“Mom,” my son says to me, quietly, from the passenger side of the car.
I know what he means. We’re just passing someone outside, a man with a cardboard sign, asking for money. It’s cold, and fizzly-drizzly rain. I am tired. I am hungry. I slept about half my normal hours, the night before. I have a working weekend ahead of me.
“I don’t have any cash, Nels,” I tell him. He is quiet, we turn the corner – there is another man, with another sign. My son asks, “Can we get some?”
I ask him, now: “Well – do you want me to buy them a couple burgers?” and he says Yes. His eyes are bright and his spirit is calm.
I am so hungry my stomach cramps and I feel lightheaded. Even if I was to head straight home, I’ll still need to cook. I resign myself that our outing will take as long as it takes.
I pull into the drive through of a fast food restaurant; even the thought of a burger – I haven’t had a fast food burger in many years – causes my stomach to clench. As if reading my mind my son says, “I know you’re hungry.” (I’ve said nothing to him.) Then he laughs, “You don’t eat fast food, mom!” Almost like he’s chiding. Like he’s teasing.
The drive-through is packed. Moving slowly (for fast food). As if on cue, comedy of errors, I realize my car engine temperature is millimeters away from THE DANGER ZONE. I curse, switch the ignition. Then in the next several minutes I have to turn the vehicle off, then on, as we inch forward. I raise the heat in the cab. The engine temperature falls to normal.
By the time we get two burger meals – fries and a Coke apiece – and pull into the street, and wheel around the corner back to the parking lot, one of the men my son had indicated, is gone. The other is huddled up under a sign asking for a ride to the HOSPITEL. We pull up, ask if he’d like a meal. He takes the food but tells us, “I cut my hand… I need a ride,” waving a napkin bright with blood. His eyes are a clear, watery blue. I tell him, “I hope someone finds you a ride.” He smiles and thanks us. A block later as I look back I can see him fishing around, the comfort of a hot meal on a cold night.
We drive through town, and my son sits up straight, our dinner groceries on his lap balanced alongside the cheerful white paper bag full of hot food. He holds an ice-cold Coke in his left hand. He asks me about the man, How can he get to the hospital? I say, “Someone else will help him.”
And I tell him what I was taught. “I was taught, you don’t have to help as much as someone asks, you have to help enough. Ask if you’ve done enough. Think about that man who wants a ride. If everyone who passed him helped him the little bit we just did, what would happen?”
“He’d be clean, and have warm clothes, and medicine, and food. Maybe a home,” my son says. I can see his mind working, as he pieces this together.
I am tired, and I am hungry, and I feel tender, and sad. My children are as compassionate as they were at age two. I am feeling overwhelmed with a love and a sorrow, like balancing on a riverbank.
My son asks me now, “Am I trying to be too generous?”
Then I tell him another thing I was taught. “I was told you can help as much as you want, after you’ve taken care of yourself and your family.” I tell him: “I have food for my children, so we can buy food for these men.”
It isn’t until Hoquiam, a couple blocks from my house, we find another man who might want a meal. I’ve seen him many times on the street – I don’t know if he’s friendly, or what. But I’m a hearty enough soul. I pull over and, after we get his attention – and he spies the bag my son holds out. I ask, “Want a burger?”
He is eyeing us, then: “What the hell,” he says cheerfully. He takes the food, and the pop, and thanks us. In the rearview mirror I see him dive into the bag.
My son puts his fingers through mine.
They’re cold, from the Coke.