Monday, March 31
Chris drove aimlessly through the streets of New York, resolutely ignoring the sullen silence and occasional sniffles coming from the back seat. He loved his kids, he did, but he just couldn't take their questions any longer. No, he didn't know where they were going to sleep. No, he didn't know where they would get the money to buy dinner.
But those answers weren't good enough for a three-year-old and a five-year-old, and by their third repetition of the questions he had finally snapped at them to shut up. He regretted it almost at once, but couldn't bring himself to apologize or rescind the order – he had to focus on figuring out some kind of plan. Except his thoughts kept going in circles, from his wife walking out, to losing his job, to losing the apartment, to getting kicked out of their most recent shelter for a fight someone else's kids had started....
“Well, God,” he prayed viciously, “so much for all those promises of 'plans to give us a future'! What kind of plans do you have for us now? Kian and Elsie growing up on the streets somewhere? Or is this my sign that that woman at the shelter was right, and I'm really not fit to be a father to them – and it's time to accept that and let them grow up halfway normal in some foster home somewhere, with people who can actually feed them three meals a day?” Though what I'll have to live for, once they're gone, I'm not sure....
But no answer came, not that Chris was expecting one. God had been silent for a long time.
Chris finally pulled himself out of his thoughts long enough to check the gas gauge and realize it was getting low. He still had fifteen dollars in his pocket – he could buy a couple of gallons of gas and maybe still have enough to buy some hamburgers to feed the kids a late lunch... and then they'd be utterly penniless.
Chris pushed the thought away and concentrated on looking for a gas station.
Ten minutes later, he was starting to get concerned. The gauge was inching ever lower, but the car had ended up in some oddly-zoned part of the city without a single gas station to be found.
“Kian, Elsie, let's play a game,” he suggested with false cheer. “The first one to spot a gas station gets to choose a piece of candy for dessert!” The kids perked up at that, but when another ten minutes had gone by with still no sign of a gas station they were thoroughly bored, and Chris was seriously worried. This didn't look like a terrible part of the city to get stranded in, but he wasn't about to leave two toddlers alone in a car while he hiked off to go fill up a gas can.
Okay, new plan. He pulled up in front of a random building that looked vaguely hotel-like. He didn't recognize the name, but if they had a receptionist who could give him some directions, that was all that mattered.
Sure enough, he walked into a brightly lit lobby and was immediately greeted by a man behind a counter.
“Welcome to True Light! My name is Arthur. Are you looking for shelter for the night? Or lunch is almost over, but we should still have some lasagna left.”
“Y-yeah, yes, I, how?” Chris gaped at the man for a moment, then tried to collect himself. “That sounds lovely” - and how long had it been since he'd last had real lasagna? - “but we'll have to pass. I just stopped in to ask for directions.”
“Of course,” Arthur answered. “I'm happy to help. But are you really sure you want to turn down free lasagna?”
“Free?” Chris asked, and despite his pride he couldn't quite keep the note of wistful hope out of his voice.
“Yeah. Didn't you know – but no. Not if you didn't come here looking for us. This is a men's shelter. All our services are either totally free, or we only charge as much as our clients can afford. So I'll ask again: would you like some lunch and a place to stay?”
Chris was feeling a
bit overwhelmed. “That
sounds... that sounds really great. Except – you
said men. What
Arthur smiled. “Bring them, too. We've got enough for everyone.”
The next half hour was incredible. Chris got the car properly parked, then brought the kids into the shelter's cafeteria, where, true to Arthur's word, there were breadsticks, salad, and lasagna, enough for all of them and more.
When lunch was over, Arthur asked them again if they wanted to stay, and Chris quickly accepted.
“Right then,” Arthur announced as they walked back to the lobby. “We do have some paperwork to go over first. That'll get you guys a room for as long as you need it, and then we can also talk about the other services we offer – skills training and job hunting assistance and the like.” He glanced over at Kian and Elsie. “But these guys are already looking a bit bored and we haven't even started yet.”
It was true. The two kids had started glancing around to see if there was anything more interesting to stare at than a few chairs and tables, and a moment later they found it and took off running.
