On July 4, 1997, my first husband, Robert, moved out of the house we shared. I went from stay-at-home, married mom of two babies to single, working, student mom of two babies.
I was 26 years, 3 months, and 10 days old.
I was adrift, completely unmoored from all that I believed about myself, all that I had hoped for my children.
I have never been so lost.
Or so angry. Oh, I was angry. I hated myself. I had children (two beautiful, perfect, extraordinary children) with a man who I never had any business dating, much less marrying. We were acutely wrong for each other and I could plead the poor decisions of youth until my eyes bled, but still, my children, my extraordinary children, would suffer for my terrible choice.
I was almost physically dizzy with disorientation for over a year after the divorce (which, though it wasn’t legal for quite some time, I count from the day he moved out; it was very, very over). My children’s presence had been constant and then, suddenly, they were gone two nights a week and during the day, while I went to school and work, they were in daycare.
It took my breath away; I felt like someone had cut off some vital part of my body.
So I got busy. I filled all the hours when Jacob and Abbie were with their dad with activity, and one of those activities was volunteer work. I spent eight or 10 hours a week helping out at Healthcare for the Homeless, in the mental health department. (It seems funny to call it a department because at that time it was located in a very old house, but that was its name.) Except for the hours I spent with Jacob and Abbie, those were the best hours in my week. There was no room, when I was with people who were homeless, mentally ill, and often drug addicted, for my thoughts and feelings.
I took clients out for coffee or lunch; visited them in their motel rooms; drove them from place to place to pick up meds, get new Social Security cards, apply for jobs. Sometimes, I listened to them rage at hallucinations; sometimes we sat and chatted about the news. I doled out cigarettes (commonly used to tempt clients to come in for their meds) and declined to dole out cigarettes. I helped clean out the motel room of a young man who had died of an overdose in that room and I held the hand of that young man’s mother and her how he had died.
In our parenting plan, Robert and I had agreed to a holiday schedule that had us alternating Christmas. Facing my first Christmas without my kids, I was filled with anguish so acute I could taste it like pennies in my mouth. I prayed for my rage to melt, for the pain to let go of me just a little bit, but still there was a chant in my brain: bad mother has broken her children, bad mother has broken her children, bad mother has broken her children, bad mother, bad mother, bad mother, bad mother, bad mother.
At that time, there were no regular meals served on Christmas in Albuquerque; none of the churches or shelters that would normally feed people that have nowhere else to turn was open. Juan, one of the counselors at Healthcare for the Homeless, had an idea: we would make hundreds of sandwiches and enormous vats of coffee and go out into the city. We would feed all the people we found, the ones under the bridges and in the alleys, the people camped near the library and out in the open spaces. We would start early and feed people until we ran out of food.
On a bitter cold, windy, snow-spitting Christmas morning, I met 18 or so other people at that old, run-down house. We loaded up minivans and SUVs with coffee, sandwiches, milk, fruit, and mountains of donated scarves, socks, lip balm, condoms, and Christmas candy. Juan assigned each vehicle a different part of the city and off we went to feed whomever we could find.
Ruby and Jeff, the two people who rode in my minivan, told me later that they thought at first I was a very rude person. I had little to say. I didn’t want to serve coffee to people on the streets; I wanted to watch my children greet Christmas. I wanted to warm their cold toes between my hands and hear them giggle with delight. I wanted to watch them dump out their stockings and dance to A Muppet Christmas. I wanted to feed my children, not a bunch of strangers.
Having no home is basically illegal and we spent a good deal of that morning standing in the street hollering about our coffee and sandwiches. People stay hidden so it’s impossible for the average person to understand how enormous is the homeless population in most cities. I would park my minivan and we would holler and walk for a little while, waiting for the first person to come out and eat. Soon, when it was obvious we were who we claimed to be, we were pouring coffee and giving away scarves just as fast as we could.
People wept when they thanked us, said they would not have eaten that day if we had not come.
Dozens of people asked me to pray with them.
I met a couple who was living rough with their two young children, homeless by then for just 48 hours, all four of them in shock.
I held hands and prayed with one person after another after another. It was cold, but my children were warm. People were hungry, and my children had food. There is deep sadness in the world, but also radiant joy. Even in the streets, there is joy. Hope.
Sometimes people take religion to the streets. Those people are deeply confused.
I hugged and hugged and hugged. I prayed with my soul, my body pressed against raw divinity.
We were almost finished, frozen and exhausted, and we decided we had enough food left for one last stop. I pulled over on Central Avenue and we did the whole routine, the feeding and the giving and the praying. I was just preparing to close everything up and drive away when I heard a shout. “Wait! Is there anything left for me?”
I turned around to see a giant striding across Central toward me. He was at least 6 1/2 feet tall, a man like a brick wall. “Is there anything left?” he asked, and I loaded him up with as much food as I could find. I gave him the last scarf; it was much too short for such a gigantic man, but I tugged on it to make it stay in place. He drank his cup of coffee in two swallows. Then, he grabbed me.
My heart stopped. Jeff and Ruby were already in the minivan, chatting and drinking coffee, waiting for me to finish. I was thinking about calling out for them from where I was, pressed against this huge man, his arms wrapped around me, when he spoke, “Thank you. I prayed this morning for an angel to take care of me today and you came.”
And in three strides he was across the street, and then he disappeared behind a building.
I have smelled the breath of angels many times, seen the face of God more often than I can count, but one time, divinity came and visited me, put its arms around me, and squeezed.
The chant, that relentless, merciless chant in my mind? It began to change, was replaced with a prayer: sad mother wants to be healed, sad mother wants to be healed, sad mother wants to be healed, send joy, send joy, send joy, send joy, send joy.