by Sandy Kay Slawson
Jackie Cassen idled at the red light at the grocery store exit and watched the old woman as she reclined against the small oak tree in the sparse grass near the intersection. The woman had one hand resting on a shopping cart filled with junk and the other hand on the back of a short, stubby mutt. A horn blared behind Jackie. She tore her gaze from the dirty wastrel, saw the green light and accelerated. The truck blew its horn again as it sped around her with a roar of its engine. Jackie waved an, “I’m sorry,” though the driver couldn’t see her.
“Stop letting that woman get to you,” said Jackie to herself. After three months of the homeless lady’s presence at that same spot, the sight should be commonplace by now. Why did Jackie feel the need to study her whenever she got stuck at that light? “It’s not like I haven’t seen homeless people before, but…oh stop it. Give the woman a couple dollars next time and maybe you’ll feel better.”
Jackie unloaded her grocery bags and then worked to fit the items in her already full fridge and pantry. As she stood in front of her open refrigerator with a bag of grated cheddar, the futility of fitting it in with the other cheeses hit her. A picture of the old woman flashed through her mind. She never held a sign or asked for anything, just sat there and perhaps hoped for compassion. Maybe she prayed, too. “Do homeless people pray?” Silly question. Perhaps they pray more than anyone. She stuffed the cheese in with the vegetables. Then she pushed the five new boxes of cereal beside the five half eaten old boxes of cereal.
“Hey, Mom. What kind of snacks did you buy? I’m starved,” said Ryan her older boy of sixteen as he entered the kitchen.
“Did you buy more Cheetos? Ryan finished the other bag. He wouldn’t share either,” said Ridge her younger son of thirteen.
Jackie rubbed her temples as the two boys argued and wrestled around the kitchen. When they grew tired of the tussle, they watched her with frowns.
“Well?” They said in unison.
“Hey, Hon,” said Kenneth, her husband, as he walked in the back door and set his briefcase down. “Hey, boys. What’s up?”
“We’re starved,” said Ridge.
“We’re going out to eat,” said Jackie.
All three of her boys looked at the grocery bags, which still filled the counter, and then stared at her.
“I’m tired. I don’t feel like cooking supper. If someone else wants to cook, great,” said Jackie.
On the way to the restaurant, they passed the spot where the woman had been earlier. Jackie craned her neck to see. Yes, she still rested under the tree, though the mutt now lay in her lap.
“Did you see something?” asked Kenneth.
At the steakhouse, Kenneth and her sons ate and joked around in their normal boyish manner. Jackie didn’t have the heart to join in or even scold them as she might usually do for their antics. Instead she pushed her food around her plate only able to eat a small portion of the massive amount of food. She felt the eyes of her husband on her from time to time, but he let her be. He probably thinks I’m hormonal. Maybe I am. Why else would she be acting like this? It couldn’t be because of the woman, she’d never acted this way before when she’d seen her. Why this time?
Jackie tossed and turned in bed that night. She hadn’t seen the woman on the way home. Where did she sleep? Was she cold? Did she get anything to eat? At three a.m. Jackie dragged herself out of bed and grabbed a Bible off the bedside table. As quiet as possible, she shut the bedroom door behind her then maneuvered through the dark house. She flipped on the dining room light and sank down at the table.
“Alright, Lord, what are you trying to tell me?”
An hour later, Jackie had her answer. She read the passage again from Matthew 25.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”
Jackie closed her Bible and went back to bed. She’d tell Kenneth her plan in the morning. He’d offer advice and caution, but he’d support her. At peace for the first time in a long time, she fell fast asleep.
“Well, hello, Miss. I was wondering if you’d ever come visit me,” said the woman the next morning.
Jackie held her knuckles out to the scruffy dog. He licked them as if she held a raw steak. His tail wagged so hard that his back end almost moved with it.
“Oh? Do you know me?” asked Jackie as she settled on the hard ground beside the dog.
“I’ve seen you come through. You must like dogs. I see you watching mine when you wait at the light.”
Jackie swallowed. The woman sounded so normal. Not what she expected. She didn’t even look as old up close, late fifty’s or early sixties she’d guess.
“I wish I would have come sooner. My name is Jackie. You do have a cute little doggie,” said Jackie.
The woman let go of her cart and held out a filthy glove for Jackie to shake. Jackie shook her hand and resisted the urge to wipe her own hand on her jeans.
“I’m Trudy and this is Bingo. He found my box one night and snuggled up with me and we’ve been buddies ever since,” said Trudy.