Off to one side of the lobby was a corner of the room, separated from the rest of the reception area by a row of low cabinets. It was clearly intended as a children's play area, for there were shelves of toys, games, and books, with a TV set up in the corner and a stack of Disney and VeggieTales DVDs next to it.
“Sounds like they know what they want to do!” Arthur grinned at them, then sobered a touch. “Now normally we have a staff member available to supervise kids here while parents are out working or going to classes, but we're a bit short-staffed today and I'm it. Still, if you'd be willing to forgo the confidentiality of having our discussion in a private room, I think we could sit out here and keep an eye on them ourselves.”
“That sounds great,” Chris agreed fervently. He'd given up caring about privacy months ago, and “I'll be happier with my kids close by,” he admitted.
“Understood,” Arthur replied with a sympathetic smile, then, heading over to the children, offered: “Shall I show you around?”
Up close the area was even more impressive, with every flat surface covered with interesting things. Items ranged from stuffed animals and dolls for kids Elsie's age to another corner fully equipped with dictionaries, textbooks, and other homework aids for their older brothers and sisters.
“You might be interested in this,” Arthur mentioned, helping Elsie onto a chair by the biggest table in the room, as Kian climbed up next to her. “It was just donated today, which makes it so new we haven't even found a place to put it yet!”
“It” turned out to be a big cardboard box, like the kind Chris had packed his things into for that long-ago move to New York to join Janice in her apartment – the same apartment she had walked out of just a few years later, leaving him with nothing but the two kids and a mountain of unpaid bills.
Then Arthur opened the box and Chris gasped, more recent memories overwhelming him. For years he'd worked as an illustrator of children's books, using every conceivable medium to bring the stories to life. But then the author of Chris' latest project had rejected the entire set of illustrations Chris had painstakingly crafted, scornfully deriding his “utter lack of artistic vision,” and Chris had seen red. He had spent the next five minutes giving a scathing critique of the story's insipid characters, trite plot, and completely broken moral lesson. “I might have to illustrate this thing, but I wouldn't read it to my kids if it were the last book on earth!” his rant had ended.
Well, that had been that for that job, and his savings weren't enough to cover more than a few weeks of looking for another. And when it didn't appear? Well, the eviction notice had come and Chris had found himself homeless on the streets of New York with two toddlers. Most of his materials for illustrating had been sold off as they tried to make ends meet for just a few weeks longer, and even those handful that they still had left, well, what homeless man – especially one who's also a single father – has the time, place, or energy to do any serious art? All in all, it had been months since Chris had last touched so much as a colored pencil.
And now here was a box filled to the brim with art supplies of every variety. In a single glance Chris spotted a massive box of crayons, a whole set of tempera paints and brushes to go with them, bags of pipe cleaners and Popsicle sticks, reams of construction paper, glue sticks, yarn, macaroni noodles....
Kian and Elsie's faces lit up as well, obviously remembering back to the evenings when Chris would let them play with some of his art supplies and give them lessons in drawing simple animals or cartoon people. A few moments later both were happily settled down with a stack of paper and some markers and colored pencils to draw with.
Chris and Arthur found some chairs close enough to glance over and see how the kids were doing but far enough away not to be too distracted by the excited giggles and squeals coming from Kian and Elsie. There Arthur explained all the different rules and policies of the shelter. There were a fair number, but they were all sensible and straightforward, so Chris promptly signed on all the required pages, glancing over occasionally to check that Kian and Elsie were still doing okay. Then they went on to all the documents regarding the room itself that they'd get, and from there the classes that True Light offered or could provide transportation to.
“Actually, do you think there's an anger management class I could take?” Chris asked, shamefaced.
But Arthur just nodded and quietly responded, “It's alright. Everyone struggles with something, but a lot of people don't have the courage to admit what it is and ask for help.”
And for nearly the first time since everything began, Chris felt like this was someone he could trust not to judge him; who wouldn't hear his story and immediately think, “Ah-ha! It's clearly all your fault! You are a horrible person and deserve everything that happened to you.” Yet at the same time he did share some culpability in what had happened. If he had just recognized how bad his temper could be before he had screamed at his wife, maybe this whole horrible chain of events could have been averted. But he couldn't change the past. All he could do was take responsibility for it and then move forward.
