The day didn't work out at all how I thought it would. But if it had, I wouldn't have seen you.
I woke up with grand plans of showering, once I got the big kids off to school, and taking my little ones to the first moms group of the season. You know, the glorious place where I would get to eat a lovely breakfast and sip my hot coffee in peace and enjoy a couple kid-free hours with other adults. I'd get home in time to feed the kids a quick lunch and lay them down for a nap. Pretty much a perfect day, if you ask me.
Alas, long Wednesdays at school followed by an evening at church, as fun as it is, tends to strangle the life out of Thursday mornings. Everyone wakes up tired and crabby.
I tried everything--I promised treats from the moms group, mac and cheese for lunch when we got home, even a trip to Wendy's for Frostys if they willingly went to their class at church so I could go to mine.
Please, for the love of God, take the Frosty deal. Take advantage of my desperateness. I'm begging you.
They didn't want to go, no matter what I offered. In a passive-aggressive huff, I relented and walked back downstairs into a day that would now revolve around their preferences, muttering something about laying them both down for an early nap since they were so tired. The tears began to fall, and I quickly felt like a loser for the comment. They were going to take a nap anyways, but I had to go and make it into a consequence. Awesome.
I hugged them and told them it as okay. I wasn't mad at them. They really were too tired to hold it together in a foreign environment for several hours, and it looked like it was best to stay home after all. For them, and me.
I remembered that we still needed to drop my husband's phone off at work and run to the bank, so I wiped away the rest of their tears and promised we'd come right back home. They piled in the car, still heaving a little from the guilt trip I gave them, and I pulled off the street and waited at the corner light.
That's when I heard you yelling.
I heard you before I saw you, even though my car windows were shut tight. I watched you turn the corner to walk by my car, still in your pajamas, hair tied up in a scarf and looking like you just got out of bed. I saw your son cowering in front of you, walking backwards with this hands above his head to protect himself. I saw you smack him on the head in rage every couple steps as you screamed at him at the top of your lungs. Just walloping him in stride.
"You think you can just run away out the house?? You think you can do that?"
The boys face was contorted in pain and fear as he inched back with every step you took forward. He didn't need to say anything because his eyes said it all--he was afraid, begging you with his gaze to make it stop.
And I just sat there in my car, mouth ajar, staring. It was like watching a train wreck. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. For a second I thought about grabbing the video recorder.
Someone should say something for that little boy. Someone should stop her.
But my mouth didn't move.
My face, however, began to flush with shame as the car behind me yelled out to her. She grabbed the boys arm and, looking at the driver, shouted, "this fool just think he can up and run out the house and go wherever he wants! No sir!"
The light turned green, and I followed the other cars as they moved on. In my rear view mirror, I could see yet another driver stopped to confront her, and my heart sank.
Why hadn't I said something to her?
I don't know what I would've said in the shock of it all, really. The first thing that came to my mind, and most likely what would've come out of my mouth in the moment was, "Lady, maybe he ran off to get the hell away from you! I don't blame him!"
I don't think that would've improved the situation at all, however. Perhaps it was for the best.
But was it?
We ran our errands and I kept an eye out for her on the way back home, but she was long gone. I couldn't stop thinking about that little boy. About how he desperately needed someone to speak for him, and I didn't. How nothing I was doing at the moment was more important then that.
Why hadn't I said something? Why hadn't I pulled over to offer some help?
Clearly the woman, and the boy, needed help. I love the city because a lot of the time, the people who walk these streets wear their brokenness on their sleeve. Certainly, there are people hiding here just like anywhere else, or folks wouldn't be able to keep three girls locked up in their house for a decade without anyone noticing. But sometimes, like today, the mess just spills out all over the sidewalk for the world to see.
What would I say to her if I had another chance? Would I put on my social worker hat and confront from a place of authority, child protection, and anger management? Would I help her get connected to the right local services? It was past the time school had started, so I wondered if the boy had special needs of some sort, putting him at further risk of abuse. It was hard to tell for sure through his wincing expressions.
Would I just offer a listening ear, mom to mom? Extended a hand of grace? I know what it's like to have a child that you want to beat within an inch of his life at times, and by the great mercy of the Lord I have never followed through with that. But I know what it feels like to want to. I know how scary it is when the threads of self-control that are binding you, holding you back from horrible things, are breaking one by one, threatening to unleash the fury within. I know.
But beating someone into submission never solves anything, either. I know that, too.
In my heart I asked the Lord to forgive me and promised to speak next time. To say something. Anything.
We walked out the door to go to the park, and I saw the neighbor on her front porch with her new boyfriend's kids, brushing their blond hair. I say "new" boyfriend because she tends to replace them every few weeks or so, and this one appeared the day after her last boyfriend was dragged out of the house by the SWAT team. She's a poor judge of character, to say the least, and a recovering addict.
But I looked at the sweet little faces of those blond kids on the porch, and I thought, maybe they need someone to speak for them, too. I told her we were headed to the park down the road and asked if they'd like to join us. She said thanks and maybe they would in a little while. I made another comment about the beautiful day and walked on behind the kids on their bikes. She never did show up, but at least I said something this time.
