I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people. – Vincent Van Gogh
I remember the first time my mama dragged our little home-schooled hineys to the local nursing home. She thought it would benefit our character, humanity and the whole globe if we went and spent our love tanks on the old people and it really did sound like a good, Jesus-loving idea to me….until we got there. And I say “until” because upon opening the doors to that poorly kept place our senses were immediately offended by the most obnoxious wall of eye-watering odor. I couldn’t even take a full breath without feeling like I was eating ALL THE PEOPLE’S POOP AND PEE. Close second to the stink came my very first visual: a shuffling, hunched-back old-timer dropping his drawers in the middle of the corridor to piss and shit all over the floor. I mean! I had never even seen such a thing as anyone’s , bare–functioning–butt.
I wanted to turn my feet around SO bad and run frantic for the hills. My sensibilities were in shock. This wasn’t a pretty or happy or nice place. There were no flowers on the windowsills or rose colored glasses being passed out when you walked in. This was the real, gritty world and it was the first experience where I had really encountered it. A five-minute car ride from home and we were standing and sniffing in the margins of society. Being there suddenly felt like a portal into the boundaries of my own capacity for love and I knew I didn’t have enough of the stuff. These people were a lonely and forgotten person group, stuck in this location to watch the minutes tick down on their life-clock and I didn’t want to be there to pass time with them AT. ALL. My love was gasping and sputtering behind layers of nostril clawing stench and filth.
But, for 4 1/2 years my mom religiously brought us to that nursing home every Friday.
Sometimes we would gather in the group activity room to play cards or bingo. Sometimes we would set up a “beauty parlor” so the ladies could get their chin whiskers plucked and hair rollers set. Sometimes we would bathe our goats in the shower at home, tie bows around their necks and bring them in for a makeshift petting zoo. Sometimes we would ride our horses there so the elderly could reach out and savor the feel of Trinka or Roman’s velvet snout against their seasoned hands. Sometimes we would bring a chicken or two to buck and cluck around the hallways. Sometimes we would go from room to room visiting individuals and learning their exhaustive stories of love and war – some were bitter, some were effervescent; some yelled at us to “get out” and some couldn’t get enough of our company.
So many of the individuals burned an abiding brand inside my young heart; an imprint that still informs who I am today – from “Queen Ruby” with her stark-white, royally coiffed up-do….to 98-year-old Harold, one of the last remaining World War I veterans with his tales of tragedy and triumph….to mute Helen whose eyes would go wild and angry if you happened to say “God” in the course of conversation. (In lieu of God, we brought our kitty and he would settle on her lap with a purr and the most profound peace would fall over her face. It seemed that for Helen, God could only be found in the fur of a feline.)
For 4 1/2 years we told them by our efforts and energy that they were worthy.
For 4 1/2 years they taught us how to agape love.
The homeless community in our city is the “nursing home” we drag our own kids to.
“MAMA, PAPA!!! THERE’S ROGER!!! I SEE ROGER!!! HE’S OVER THERE!!! HEY ROGER, ROGER!!!”
Our boys are ALWAYS excited to see him. To them he’s like finding Waldo or unwrapping Christmas. On this particular day, it was 98 degrees when we went downtown and bumped into Roger on our way to get ice cream. He was dressed from stem to stern in black and sweating down to his skeleton. He was particularly distressed so I made sure to give him an extra huge hug. It’s still everything I can do to wrap my arms around him as if he’s clean and doesn’t smell like 7 years of unwashed skin; it’s everything I can do not to hold my breath when I lean my nose in next to his weathered neck where the worst smell sits in the shadowed creases. But I won’t allow myself half-assed hugs when it comes to our homeless friends, not when that embrace may be the only tender touch they receive for the week or whole year.
So I squeeze him and step back, my formerly pristine palms are now wet with sweat and I’m looking into his eyes and asking about life. He’s got “new” shoes with holes in both toes to match the holes in his heart, the ones left gaping by the guilt he harbors from ALL THE MISTAKES he’s made, but especially that long ago decision to leave his little boy and girl in “care” of the state.
This is not the time to decide that Roger could’ve made different choices (then he wouldn’t be in this position!). No. Every time is the time for us to eke out all the ounces of grace that we have and pour them in a glass so he can drink a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus, so to speak. Every time is an intentional decision to imagine ourselves wearing his world because I believe it’s the only way we can truly and fully love him…. With just a little zip from the top of his head to bottom of his toes, we can simply slip inside his skin. By the way…it’s SO hot in here and we’re trying to stand up under the weight of his sad times; trying to breathe through the unbearable humidity of his internal climate, but there ain’t no air conditioner where a bit of hell is beating here between his rib bones so we dip down to shoulder-up his heart, putting our own aortas next to his just so he’s not burning alive all alone.
King Solomon says that a wise man stores up an inheritance for his children’s children and I know that he’s referencing monetary wealth in that Proverbs 13 verse, but let me tell you this: the inheritance that my mama passed down to me to give to my children is worth far more to me then all the dollars in Bill Gates’ bank account. She gave us—and consequently her grandchildren—an inheritance of making love an art form; love that knows how to bend and give and stretch and spend even when a place smells like shit or a person drips with sweat.