The lights blinked on, one at a time, casting shadows on the already dark and eerie alley. I walked, shoulders hunched, hands stuffed into pockets of faded jeans, worn well past their prime.
A dampness lingered in these streets that never seemed to disappear, always clinging with acrid fumes of sorrow, depression and death. I pulled the hoodie over my head, hiding my face from those that dared walk this way. It was my way of disappearing into the darkness where no one could see me.
I turned the corner and watched as the rats scurried and the strays dug for scraps of food. This was the street I called home—one of many where all the lost children gathered so as not to be alone. Misery loves company, or so they say.
I felt her before I saw her. Her scent carried down the street ahead of her to a nose that knew something unbelonging had just entered the dwelling of despair. I lifted my gaze to try and gauge how far away she was. There was enough time for a quick observation before I slunk into an opening that would hide me away in the abandoned building. One could disappear into the shadows and not be seen unless one chose to reveal themselves.
Light radiated from her as she walked. There was no fear, only sorrow on her face as she went from lost child to lost child, asking, “Have you seen him today? Is he okay?”
They all knew her. She was called the ‘sandwich lady,’ and they knew who she belonged to. She was safe with the regulars. Only once had someone new to the street thought to attack her, until they saw who it was she searched for, stepping out of the shadows just enough to be seen by them and not be noticed by her. They took the bags with muttered ‘thanks,’ most of them shaking their head. Occasionally some would whisper, “he’s alive.” It was the words she always hoped for when she couldn’t find him.
She walked the same streets at the same time every day, not considering her habits would be what kept me well hidden from her. It was as if she thought that knowing she would be there would bring comfort, and he, I, would magically appear and see the light. It did comfort me in a way, but it also pained me.
The woman was a constant reminder of what I couldn’t have, failed to do, and would never become. I loved her in the way only a son could love a mother, but I also hated her for reminding me of what I had become. Her presence both soothed and riled me at the same time. It was the oxymoron of my life, one big contradiction embodied in a beautiful soul.
The others looked forward to this time of day, knowing she carried sustenance and did not judge anyone. She understood that they would not have chosen this life freely. No one chooses this life of dark alleyways, loneliness and madness.
Every once in a while, I would return and spend time with her. We would act like things were different and have a bit of normalcy in a life that was anything but. We would watch movies, cook together, laugh and walk. I would recoup, replenish myself and sleep unfettered by the chains that usually bound me.
It would all end, though. Eventually, I would get restless, and my mannerisms would revert back to the socially unacceptable. I would get restless and move on, leaving her to cry alone once more.
She never gave up, my mother. Her faith kept her strong, and she knew God watched over me, even if I didn’t. She prayed and lit candles faithfully on my behalf as if that would save me. Somewhere deep inside, I knew God was there watching. Even though I had disowned, and said awful things, somehow I knew he was still there waiting, patiently.
I watched as she passed by the building. She was so close I could smell the scent of her shampoo. It was apple blossoms and lilies that she smelled of. Not one for perfume as it would make her cough, she opted for light scents in her hair. The only real indulgence she gave herself these days. The rest were material things she made use of. They looked nice and served their purpose but held no real value for her. She put her stock in people and her faith. That was what was important in life.
She stopped as if she knew I was there. I watched as she stood silently and prayed. Her lips moved as she talked to her God. She ended with, ‘I love you. Please come back to me.’ My breath caught. It took everything not to run out and into her arms and weep like a little child. I wanted nothing more but knew it was impossible for the likes of me. Somehow, she knew I was within earshot, even though she could not see me. It was as if an invisible cord linked us in that moment.
She waited, as if knowing I was there and then bowed her head and went on. I watched as she swiped at the tears rolling down her face and found myself doing the same. I hadn’t even noticed them until hers had fallen.
I fell to my knees once I knew she was no longer within earshot and wept. “God, help me, please. Help me find a way back to myself.” It was a prayer that stunned me, for I had told myself repeatedly that I didn’t believe. The truth was, I never stopped believing. It was my shame that kept me from him. I didn’t deserve his love.
An image of myself as a child singing church songs while taking a bath floated across my vision. A whisper followed it, “I am here. I am with you. You are mine, and I love you.”
At that moment, I knew things were going to change. My heart felt full, and now the tears that fell were ones of joy. I was going to be okay. I didn’t know when or even how, but I knew that I would be all right. I was not alone. God was with me, and he loved me, even after all I had done. My mother loved me, even after all the pain she bore.
I prayed for a while and asked forgiveness for all the errors of my ways. That night I slept peacefully for the first time in a very long time. I knew I was safe, even on these desolate and angry streets.
I can’t tell you what happened that night, opening me up to change. Perhaps it was my mother or just that I had finally had enough. Possibly it was a combination of the two. I can’t even say why, at that moment, God chose to come to me and fill me with his love and joy. What I can tell you is that there, on the dirty, dusty floor of an abandoned building, covered in filth, I was washed clean.
If you liked this faith story you can find others on the Faith Stories link of Leslie’s website.