There was a water truck doing something with the hydrants by the park, and the city worker flagged us across the street when the coast was clear. I waved to thank him, and the kids proceeded to enjoy a lovely morning at the park. God is good, for I did get to sit in peace with my hot cup of coffee after all. I sat on a bench in the shade in between watching them ride their bikes and pushing them in the bucket swings. Sunshine is healing to the soul--it's a reminder that all things work together for His glory.
We had been there over an hour when the kids finally said they were ready to go, just in time to get home for a quick lunch and naps. I reminded the kids to ride slowly down the hill so they wouldn't fly out into the road at the end, and that's when I looked up and saw you across the street.
Now you can't tell me, even for a hot second, that there is any such thing as coincidence. Not like this. No, the Lord desperately pursues our hearts, seeks us out, even in our most wretched state, and wants to make all the brokenness new. He makes beautiful things out of the dust, and he is the God of second chances. Because there you were, right in front of me. Again.
In that moment, I knew God wanted to redeem my story and at the same time speak into yours.
At least I thought it was you, but I wasn't close enough to tell for sure yet. I thought I recognized the clothes, but you had your hair did now and no longer needed a scarf. I hurried the kids across the road, thanking the same city worker on my way. I tried to holler and get your attention, but the truck was too loud. You couldn't hear me.
Quickening my footsteps to reach you, I ended up leaving my littlest behind. She got stuck on the sloped sidewalk and started to cry, and I had to run back and help her up. Thankfully, my son rode on ahead, and you stepped aside for him to pass. Looking back, you saw me wave and apologize, and I was finally able to grab your attention.
"Excuse me! Could I ask you something?" I blurted out.
You turned around and said yes, with a smile.
"Were you walking down the road this morning with a little boy?" I asked.
"Yes, that was me," you replied.
"I was driving by and saw you guys. Is he okay?!?"
You said yes, he was okay. The kids had woken up late and missed the bus for school, and you didn't have enough money for bus fare to get them there yourself, so they had to stay home today. But your oldest son just took off and ran away. You said that wasn't like him, that he had never done anything like that before. And it turns out the little boy's not so little after all; he's twelve.
You went out looking but couldn't find him, and after checking the dollar store, they told you he had been in and may be down the street. When you finally saw him, you witnessed an older man trying to give him money. When the man heard you yelling, he looked startled and ran off, leaving you convinced your son just barely escaped a kidnapping attempt because you showed up in the knick of time.
And you were scared.
"That sounds terrifying," I replied.
I remember the day I thought I lost the two-year-old. How we looked everywhere in the house and the yard outside and couldn't find her. How we ran all over calling her name, down the street, the kids riding their bikes around the block, shouting. How the tweaker next door said he saw her walking down the street with two older boys, but neither she nor any boys could be found.
My mind immediately went to the worst possible scenario, because there was no way her little legs could've gotten her that far away that quickly. It had only been a couple minutes since I saw her last. I know the panic and terror in the pit of your stomach when someone precious, someone of irreplaceable worth, has been lost. The fear, the helplessness, the guilt for looking away for seconds. And just as I picked up the phone to make that terrible call to my husband and then the police, the call you pray to God you never have to make, I turned around to see her standing there in front of me, unharmed.
She had been hiding in the garage.
I got down on my knees and hugged her, squeezed her tighter then ever before. Then I told her how important it was to answer mom when I called, how scared I had been. How precious she was. She never actually left the yard, but the panic was real. And although she was home and safe, it took me the rest of the night to calm the tightly wound nerves inside.
"So I whooped him," she continued. "You better believe it. Yes ma'am, I did."
Because you were so scared.
I get it. I really do. It doesn't justify it or make it right, but I understand. There are other Ariel Castro's wandering around this city, and it's just not safe. Fear makes us behave in ways we would never expect, and in ways we may always regret.
I asked her if she needed anything, and after pointing out my house down the road, I found myself offering her kids a ride to school if she ever needed it in the future. She thanked me and we talked about our kids for a while. She has three of her own, and she bent down to tell my daughter how beautiful she was.
I asked if I could pray for her before she went on her way. She shrugged and said, "sure!"
So I did. I prayed for this woman who had shocked me more then I've been shocked in a long time. Because underneath the brokenness, hurt and pain, she's a human being. She's a mom who's not much different then me, as it turns out. A mom who was scared of losing her son to the evil that lurks in this city.
Under all the gunk, she's a person made in the image of the Living God.
She smiled and thanked me. I extended a hand as I introduced myself.
"You know," she said, "my youngest son, about his age (pointing to my son), is having a birthday party this Saturday. You and your kids should come and have some cake. There's gonna be a lot of cake, and I'm cookin'. Y'all like spaghetti and chicken??"
I laughed and said, "oh yes, we love spaghetti." I told her I'd actually had spaghetti for breakfast this morning and last night before I went to bed, due to an odd craving (or divine foreshadowing). She laughed, too. God is in the littlest of details.
"What time?" I asked.
"Three o'clock." she replied, pointing to her house down the street. "You won't be able to miss it--there will be people all over the place having a good time!"
"Well, we just might have to stop by," I said. That sounds great.