“Oh yeah, a nice big one. It must have held an oven or refrigerator or something. Someone tried to take it from me one night, but Bingo scared them off. Yep, he’s a good dog to have around.”
“He sounds like a great guard dog. Hey, I…uh…I brought some things for you. I’ll go get them.” Jackie went to where she’d parked her car and removed the backpack she’d filled with food, water bottles, a sweater, thick socks, a throw blanket, and some pouches of dog food. She set the backpack down beside the woman.
“Well, isn’t that nice. You didn’t have to go to any trouble on my account,” said Trudy.
“Is there someone I can call for you? Do you have any family?”
Trudy looked away. Her lip quivered. Soon a wet droplet left a streak in the grime on her skin from the corner of her eye until it dropped off her chin.
“I’m sorry. I just want to help. The...the...Lord sent me to help you,” said Jackie.
The woman turned her watery pale blues onto Jackie again.
“I’ve been praying He’d send someone,” said Trudy.
A chill ran along Jackie’s spine. No wonder she’d become obsessed with the woman. Why me, Lord? Surely there is someone more qualified?
“I’m glad He sent you,” said Trudy.
“You remind me of myself before this…” The woman indicated her condition with a wave of her hand.
“O, yes. My husband and I had a normal middle class family until the accident,” said Trudy.
“It’s a long story.”
“I’ve got time if you want to share it with me,” said Jackie.
The woman hesitated for a moment then nodded her head as if she’d made a decision.
“I’ll keep it as short as I can,” said Trudy.
“I’m in no hurry.”
“A drunk driver hit us head on one night after my son’s basketball game. My daughter rode in a different car with the other cheerleaders. My husband and son were killed instantly. I went to the hospital with several serious injuries. They kept me for months. I became addicted to the pain meds. Before I knew it, my daughter left for college, I lost my job…lost my house…lost everything. I don’t remember much after that. Three years ago I got arrested for vagrancy. The judge sentenced me to a lockdown rehab facility. When I came out of their program a year later, my body was free of drugs and my heart was right with God. It’s as if I came out of a coma. I still had nothing, but at least my mind worked again. The problem with that is I mourned my family as if they’d died the day before, and my daughter had just yelled she hated me before she slammed the door for the last time. I don’t know where she is anymore. I wish I could tell her how sorry I am.”
“What’s her name?” asked Jackie as she wiped her wet cheeks with her scarf. She had an idea. Perhaps it had come from the Lord. If so, maybe it’s why she’d been called to come in the first place.
Jackie answered her phone three weeks later.
“Hi…This is Elaine…Trudy’s daughter.”
I want to dedicate this story to my parents. My whole life my parents have been givers. Though they have lived from paycheck to paycheck or from job to job, they have given freely to others. Though they lost almost everything they owned in Katrina, they shared what they were given with others. They are in their 80's now. Still they must work. Yet, still they give. As I was growing up, many of those years were spent with strangers living amongst us. Men, women, teenagers pulled off the street and given a home for however long they needed/wanted it.
I have to say, I did not appreciate this aspect of my life back then. We wore hand-me-downs or garage sale finds. We barely had enough for ourselves or so I thought. Some of the people that stayed with us stole from us, including the 10 speed bike I got for my sixteenth birthday. A bike I loved. Or my things were given to other people, like a raft I never got a chance to use. It wasn't just my stuff stolen or given away, but as a self-absorbed teen that is what bothered me most. After all, I never wanted those people there in the first place. No. I did not like it one little bit. I could go on about my girlhood grievances, but I won't.
It took me a long time before I gave to anyone asking for a handout. Then one day years ago, I felt convicted and I began to understand. The giving is not about the person in need. It is not about me. It's about Jesus. He gave His own life, yet how has He been treated? How have the vast majority of people thanked Him? No, we can't be sure how our money will be used or whether or not the person is really who or what they say they are. But Jesus says, if we do it unto the least of these, we've done it unto Him and that is all I need to know. I'm sorry for my sin of selfishness and my lack of compassion in my early years.
My parents gave and still give, not because they expect anything back, but because they love Jesus and He is enough. Back then I didn't realize how blessed we were, but I do now. We never went hungry. We always had a roof over our heads and clothes to wear. I had more than enough and I am grateful. I love you, Mama and Daddy. I am so glad for the example you set for me, even if it took me a long time to understand it. Love you both so much!! -Sandy
Daddy's favorite verse:
Mama's favorite verse: