As Valentine’s Day approaches, I begin to think on love and all it encompasses. And I am inspired to share with you a personal story of love – and the lesson that gave it birth.
For the Love of One Mile
By Heather Killough-Walden
“One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion.” – Simone De Beauvoir
Once, around forty years ago, my father was traveling across country in search of work, and weary from the road. Several hours and several hundred miles into one particular travel day, he noticed a small dark blob on the side of the road far up ahead. As he drove on, the blob drew nearer and became more distinct. Finally, within a quarter of a mile or so, my father could see clearly what it was. It was the figure of a man. But he was not walking. The man’s legs were missing from mid-thigh down. His method of movement was a slow and arduous trek forward by vastly shortened crutches and upon make-shift “shoes” he’d made for his stumps by cutting pads out of old tires.
Swing, shuffle. Swing, shuffle. Slowly, he inched his way along the side of the highway.
The man was long-haired and greasy, and around his neck he wore a sign.
To this day, my father tells the story of that moment. The moment he saw the man on the side of the road and read that sign. And more importantly, the moment directly after, in which my father kept on driving. Twenty years have passed since the event that lasted seconds, but also didn’t. Still moved by the strength of the memory, my father eventually penned a short and poignant poem:
Upon the open road one day,
I saw a man along my way,
He had no legs, his task to ease,
The sign he wore read, “One mile please.”
You see, that day for some inexplicable reason that had haunted him for more than two decades, my father passed up the man with no legs. It wasn’t like him to do so. My father was the kind of man who gave openly, without prejudice, without forethought, even without much at all to give in the first place. He’d been a poor man most of his life, and maybe that was part of the reason he chose to share what he had when he had it. Empathy. That was my father.
The man with no legs was an anomaly and an enigma. “Why didn’t I stop?” my father wondered. Oh… if only he’d stopped and helped!
One day, he chose to share this story with me. He showed me his poem, which was typewriter engraved on a weathered piece of paper, complete with the indentations typewriters make when their letters stick. It was old. He’d had it a while. The incident truly troubled him.
I read the poem and listened to the story. I sat on the edge of that bed and gazed at the profile of the man who had been my hero, my idol, my friend for the entirety of my existence. I realized in that moment that this gentle man with the blue eyes that cried during sad movies and the smile that came easy and the voice that did impressions and told jokes – this man who helped people up and talked people down – came to be the man he is for a reason. Cause and effect. That was life.
I believe that the lessons we learn the deepest are the ones we learn from our mistakes.
“Dad,” I said, “what if you had stopped and helped that man? What if you’d taken him wherever he wanted to go?”
My dad said nothing, knowing by now that his story teller daughter was leading up to something.
“You would have felt good about yourself, no doubt,” I continued. “You would have dusted off your hands and patted yourself on the back and moved on. In time, you probably would have forgotten all about it.”
He blinked, pondering this.
“But the fact that you didn’t stop, just this once – the fact that you kept going – has stayed with you in a way nothing else could. It was a mistake you made, and if I know my father and the good in him, it was a mistake you learned from. Think of all of the men and women you’ve helped since that moment. Think of the ways you’ve tried to make amends. Would you have done so had you stopped to help that pivotal first time?”
I believe that sometimes, when it’s necessary, our stories decide to write themselves. My father was meant to be a good man, with LOVE to give. But in order for this to happen, maybe, just maybe, he had to go one day without it. Light shines brightest in the darkness. And perhaps love is born in the moments we miss it most.
I speak now, twenty years after that conversation with my father, from a position of perspective. Perspective, as you know, is gained through experience. My own “man with no legs” moment was to come for me soon – at a time when I’d forgotten my own words, and the lesson at their core.
My family and I were in Seattle for a convention that was research for one of my books. It was admittedly cold that day down by the water, especially for August. Not that there isn’t always a cold breeze blowing at the waterfront. I loved it. My nose was red, my lips needed lip balm, the sky was that indistinct gray that is impossible to set apart from the concrete, the water, the everything, and I was walking on cloud nine. I was somewhere new! I was next to the ocean! I was living a dream, even if it was a small dream, just to leave behind the hot, flat dust plain that was the home I normally occupied. We had plans, even. We were headed to some nifty little town across the way, where tourists shopped at expensive boutiques and ate eclectic and equally expensive food, and I was with my family. The three of us together, going somewhere, doing something – I had it made.
In this smug satisfaction with my current situation, I purchased a bag of chips and a cola and took a seat beside my daughter on a metal bench while my husband disappeared to buy ferry tickets. The boat would come in fifteen minutes. We had a little time to kill. So, I laughed at a few eleven-year-old jokes, swung my booted feet back and forth, and tore open my bag of chips.
My daughter continued to ramble in that wonderful way children do that goes away far too soon. I half-listened, in that way adults unfortunately never stop doing, as I watched the people around me in the ferry building. Near the entrance, a figure in dark entered, hunched and thin. At once, she reminded me of someone, but I didn’t know who. Not yet.
“Markiplier, yadayada… Five Nights at Freddy’s yadayada…” my daughter continued, and my head tilted slightly, my gaze narrowing with detached curiosity as the woman moved further into the building. She had dark skin and short hair, was dressed in an oversized black sweatshirt, very baggy and stained jeans, and sneakers that didn’t look dirty, but looked old nonetheless. Even from a distance, it was easy to conclude she was homeless. I’ll never be able to pinpoint what it is in a homeless countenance that instantly marks them as such, but there it was in this woman. She wasn’t just a thin woman in oversized clothes – she was without a home, and for some reason, this was clear.
I watched her from that distance, and it wouldn’t be until later, at a moment that will remain with me forever, that I would realize it was not only at a physical distance from which I watched her, but an emotional one as well. She was homeless. I was not. We had separate lives. My mild interest simply wondered about hers in that moment: What would she do? Who would she ask for money? Would she come my way? It was curiosity and nothing more. I was safe in my life.
After a few moments, I turned away from her and focused more attention on my daughter. Several minutes passed, and I’d completely forgotten about the thin homeless woman.
Until she was standing directly in front of me.
I looked up, and my daughter fell silent. We made eye contact, and I felt irritation. She’d interrupted me, and it was just as I’d suspected – she was going to ask me for money. I prepared to fish a dollar out of my purse.
“Do you have any change?” she asked.
On auto pilot, I began searching in my bag for that dollar. I found it, produced it, and held it out to her. She looked at it and smiled slightly, but then she hesitated, glanced over her shoulder, and asked, “Would you by any chance have five dollars?”
My immediate, knee-jerk reaction was one of indignant surprise, which became evident to all when my eyebrows hit the ceiling. “Excuse me?” I demanded haughtily. A dollar wasn’t good enough for her?
She blinked and took a step back, as if my words had actually slapped her. Shame enshrouded her figure like an aura. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “It’s just that I was hoping to buy a sandwich.” She gestured to the Subway sandwich shop that was behind her, against the wall. That was what she’d glanced at a moment earlier.
But as I was processing this, she grew agitated. Clearly afraid I would withdraw even the dollar I offered, she said, “Never mind, it’s okay. I’ll take the dollar. Thank you so much.”
She gently but hastily took it from my hand and stepped away. I noticed her ears. There was a hole in one that was slightly stretched out, as if she’d worn earrings for years. But when she turned completely around, I could see that the other earlobe was torn in two, as if the earring in that ear had been yanked clean through the lobe years ago, ripping it in half forever.
She moved off, her eyes endlessly searching as people entered and exited the ferry building. I, however, did not move at all. I was frozen to the spot on the bench, at once completely and utterly overwhelmed with two horrible realizations.
The first realization was that the person she’d reminded me of was my mother. And because we are products of our parents, the person she’d reminded me of… was me.
The second realization was that I had actually just done what I had just done. What in the name of the Cosmos had just happened with me? Who the hell had I become?
“Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”
— Iris Murdoch
A simple twist of fate had brought the homeless woman to the ferry building that afternoon, thin and scarred. As I sat there frozen, I thought of my mother and her life, her children, her accomplishments and sufferings, her feelings, her hopes and thoughts – her humanity and the soul that was within her body. And I realized that all life had to do was roll the dice just so, and my mother could be in a ferry building herself, asking for five dollars… Worse yet, it could be my daughter.
And I realized the woman with the scarred ear WAS someone’s daughter. She was someone’s little girl.
My father’s face flashed before my eyes, as did the man with no legs, “one mile please,” the whole of my life, my heart, my hopes, my pains, my fears, the goddamned world.
I swallowed hard. Something settled in my gut that I couldn’t quite name. In the periphery of my mind, my husband had returned to the bench. He was trying to talk to me, to get my attention. But I was as focused as I had ever been, my eyes locked on the woman and all she represented for me in that moment. Ten more seconds of petrified epiphany held me immobile before I finally broke free and rose from the bench. Each step I took toward her stripped another layer of falsity from my person. I moved heavily on, shedding my former self as I drew ever closer.
And then I was there, right behind her, and my hand was on her shoulder.
She turned, her eyes huge, uncertainty warring with lightning-fast thinking on her features. I tried to speak quickly, before I lost the ability to talk at all. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “Let me buy you a sandwich. Please. Anything you want, it’s on me.” Before she could pull away, I took her elbow and gently entwined it with mine.
The next few seconds are admittedly a bit of a blur to me. My heart was pounding so fast, my deep, deep insides fundamentally changing. We walked back to the Subway station, and she began ordering her sandwich, placing layer upon layer of meat on the bread. For some reason, I thought of her heart, of her blood pressure, her cholesterol. I found myself worrying for things I had no business worrying for, but it didn’t stop me from saying, “Please get some veggies on there too. Just a few, at least.” And she did. Maybe she was afraid I would withdraw my offer. I don’t know. I could barely think straight.
The man behind the counter checked us out, and I told him it was all on me. We took her drink and her sandwich and her bag of chips to a nearby table, where she shakily sat down. I scooped from my purse what I had left of my money and gave the lot to her. Again, I said, “I’m sorry. I hope you enjoy your lunch,” before I left her in peace and returned to my family.
After all this time, I am still plagued by my initial actions that day. As plagued as my father was by his. The both of us, confused about what we’d done and why, and wanting nothing more than the forgiveness of those we forgot to love. But knowing what I do now, I believe that what I told my father was true. I am a better person for having made that mistake. My true love was indeed born in that moment when I was missing it most.
“Piglet: ‘How do you spell love?’ Winnie the Pooh: ‘You don’t spell it…you feel it.’”
— A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh