on the bus, or is he 65 cents short of getting his fix?" and "Is it wise to open your purse and dig through your wallet in front of a strange man, especially while your young, vulnerable child is standing by?" - suggests that I tell the man I didn't have any cash on me, and then race to the safety of my car, "just in case".
I sided with my second instinct, and even as I walked to the car with Alex in tow and watched the man ask other passersby for change, I felt sick with panic that I had made the wrong choice. I threw Alex into the car and quickly rationalized that if I were to hand him change through my car window, I could easily floor the van and take off if I felt threatened.
As I grabbed three quarters from the cup holder and backed the van up to drive off after him, I noticed another man walking beside us. This man had all the telltale signs of a person who was down on his luck - he was thin, his clothing was outdated, mismatched and had that "scavenged" look, and most of all, he just had the demeanor of a person who wasn't all that satisfied with his lot in life.
I saw that he was pushing a tandem baby stroller and thought, surely that stroller is filled with his personal belongings - scavenged items, clothes, keepsakes and such, not with the babies it is intended for. But as he started to catch up with us, I noticed a sippy cup in the cupholder and a pair of brown legs dangling from the front seat, and my heart sank. There were two children asleep in the stroller, and as he pushed them across the parking lot at a harried pace, I tried to invent reasons to talk to them, to find out if he needed help, to ask if the kids needed anything.
I sat at the stop sign for the longest time, watching them and trying to decide what to do. The kids were dressed (albeit shoeless), they were thin but not scrawny, they had pacifiers and sippy cups, and they were being chauffeured in a stroller that was somewhat clean and in decent condition. I started to wonder if I was making assumptions about their care, assuming they were in need or that they were not being properly cared for. Something about the man - their father, I can only assume - gave me the impression that he had sacrificed a lot for the sake of his kids, maybe going hungry on occasion so his kids would have enough to eat, buying them sippy cups and pacifiers instead of updating his own wardrobe, walking instead of paying bus fares.
He wasn't asking anyone for anything, and he had a determined look on his face like he had somewhere important to be. I suddenly stopped worrying about the kids and started to feel for their dad, who was probably doing the best he could for his kids, and I started to wonder how he would feel if I decided that he just didn't seem to be doing a good enough job, if I judged his situation based on thirty seconds of observation.
How would I even approach that sitatuation? Here I am, leaving Michael's, Land Of All Things Frivolous, with two bags full of nonsense that I don't really need, only to approach this man and say, "Excuse me, sir, your clothes look old and your kids are probably hungry. Let me help you." I'd imagine that would be pretty insulting, and the last thing this guy probably needed was to be insulted.
By this time, the first guy was long gone, so I drove off in tears, praying that those kids were indeed being cared for, and if so, that the man would have some relief in the form of a windfall, a lucky break, or plain ol' peace of mind.
When situations like this happen, I am suddenly so aware of how lucky I am to be able to provide for my child, how lucky he is to be cared for, and I hope that someday he will pay it forward to others who aren't so lucky.
I have recently joined the Junior League of Dallas, which is a women's volunteer organization in our community, and I am hoping to be able to pay it forward myself by working at some homeless shelters and organizing events for needy children. Of course, I will want to take every impoverished and abused child home with me, so that will be the biggest challenge I will face. I have a really difficult time harnessing my emotions in those situations, and I literally obsess over what I can do - or more to the point, what I can't do - to provide a better life for kids in need. I guess that the excess compassion one feels after becoming a mom is both a blessing and a curse...right now it is feeling a bit more like the latter.