Sometimes my job breaks my heart. Today was one of those days.
My desk is in earshot of Bethesda Cares‘ reception desk, in our Drop-In Center for clients suffering homelessness. I was clattering away at my keyboard and not really listening to what was going on in that room, but for some reason an elderly man’s soft voice caught my ear. I looked up to see a distinguished-looking older gentleman in grey fedora standing behind our little Christmas tree and holding the elbow of an elderly (marginally younger) man in a blue parka, addressing the volunteer who serves as our receptionist. I’d never seen either man before.
“This man needs a cup of coffee and something to eat,” said the older man. “Can you help him?”
“Of course!” Debbie, our volunteer, jumped up to show the man where the coffee cups are and went to set out some fresh food for him.
“They’re nice in here,” the older man said. “Good luck.” Then he patted the other man on his arm, wished him well and left.
The younger man sat down and started to eat as Debbie told him about our meal program, just a few blocks away, but she didn’t know the names of the streets he’d have to take to get there. So I stood up to, I don’t know, kind of pantomime the three turns he’d have to take to get to the church where the meal was. I wrote the directions on some scrap paper for him, printing as clearly as I could.
“Okay?” I asked, when I had finished. “Does that make sense?”
Setting down his coffee cup, the man looked into my eyes, and I tell you, I saw such exhaustion and despair in them that it almost took my breath away.
“I need a place to sleep,” he said. “Can I get a bed there?”
“I gave him the number of the Crisis Center,” Debbie said. “See, sir? It’s on that paper, right there.”
“I don’t have money to make the call,” he said.
“You can use our phone,” I assured him. “We have a phone over there, just for clients’ use.” I pointed at it. “But you’ll have to come back at 3:00. We close the Center at mealtime, so you can go have a good hot meal, then come back here to make the call.”
“But we have to close now,” Debbie said. “I’m sorry, sir, but we need to close.”
Chewing slowly on a pastry, the man didn’t budge. Maria, our office manager, came to help.
“We need to close, sir. You’re welcome to go have a good meal, then come back and use the phone.”
“I just want to sleep,” he said and his eyes watered. “I just want to sleep.”
Maria repeated her message, as kindly as she could. After a few minutes, the man stood up and shuffled out the door. This just happened fifteen minutes before I typed this, so I don’t know whether he’ll be back when we reopen, whether he’ll make the call or where he will find a place to lay his head tonight.
Oh, his words pierced my heart. He reminded me of a child sick with fever, who just wants to sleep. No videos, no treats. Just, sleep.
The man’s request would have seen a humble one, on any day. But amidst of all the Christmas ads urging us to buy things we might want, but don’t need, his wish seems all the more poignant.
A little rest doesn’t seem like too much to hope for in life, does it? For that man, though, at least for today, it is.