thoughts from a lonely easter night

Like an intruder, pain comes. Unexpected. Uninvited.

Like an odor, pain lingers.

Like smoke, pain evaporates.

Like a friend, pain returns.

Are you confused by pain, the world asks.

Are you angered by pain, the world demands.

Yes. Of course I am, I say.

And the world remains silent.

_______________

Last night, I worked at the shelter. It was a normal shift.

Until, right as I reached the busy point checking the men into their beds, a co-worker sent “Bill” my way.

Bill was not a usual. I had never met him before. He was at the shelter last night because he needed help.

Thanks to a set of organs that do not work right, Bill had, well… soiled his paints. The streets do not provide a lot of solutions when that happens. So Bill showed up at our door.

“They just sent me to you,” he said, as soon as I noticed he was at my desk.

“Ok, what’s going on.”

“I need a shower. I shit my pants. I don’t got any more.”

I did not ask any more questions. When a man has shit his pants, questions don’t help, you know? They just delay the process.

So I showed him where to shower.

“No, I’ll just wait. I don’t want to embarrass the other men when my shit falls to the floor.”

As if it were his burden to bear, Bill cared more about the other mens’ dignity than he did his own. Lesson number one.

So for forty-five minutes, Bill stood at my desk, leaning to support his frail body, while he waited for the last man to shower and make his way to bed.

Then he stood up as straight as he could and started walking. Then he stopped. As if he had remembered a secret, he turned my way.

“Ya got any detergent?” he asked.

“You talking about soap? We have soap and shampoo in the stalls.”

“No,” he clarified. “I need detergent. For my clothes.”

Bill was going to wash his clothes while he showered. And he had a lot of clothes. Winter and spring seasons in Spokane make it a necessity. But the truth was, we didn’t have detergent. Not that he could use, at least. Our washers are filled automatically with detergent that I couldn’t access. I had to say no.

His disappointment was palpable. He walked off.

“I need some towels. I few of ’em if you can spare.” That’s all he said.

So I went. But as I handed him the towels, they felt empty. But not just because they are too small for any grown man. They felt so superficial. Here, a man with shit visibly staining his pants more and more by the minute, asking me for help to clean his clothes. And all I have are towels to dry the body that will go back into those clothes after the water’s turned off.

So I grabbed a bag. And then I grabbed another for good measure.

“Throw your clothes in here. I’ll wash them. And I’ll dry them. That way you don’t have to wait for them to dry if you do it yourself.”

That statement was only only partially true. He’d have to sit naked for at least an hour while he waited for his clothes to make it through our wash cycle.

Bill resisted at first. He tried to explain that it wasn’t necessary. But the man had shit his pants. We both knew it was necessary.

He obliged.

And he asked for another bag, a smaller one, into which he put his dentures, and a half-used packet of juice-powder.

Then he gave me his clothes. They smelled. And I walked to the laundry room as he walked to the showers.

I was tempted, as I emptied the bags into the washers and smelled the full extent of Bill’s situation, to tell him I wasn’t allowed to wash his clothes. The dutiful employee in me wanted to inform him of our laundry hours that are available to patrons in the morning. A voice told me I couldn’t make exceptions, because there is no way I could remain fair in my service to the rest of the House’s patrons.

But then the smell hit me again. I pressed the start button.

Because life had decided fairness did not exist for men like Bill. So who was I to decide it was now required?

Bill interrupted my thoughts with an exhausted and frustrated call. His water was cold and it was not improving. But when one-hundred men shower before you, warm water is the exception. I offered what sympathetic words I could muster, and left him so I could begin sweeping the locker room. I figured I might as well do something that would make me feel helpful.

Bill finished his shower before I finished sweeping. He called for me. I came. He asked    for more towels to stay warm while he sat. I got him towels. I went back to sweeping. He called for me again. This time, a cup of water. Back to sweeping. Another call. A blanket, since, well… the towels weren’t doing much. Back to sweeping.

Then, just as I was about to check on a patron vomiting in a stall, another call came from BIll in the back corner.

“Where are ya!?”

This was not an entitled call, as if I were his servant. Although, I would gladly assume the title, and made sure he knew.

No, this was every bit a call for help that originates only in the deep pits of despair.

I poked my head around the corner so Bill could see me but still get the hint that I had work to do.

“Oh, sorry,” he said. “I was just curious. Ya ever seen health this bad?”

He was talking about the bowels he couldn’t control. He was talking about the deteriorating esophagus that sent blood through his bowels too. And he was talking about the five deep-blue bruises on each arm from his week spent in the hospital. His ribs too. They were bruised after being beaten on the streets by gangbangers looking to steal the wallet, phone, and gifts cards Bill kept guarded in his pockets. But also the whooping cough, the blistered and raw fingers he asked to have wrapped, the curled and blackened toe-nailes, the burn-scarred foot, the…

“I’ve seen a lot, Bill. That’s what I get for working at a shelter.”

“Oh. I see.”

Bill was not done talking. I could tell. He just did not want to intrude. But I had two more hours on my shift. Sweeping could wait.

So I sat. I said I was sorry, as sincerely as I could.

And then Bill spoke.

And until his clothes were ready for the dryer, I learned Bill was a man for whom life gave little regard. If life has a middle finger to give, Bill was, and is, its recipient.

But the first theme, and the only theme that mattered to Bill in his story, was love. Lesson number two.

Bill knew love. And he knew love lost. And he knew the pain that develops when lost love is not followed by redemption, repair, or rebirth.

So I sat on the tile bench, next to a man hunched by the pain in his ribs. And I smiled, and I grimaced, and I laughed, and I sighed, and I looked away. Because I knew my words would have been as empty as the hope he felt.

Eventually Bill’s clothes finished. He dressed. Then he came to the desk to retrieve his dentures and juice powder.

“Nah,” he said, referring to his dentures. “I’ll leave em out. Got too much pain in my mouth tonight.”

I smiled because, again, what could I say?

Then Bill looked at the floor, at his dust-stained shoes, then back to his dentures.

And quietly,

“John, why do bad things happen to good people?”

All I could come up with was, “Bill, if I knew that answer…” and trailed off.

But it was ok. Because Bill finished my sentence for me.

“… then we’d both know, huh?”

I nodded.

“I gained a new friend tonight. I’m grateful for ya, John.”

“Happy to help, Bill.”

He shook my hand and walked out.

_______________

I woke up this morning and went to church.

I walked into the sanctuary as the crowd was singing this verse:

I want to have eyes of love
I want to have eyes of love
Count the beggar mans life precious life as my own
Offer my back for my brothers load
I want to have eyes of love
I want to have eyes of love

______________

Bill was Jesus to me.

When he asked me where I was, he was God in the garden. He had lost human communion and wanted it back, desperately.

When he shared his story, he was the crucified Christ, lamenting a life that had turned its back, had forsook him, had taken those he loved most deeply.

When he shook my hand and told me we were friends, Bill was the risen Christ. He gave me the gift of hope from a well that had run dry and had nothing left to give.

Lessons three, four, and five.

Bill has the eyes of love.

And I want them for myself.

Happy Easter.

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