Tony Woodlief | Author

On the narrow path

He sees her as we circle the parking lot a second time, an aimless, wandering circle, a time-killing circle while we wait for their mother to finish a bit of shopping. I have already seen the woman — a girl, really, with tangled dark hair and downturned gaze. She sits on a little concrete median between the entering and exiting traffic, and she holds a cardboard sign asking for money. Not even money, just anything. “Anything helps,” her sign says.

I have already seen her, and so, having nothing better to do, I am engaged in a lukewarm internal debate. Should I give her money? What will she do with the money? Should I drive across the street and get her McDonald’s? Don’t poor people eat badly enough as it is? What about teriyaki chicken from a nearby Japanese place? But will she turn her nose up at that? Will the drivers behind me hit their horns when I stop to give her the money or cheeseburger or chicken with rice? Will people look askance at a man stopping to talk to a young woman on the side of the road?

There’s so much to be calculated, you see, in the doing of small good.

Then Caleb sees her. “Dad,” he says, “there’s a woman in the road holding a sign. What does it say?”

“She’s asking for money,” I tell him. We talk about the reasons why a person might be so poor that they take to begging in traffic. They mostly come down to bad choices and illnesses of the heart and mind.

“We should give her some money,” he says.

“Do you want to give her money?” I ask.

“Yes.” So we park near where she is sitting. Cars are passing her, people are averting their gaze.

I give Caleb ten dollars. I don’t tell him that it’s unwise to give a lot, that a drunk can kill herself on too much money. Ten dollars seems like a lot to him, and I suppose for someone who is really going to spend it on food or bus fare to a shelter, it’s enough for now. It’s nothing, though, compared to what she really needs, and I know it, and maybe some part of her knows it, but Caleb doesn’t know it yet, so I give him ten dollars.

I remind him to watch the cars, to look the drivers in the eye and make sure they see him. His brothers and I sit in the minivan while he goes to the curb and waits for a chance to walk out to the girl. Finally a car stops to let him pass. The girl’s face is turned down; she sees nothing but the ground. I watch my son’s narrow shoulders as he crosses the drive, and I am praying that no harm will come to him, not now or ever, that someone who is this loving will be spared the pain of the world, which is when I remember that it is Christmas, the time when we celebrate precisely the opposite, the coming of pure love to suffer for all we who sit with faces turned down, not even knowing what to ask for, knowing only in our crusted-over hearts that anything will help.

I watch my son’s narrow shoulders as he stoops so that the girl will see him, as he smiles and gives her the money, as her face is so surprised that it can do nothing but smile back, not a calculated or cautious smile, but the kind of smile it maybe used to make when she really was a girl, before people or she herself or maybe just the whole world did this to her. I watch this boy’s narrow shoulders and I am reminded that the path is narrow, as narrow as one man’s shoulders, in fact, and that this narrow path is easy only if we set our eyes on those shoulders and follow. We make the following harder than it need be, with our calculations, with our worries that someone might run us down when we are dutifully following.

Caleb turns from the smiling girl and he is happy. The traffic is slowed, now, and so it is easy for him to come back to me. A man in the car who waits for him to cross now stops beside the girl, and the man gives her money. Another man, who was standing beside his car when we parked, crosses the drive to give the girl more money, and to talk with her. The girl is smiling like Christmas morning has come, like she has awakened by a tree and under this tree are gifts for her.

I am proud of my son and I want to be like him and I am afraid one day he will be like me, all of these thoughts in me at once, and so what I say is that I love him. Do you see, I ask, how people came to help her after they saw you helping her? He smiles. He is learning to think like an adult, but on this day he didn’t know any better than to give a girl with downturned face money and a smile, which is nothing but everything.

Maybe someone will come along who really helps this girl, who knows what to say and whom to call and what sort of actions heal girls who sit on curbs at Christmas. I don’t know the first thing about this kind of help, except that it must begin with someone getting out of his car and walking out to her. That has to be the first step, right?

So now I remember my narrow-shouldered boy and think that maybe it really is easier than I’ve believed, that if we see with right eyes there are always shoulders to follow, that there is always a path if we will only see it. And whose shoulders will this boy follow when the answer is not so easy as keeping your eyes on traffic while you take a spot of money to a dejected girl? Not mine. Not mine.

Christmas is the beginning of a new cycle of teaching them, isn’t it? We show them the baby in a cave, and tell them to watch him just as the shepherds watched the miraculous star, and over the months to come we tell them what he did as a man, and we lead them to the tree which he climbed to die, and we fix their eyes there, telling them: watch, watch, see what has happened. Then we take them to his second cave, to the rolled-aside stone and the weeping women, and tell them to fix their eyes on his shoulders walking away, to hear him calling for them to follow, and we pray that this is the voice they remember as we grow feeble, not our own voices even, but the voice of the one they must follow if they are to have the gift we desperately want for them but cannot ourselves give.

And if you are like me and you look back on the year and think about how once again you have done a poor job of it, of teaching them anything at all that is lasting, take comfort in this: that it is Christmas, that the cycle begins again, that there is still time while they breathe and you breathe. Teach them to watch the star that leads to the baby to the boy to the man to the grave to the life beyond death. Teach them about the joy that has come into a world of downturned, hopeless faces.

On Key

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