It was a cold winter night outside Walmart. I saw a homeless woman with her kid by the parking lot and offered them a helping hand. But little did I know how it would turn out.
See this as a confession if you want to—there are things that I am proud of and there are things that I am not, and this is about one of those things that I am not.
It’s kind of funny how getting older reminds you more of the mistakes you made when you were younger. Mistakes have consequences, no matter how big or small. Now that I am 55, I find myself looking back on my own life more often, and there’s this one thing that has been plaguing me over the last three decades.
Where shall we start? Well … let’s start with that evening last winter.
I remember that evening like it was yesterday—it was cold and snowy. The first snow of the year … I can still remember how white the snow was that evening—getting older makes you notice things like that. I just got out of Walmart when I saw a woman in her 30s with her kid sitting outside, shivering and trembling fervently when the cold north wind blew across the parking lot.
I live in Minnesota, the winters aren’t quite forgiving, you see.
They had a thin blanket on and that was all they had on them. Just as I was approaching the car, I heard the kid sneeze. Poor kid, I thought to myself. They deserve better in this country—our politicians have not been kind to folks like them, not that they ever care about them. Desolation roamed the streets with homeless folks sitting outside amidst the wonders we’ve made … Lord, that irony.
I decided to approach them.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I could help them at first … get a blanket for them? I could, but that wouldn’t solve any of their problems. I could drive them to a homeless shelter, but that ain’t no place for a kid to be in
But something took hold of me that night as if God spoke to my very soul that I should perhaps take them in. I live by myself after my divorce 10 years ago, so I do have a spare room in my house. It was a strange feeling, unprecedented courage that rose within me.
I offered them dinner at my place that night
So I said to them, “Look, I know it isn’t much, but if you folks need some food you can come to my place. I am making some goulash tonight.”
The woman was hesitant at first, but then she looked at her kid, shivering and trembling amidst the cold. She finally nodded after a few seconds. And so I drove them back to my place.
They were quiet at first at the dinner table, but after two plates of goulash, they began talking.
“Thank you … we really don’t know how to repay you,” the mother finally started talking. Meanwhile, the kid kept staring at the empty plate in front of him. From his eyes, I could tell he wanted more, so I poured more goulash on his plate.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. I could also tell that they hadn’t taken a shower in a while, so I offered them to go wash up and stay at my place for the night. I couldn’t just ask them to go back out in the cold in the middle of the night. It was the least I could do.
From the conversation, I gathered that her name was Lauren, and that was her son Paul. Lauren said she grew up in an orphanage when her mother left her there as a kid, and Paul’s father ran away to L.A. or something after he was born—to pursue a career in music or something, I gathered.
She told me she used to work for Amazon for a while, in one of those warehouses, but the economy wasn’t doing well a year or two ago and she got laid off.
That’s always the way it goes, isn’t it? We’re all disposable, ready to be replaced by someone else the very next day.
But then a thought struck me.
Now, my mistakes … I had my share of lust and greed, a good dose of sloth, of wrath, of things I am not proud of, of memories I tried not to recall … but one thing kept coming back to me, and it came back to me that very night—it had something to do with a girl I knew years ago.
I was 23, I remember. The prime of my youth, the essence of freedom that lived within us. I was dating a girl at the time, and her name was Emily—I always remember that because of that Simon & Garfunkel song I used to sing to her. We were in college together, and everything was so fine and dandy …
Until she got pregnant.
I am not proud of that, but I think I am old enough to confront my mistakes, to be a man about it. I ran away just like Paul’s father. It was overwhelming for me … I was still young, fresh out of college with just a few dollars in my pocket while hitchhiking across the country. I know, I shouldn’t be justifying my actions, but it’s about time I confront it.
I remember that night when Emily told me about the baby … Lord, those eyes of hers, filled with hopes and dreams … but I was young and naive and I didn’t know what to do.
On that very night, I walked down Interstate 10 and hitched myself a ride from California all the way to Texas. I remember how the stars rose above me that night as I was going through New Mexico, the unfathomable world above me, with all the uncertainties it entailed.
In fact, for quite some time I didn’t even try and look for her. It was only until ten years ago, after my divorce, that I tried looking for her … again, one of those things you do as you get older—rekindling with old acquaintances, making up for past mistakes
I asked my buddies from college if they heard anything about Emily … but no, not a single word. They basically lost touch with her at around the same time I left.
The thought of it still haunts me to this very day. My mistakes and regret, my Achilles heel, if you may.
But as they always say, God works in mysterious ways.
Fast forward a week after that evening, Lauren and her son were still in my house. I actually offered to let them stay so that Lauren could go look for a job and not have to worry about finding a place to stay. We talked more often that week, about our lives and situations. Little Paulie was also a happier kid, that I could tell for sure.
We also talked about families and all, about my divorce and her relationships, and also about her mother who she could vaguely recall. I still remember that conversation—again, over dinner.
“You know, I just want to see my mother again sometime—I don’t even know if she’s still alive,” she said.
“Have you tried looking for her?” I asked.
“I tried, but all I have is that old photograph of hers. I don’t even know anyone who might actually know her,” she responded.
“Have you tried social media? That’s what folks are using these days. I remember reading about this story just the other day, and someone found their long-lost siblings through social media. Maybe you can give it a shot,” I said. “I can scan the photo for you and put it up if you don’t mind,” I added.
That’s when she showed me the photo—torn, battered, and stained.
That’s Emily. A face I haven’t seen in decades—but Lord, I would never forget those eyes.
I must’ve been trembling for a moment cause when I turned towards Lauren, she was visibly shaken by my reaction as well. It took me a while to compose myself and ask her that question.
“Do you know her name?” I asked finally.
“Emily I think,” she answered.
“Do you know anything about your father?” I asked.
“Nope. Never met him—but I think his name was either Jack or James … somewhere along those lines. It’s been decades,” she said.
I couldn’t contain myself anymore—it must’ve been an awkward sight for anyone to see, a grown old man on the floor, broken down in tears. Lord … that thought, that mistake, plaguing my mind all these years—and the Lord himself brought her to my doorstep. A daughter I deserted, a soul that grew up unnurtured because of my very own mistake.
There I was, on the kitchen floor, tears over my eyes. I kept mumbling to myself “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry …” But what was that for, really? It was too late to apologize. I knew that. Yet somehow I thought it’d make me feel better. It never did.
Lauren looked at me, tried to comfort me at first … but then I couldn’t help it anymore and I told her what happened three decades ago.
She looked at me dead in the eyes for a solid minute or two that felt like an eternity, but then she stormed out of the house with little Paulie before I got the chance to utter another word.
There it is. A mistake that plagued me all my life—not that I could do anything about it, but I suppose writing that down could make me feel slightly better … that’s what I said at the beginning. A confession.
I can see the snow falling outside again, the lights flickering in the distance when the cold north wind stirred up the snowflakes along the sidewalk. It’s Thanksgiving today, the time when you think about family and all, and here I am, an old man all by himself, living through the mistakes.
I will just end my story here—someone’s ringing the doorbell now. I didn’t order any deliveries and my neighbors aren’t the nice kind … I wonder who that could be.