It was 1957. I was 15. We had just buried my Scots grandfather. On our way home to Ohio, we stopped along a grimy street in a dingy Pennsylvania town and walked toward a restaurant. It was just the six of us – my mother, father, three brothers and me.
Abruptly, clattering around a corner came a man on a home-made, caster-wheeled, plywood contraption about 6 inches high. He was legless, his limbs gone at mid-thigh. His pants were tucked under his buttocks. His bare fingers protruded from gloves cut off at the fingers. I had never seen that before.
The man’s hands, clothes, hair and face were caked with filth. His whole being reeked of the soot of factory smoke and the soiled streets that he patrolled. He grunted heavily, almost snorting, as he shoved himself along. Seeing us in his path he skidded to a stop, braking himself with the heels of his hands. Suddenly, he was at our feet gazing up at us. He said nothing. His intrusive and jarring presence was itself an eloquent plea.
Stunned, we, too, said nothing. I was disturbed, unsettled, shocked and, I think, a little frightened. Not at what the man might do – I could have stepped on him or over him with little effort – but at the horror of his condition.
With my brothers, I made an effort to sidle around the man. My parents, however, did not move. They, too, were silent. Just as my reaction bespoke what I felt, their actions said everything that was in their hearts. My mother dug into her purse and came up with a few coins.
We were far from rich. Not quite impoverished, but poor enough. The restaurant meal, though it would probably cost less than $20 to feed all of us in those days, would probably not break my mother’s meager budget. It sure would bend it, though, right up to the breaking point.
As the man saw what was happening, he raised his hand, his repulsive fingers inked with the dirt and spittle through which he dragged himself. My mother tenderly placed the coins in his hand, squeezed it gently and stepped away.
There was no ceremony, no talk. The man said nothing, not even “thanks.” He just wheeled about and rolled away.
From where I stood, behind my mother, I could only assume that their eyes met. Hers, a beaming and unusual hazel-tinted green, would have found his as their hands touched. Encouragement, strength, inspiration would have flashed between them. Sympathy but not pity would have been in her gaze. I knew that look quite well – I had seen and felt its character and power often enough.
This isn’t a sermon about Christian ethics. I hold that real faith – of any kind – has to embody the notion of self-giving love or it is not real. But what I’ve known for many years now is that what I saw in her that day, in that moment, was the essence of self-giving love.
My brothers and I were all churchgoers then. But I was the real imbiber, the Catholic schoolboy, the altar boy. Though they sent us, my parents rarely went to church and never prayed. What my mother did that long-ago day has never left me. She put a few coins into the hand of a broken and pitiful man. She touched and reassured him and let him know that he was not alone.
What I did that day was to think that her generosity probably cost me a chocolate milkshake. My mother died in 2001. There was and still is a big difference between her and me. I hope, though, that the gap has narrowed a little.