first published on my blog Jan. 2008
She sat in the giant burnt orange chair that dwarfed her slight frame, legs crossed, a cup of watery vending machine hot chocolate in her hand, playing with the silver hoop earring hanging from her left ear.
Every time I walked into the liberal arts lounge in that hour between English and French, I looked forward to seeing this stylish friend. A girl who was everything I wasn’t, but still accepted me for who I was.
We shared stories daily. Hopes and dreams and broken hearts and Sting and Rush and Yes and Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and, please God, one day, The Rolling Stones.
She’d married young. Found the love of her life. Laughed at people who tried to bring up the statistics.
Once when a stranger walked into “our” lounge and expressed outrage at the homeless daring to waste their time below the main bridge in town with hand painted signs promising to work for food, she told the story of purposefully stopping at the McDonald’s across the street from the bridge and buying food for those same homeless. The stranger quickly left, rolling his eyes and, I’m sure, muttering something along the lines of “bleeding heart liberals,” as the door closed behind him.
Of course the stranger didn’t know her truth. Didn’t know the story she’d shared with me that still haunts me every time I drive by that bridge and see the men and women with their backpacks and sleeping bags and signs on cardboard.
Like my father, and most of the fathers of that time, hers had gone to war in Vietnam. He’d returned to the praise and joy and relief of his family. One wife. Three children. A veteran of a war that might not have been popular nationally but qualified him as hero material in our town.
And then, one day, he sat across the table from her mother and quietly but firmly told her to gather the children and leave.
When she tried to argue, to make sense of his words, he said it again. And this time added, take them and leave or I’m going to kill you all.
She left but called the police. When the police got to the house, my friend’s father was gone.
He lived under that bridge. And in the mission. And in empty houses that served as homes for transients just passing through.
He never talked to his family again, no matter how often they tried to connect.
He was as lost to them as if he’d never returned from the war.
My friend considered him the ultimate hero. I tended to agree with her.
When his obituary appeared in the paper a couple years ago, his family members were listed as survivors. They’d lost him years before, but I know that physical death had to hurt.
Temperatures are supposed to drop into the 20s and 30s around here tomorrow. Last year, a homeless woman froze to death in a port-a-potty across the street from one of our hospitals. While the Mission might be open, there will be plenty of men and women living under that bridge.
Every one of them has a story. I hope I don’t ever forget that.