On a blustery winter morning, I shuffle my booted feet and rub my gloved palms together as I wait at the light rail station in uptown Charlotte. The wisp of heat the friction generates does not appease my body, which yearns for warmth. Even under layers of warm apparel, I feel the frosty air seep in.
The train arrives and I jump into the carriage to find a seat furthest from the door. I am returning from a job interview that did not go well. Normally, the half hour train ride to and from uptown to my house is when I catch up on my reading. Today though, my body and mind need to thaw first before I can focus on the words of a page. After yet another failed attempt at procuring a job, my sunken spirit matches the low, dense air outside.
I look around, at the sea of people who enter the carriage after me and scramble to find spots. The huge tidal wave of scurrying humans subsides as most of them seat themselves, relief writ large on their faces. Those that don’t find seats are grateful just to be in a space away from the frigid temperatures and bone chilling winds. Through a clearing in the crowd I see an oversized woman on a wheelchair, not too far away from the door. She must be cold. All she uses to cover up is a thin yellow sweater that she wears over a gaudy, floral blouse and purple pants. Her sneakers look worn. She clutches a black drawstring bag in her bare hands that appear wrinkled and dry. She’s probably homeless. How does she get by on days like today? As if she senses my prying eyes, she turns to look at me, her expression stiff. Embarrassed, I force a smile and quickly look away.
The train rides are often frequented by vagabonds. Maybe, that is why I immerse myself in books. To avoid making eye contact with them. There is always an uncomfortable tussle in my heart when I happen to glance their way. A tussle that swings between wariness and compassion. There are some to whom life metes out an unfair hand. They deserve our empathy. But what if a few seek the easy route? What if the dollar I hand out to the disheveled man at the traffic signal is used to buy drugs? In that case, does a gesture of momentary kindness on my part serve him or cripple him? I do not know.
I pull out my book, ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up’ by Marie Kondo, but my mind is drawn to the stranger in the wheelchair. I look up from the page at her as she bends down to her side and pets her dog, a pit bull that sits beside her. A creature I did not notice earlier as I was busy trying to look away. The pit bull has on a thick olive- green jacket with faux fur around the hood. The buttoned- up jacket, that is clearly made for women, stifles his movements. He shakes with trepidation, like a crinkly leaf on a blustery day. He is bitterly cold and maybe anxious from the ruckus around him. The lady strokes his head with great tenderness and whispers words that I cannot grasp amidst the noise in the train. “It’s ok darling…it’s all going to be fine” are what my heart says she utters. I watch their interaction, spellbound.
Tears well up in my eyes. In all probability, the jacket is her most prized possession. The rest of her treasure is in the drawstring bag. She loves her dog so deeply that she is ready to forfeit her own comfort for his. I understand. I have a dog of my own, Leo. He is the child I’ve come to rely on to make me feel significant. On days like today when I feel inept, inadequate, Leo’s vehement licks and vigorous wags tell me I mean the world to him. I matter.
The stranger is wise. She senses my penetrant gaze and looks at me again. Our eyes meet and our souls connect. We have both experienced unconditional love in this lifetime. I smile, a wholehearted smile that acknowledges her presence. She grins wide. Her mouth is missing a few teeth. Her eyes dance with warmth. The twinkle in them convey the message that this is all she wants. An acknowledgement from a fellow traveler that says, “I see you. You matter.”