Just before I got to work yesterday morning,
under skies that threatened rain,
I saw a guy sitting on the low form of a storm drain,
just beyond the hospital driveway .
He sat there, shirtless in the cool mist,
gray beard hanging to the bleached white skin of his chest,
muttering to himself about some unseen aggravation,
hands braced against the concrete
as if nothing else could keep him
from being sucked into the sewer.
Two nurses in blue scrubs walked along the curb.
I slowed and waved to them and headed on in toward work.
Something about them and something about him
made me think that maybe my board meeting
could wait a few more minutes.
I found an extra shirt and started walking
the few hundred yards back out to where they were.
I considered a short cut across the tall fescue
but knew that my shoes would soon be soaked
clear through and so I stayed on the asphalt.
I watched the three as I walked
and I could see the conversation was not going well.
The man was standing now,
and though I was not near enough to hear
it sure seemed like he was yelling:
shoulders stiff and arms jerking in dramatic motion
synced with whatever emotions currently carried.
He headed away but one of them went to him
and hugged him as the other stood by, watchful.
As I got closer, he turned and walked away again,
unresponding to anything and for the first time
I could see that he was shoeless as well as shirtless,
dark socks already soaked from wet pavement.
I walked faster as he kept going in his own deliberate shuffle.
“Hey, buddy,” I called, “Here, let me give you this shirt.”
He stopped but still did not turn around.
He held first one arm and then the other
out to the side and slightly back.
The second sleeve took a bit more work;
I eased his hand over a bit to get it lined up with the shirt.
“Here, man, let me get this buttoned up for you.”
I stood then in front of him,
reaching up under his beard as he stood there,
still as a child, weeping and murmuring.
It took me a while with the first button,
my hands suddenly clumsy, fingers forgetting
how to do the work they’d done every morning
for over sixty years.
“Are you having kind of a bad day?”
And though I couldn’t tell exactly what he said
it sounded something like
“Everything’s going wrong.”
I finished buttoning the shirt
and started to turn back toward work
and whatever else still lay ahead of me
on this gray morning.
“What’s your name,” he asked
and after I answered, he added, “Last name?”
“I’ll get your shirt back.”
“Don’t worry about it, man;
I’ve got plenty of them hanging in the closet.”
In a final bit of clumsiness
I patted him on the shoulder, “You take care.”
He stood there for a moment as if pondering
what exactly that might look like,
then shuffled his way on toward the next storm drain.
The nurses told me he’d walked out of the ER.
One of them said, “He’s my uncle,”
and I could see in her eyes the sadness
of the long years of hoping someone you love
is going to get better and yet seeing things going
an entirely different way altogether.
They had called the police and the niece asked me,
“What should we do?”
Through all the long years of family and friends
who had seen these vigils never end,
I only knew of one thing to say.
“Just stay away for a while and keep an eye on him.”
They thanked me for helping out
and I told them they were the ones doing the hard part.
Sometimes all we can do is stand and watch
as those we love walk through the aftermath
of choices they have made
and hope that the storm doesn’t carry them full away.
And even when we cannot change a single thing,
we love and wait beneath threatening skies.
And know that beyond them lies a brighter day
when every hurt will be healed and every sorrow swept away.
And until then, love and pray that we all make it through
whatever waits in each day that the Lord has made.