September 4th, 2012
The Man Under the Tree
There’s been a man sleeping and spending his days under one of the trees in the park beside our house. At night, he goes across the street and sleeps by the door of the pharmacy. In the morning, he makes his way to the park and sets up camp under a tree, right beside where we play. He’s not begging. He doesn’t have a sign. He’s existing and I can’t stop thinking about him.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like this is the first time that I’ve seen a homeless person. I once drove by a visibly pregnant young woman standing by a traffic light with a sign that read “Need food- pregnant.” I drove by, looked at her and kept going. I must have driven for about 10 minutes and couldn’t get her out of my head. I made my way to Tim Horton’s, bought a couple of sandwiches and a bottle of water and made my way back to find her.
Empathy and sympathy are not things that I struggle with. In fact, I find it very easy and sometimes even overwhelmingly easy to take on others’ pain and emotion. One of Daddy’s friends even said once that I had a bleeding heart….you know, that I was excessively sympathetic.
All this to explain that what you taught me on Saturday was a new level of human connection and, as always, I want to thank you for it.
As you played in the park, my eyes kept darting back and forth. From you, a free spirited, very few cares in the world, loved and promising child to him. From you, carelessly “driving” the play structure bus, absentmindedly kicking sand and doing somersaults, to him. From you, intensely protected, supported and cared for, to him. The juxtaposition was striking and my heart ached. So much so that I almost couldn’t stand it.
All I could think of was that this man had once been a 20 month old boy. He was you. And as much as it pained me to think it, you, God forbid, could be him. Had he had a mother who so deeply loved him as I do you? Had she written journals about him? Had she kissed his belly and twirled his beautiful curls around her finger and swore that she would die before she let anything happen to him? Had they laughed at the simple things? Had she rocked him to sleep while nestling her nose in the crook of his neck just to breathe in the powerful smell of him?
Or, had he been unwanted? Had his mother not known how to love him? Had she abandoned him? Abused him? Or been entirely indifferent?
I don’t know this man’s past and how he possibly ended up underneath a tree in the park behind our house. But what I know for sure is that he was once a 20 month old boy. A boy who, just like you, was innocent and deserving of love. So, not only was I seeing him as another human being and connecting at a lateral level. But as I watched you, I was connecting to and seeing him as the child that he once was and I was moved.
A moment later he was rummaging through the garbage and I was put over the edge.
When you went down for your nap, I put together a bag of food for him. Nothing much. I made some sandwiches and included some apples, raisins, granola bars, cheese, crackers and something to drink. And when you woke up and invariably wanted to go back to the park, we brought him the bag. Yep, I brought you with me. Some of you parents are probably shuddering to think about it. But it was the right thing to do. I know you won’t remember the moment but as much as you have been teaching me, I wanted to teach you something that day.
I held your hand as we approached the man under the tree. I said, “Excuse me, but this food is for you” and handed him the bag. “No, no,” he said kindly, “it’s for you!” I explained that we had put the bag of food together for him and again, handed it to him. “What’s in it?” he asked as he looked through the bag. When he pulled out the granola bar, you pointed to it and started to grunt “uh, uh, uh” making it clear that you wanted it! “Is this your favourite?” he asked and started to hand it back to you. I protested and reminded him that we had many more at home that you could have. And he said, genuinely and humbly (and with a smile) “Sharing is caring, you know?” I took it back from his hands and put it into yours. I thanked him and said to you “Ok monkey, we better go” and he looked at you with a smile and said “Are you a little monkey?” You smiled at him and said, enthusiastically, “Yeah!” He laughed and said “It must be good to be a little monkey” to which you replied again with an energetic “Yeah!” And we walked away.
(As a side note, it hasn’t helped matters that the man under the tree reminds me very much of Uncle Chris. The long hair, the long beard, the tall slim build, the caring smile. Uugh. Weird).
Aiden, we didn’t change the world on Saturday. We didn’t solve a problem. We didn’t even truly do much to help the man under the tree. What we did was what we could do in that moment. We brought him some food. To be honest, Aiden, if you inherit my “bleeding heart” syndrome, I will be proud. The small amount of energy that it takes to care and worry about other human beings is a small price to pay in relation to being aware, suppressing judgement, doing the best you can in the moment and recognizing the incredibly small distance between you and the “other.”
Maybe the man under the tree has a Mama somewhere who worries and wonders. I can barely write that sentence without crying. And if God forbid and despite all my best efforts, you end up sleeping under a tree and looking for food from a garbage can, I can only hope that someone will look at you and remember that you were once a beautiful 20 month old baby boy who had a Mama who loved you more than anything. And I hope that every day, someone will do what they can and see you as a loved Mama’s child, rather than just some man sleeping under a tree. I would want that for you. We can’t give any less to those we will encounter in our lives.
You reminded me on Saturday that we are all one step away from being the “other.” Aiden, as you find your place in this world, you will encounter all kinds of people. Don’t be too quick to judge. Everybody has a story that would break your heart. The man under the tree has a story. He was a beautiful innocent 20 month old boy and now he’s looking for food from a garbage can. He is you and you are him.