Last December, Thaniel and I shared a podcast about our family's interactions Richard (not his actual name). This is the Richard who prefers living on the street to accepting help to get an apartment; the Richard who would sit on our porch drinking coffee and talking about the people he met in his travels around town and his hopes to travel someday; the Richard who accepted our invitation and came to our Thanksgiving meal. This is the Richard who helped us realize that meeting Christ among the poor is a lot messier than meeting Him at the Chalice. (Listen to the podcast, if you like.)
Soon after we shared the podcast, Richard stopped coming to visit us. We would occasionally see him downtown or as he walked the streets, and he would always greet us with his smile and signature thumbs up. Once, he mentioned an extended stay in the hospital for his skin problems.
Last Saturday, I ran into Richard outside a downtown cafe. He eagerly told me that he was moving back to the city where he lived 13 years ago, a city almost 500 miles way (and a city with frigid winters, I think, as fall and winter approaches). He had gathered up enough money and found someone who went online to purchase a bus ticket for him, he said while patting his pocket. He made arrangements to get six-week treatment at a hospital in that city, he said, because our local hospital wasn't helping him. Would I drive him to the bus station the next day?
At the appointed time on Sunday afternoon, when Kristina and I returned home from Liturgy, Richard was on our porch. Although he did not look well, he was ready to travel, with only a plastic shopping bag in hand. I took a look at his ticket and realized that his bus was scheduled to depart in 20 minutes, from the bus station 45 minutes away. He missed his bus. In true Richard form, he accepted the news without much reaction. I noticed then that there was a second ticket for his connecting bus. We still had time to catch that one, at a city an hour and 45 minutes away, in the opposite direction.
Kristina packed a bagged lunch, and Richard and I hopped in the car. Instead of a quick drive to a nearby familiar bus terminal, he and I were heading to an unknown destination in the downtown of a larger city with more traffic. It's not my idea of a restful Sunday afternoon. Richard wasn't at all concerned. He ate his lunch and we chatted briefly. He mentioned his sisters who live in other parts of the country and who he hasn't seen for decades. He soon drifted off into a deep sleep. I kept vigil, praying for him while the GPS called out directions.
He woke up as we were driving through Chinatown, a few blocks from the bus terminal. We found the station (thanks to GPS), parked the car, and went inside. I helped Richard find the right door and, ready to hurry off (I wasn't sure I was parked legally and didn't want to get towed), we said our goodbyes. He thanked me for the ride and shook my hand assuring me that he wouldn't fall asleep and miss his bus.
On my drive home and for the next couple of days, I worried about Richard. Did he get on his bus? Did the bus company honor the second ticket even though he didn't show up for the first leg of the trip (despite Kristina calling the company to confirm their policy and me double checking at the bus ticket counter)? If he missed his bus, where would he spend the night and find food? Would he make it to the other city? How would he get to the hospital there? Was the hospital even expecting him?
Even more than the logistics of his trip, I was hit with the realization of how easily Richard can fall through the cracks. Does anyone else in our city know that he is no longer here? Richard has no one to check up on him. He is alone in this world and totally dependent on others for his very existence. When he dies someday, will anyone know his name (he doesn't have identification) or how to contact his estranged next-of-kin?
I don't know if I will ever see Richard again in this life, but I am grateful for the connection we have and what I have learned from him. He lives simply, from meal to meal, from park bench to park bench, from city to city, with all his possessions in a plastic shopping bag. Among other lessons, he reminds me that despite my supposed "having it all together," I too am totally dependent and God will provide.
As one of our priests said in reflecting on last Saturday's Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, "Poverty is a cross, but so is abundance. If we have more than we need, our cross is to share what we have with others." Mother Maria of Paris talks about the similarity of taking up a cross and having a sword pierce our hearts. I thank God for bringing Richard into our lives; my heart has been pricked with love. Relating with Richard was sometimes uncomfortable and inconvenient, but never anything close to a cross or sword. May my heart be opened and ready to meet the next "Richard" God brings my way.
Afternote: When I called the hospital a few days later to ask if Richard was a patient, I was told that someone with his name had already been discharged. It seems he made it, but rather than getting six weeks of treatment, he's likely out on the streets again. Please pray for him.