At Arthur's inquiring glance, Chris found himself explaining his train of thought, and then pouring out his whole life story, all the way to “and that's when I walked in and you asked if I wanted lunch.” Arthur just listened and nodded and made the occasional encouraging noise, and Chris had the feeling that Arthur was listening not as a social worker, but as a friend – and Chris hadn't had too many of those lately.
When it was clear Chris was finished, Arthur leaned forward and looked him in the eye. “I promise you this: You and your kids will have a place here as long as you need it, and when you're ready to live on your own again we'll help you with that as well. We'll help you find a job, help you learn whatever skills or coping techniques you need, and help you raise your kids somewhere they can be safe and happy. No matter what, we're not going to just abandon you.”
They talked a bit more after that, went through a few more papers and added a few more signatures, but Chris barely noticed. After so long living in a constant state of fear and anxiety, its sudden absence was overwhelming. They wouldn't have to sleep on the streets. He wouldn't have to give up his kids. Come September, Kian would have a stable place to live while he started kindergarten. Maybe he'd even be able to find a preschool for Elsie. He was sure she'd love it. She always wanted something new to experience and learn about and explore – but that had been in short supply while shuffling from run-down motel to dreary shelter and back. The future, which a few hours before had been about to end the moment he spent his last handful of change on a gas station burger, suddenly expanded to an entire horizon of possibilities.
“Well, I think that was the very last signature!” Arthur clapped him on the shoulder. “I'll just go file this in back and grab your key. Want to tell your kids the good news?”
Chris grinned back, then stood and started over to the play area.
Then, in a single moment, in a single glance, all those hopes and dreams and plans and ideas came crashing utterly down.
When he had last looked over at Kian and Elsie, they had been coloring peacefully. But then he had gotten wrapped up in the discussion with Arthur, and maybe twenty minutes had gone by. At some point during that time, the two kids had apparently decided to investigate what else might be in the box – and they had done so by pulling absolutely everything out and spreading it over the entire room.
Chris' horror-stricken gaze swept over the result. The carpet was covered with a thick layer of torn and crumpled construction paper, which was in turn covered in dozens of trails of dripped paint and glue – many of which had then been tracked around by tiny shoes or smeared on hands and clothing. Uncapped markers and broken crayons had been scattered willy-nilly, as had the giant bags of pipe cleaners and Popsicle sticks Chris had noticed earlier. Handfuls of oil and chalk pastels had been ground underfoot, and Chris spotted macaroni noodles that had been scattered as far away as the tops of cabinets a half-dozen feet over his kids' heads. And finally, coating every surface and hanging in a thick cloud in the air, was glitter – sparkling in the sunlight like a thousand miniature, damning prisms.
After a long moment of stunned disbelief, Chris zeroed in on the two culprits, sitting totally unconcerned in the midst of the devastation, only just noticing his presence and starting to look up with innocent smiles. Elsie was sitting on the table itself, happily grabbing handfuls of brightly-colored beads from the piles heaped around her, and carefully stringing them on a piece of yarn which ended a short distance away in a snarl nearly as big as her head. Kian had found a set of small tubes of oil paints, and he was methodically squeezing each one onto the table to check its color, and then finger-painting elaborate designs across every surface in reach.
Chris could barely believe his eyes. All the rules Arthur had just gone over rushed through his head. Hadn't there been something about uncontrollable children? Or just negligent parents? Certainly willful destruction of property was forbidden!
And what about the penalties? Expulsion, certainly. Maybe criminal proceedings as well? Sure, Arthur had just told him that he wouldn't be abandoned, but ultimately Arthur was answerable to a nationwide organization – and major organizations tended to be pretty strict about people breaking their rules – especially when it involved the total ruin of hundreds of dollars worth of donations in less than half an hour!
Chris' temper rose. They had been safe. They'd had a place to stay and food to eat and hope for the future – and now it was all lost because his two idiot children couldn't behave for twenty minutes! And now they were about to be kicked right back out onto the street – and Chris didn't think he could survive going back after having had, even if just for a moment, the promise of something better.
He opened his mouth to explain to Kian and Elsie exactly what he thought of their behavior in excruciating detail... and then he paused, mouth still half open, as he registered that two men had come up next to him.
“That is a very impressive mess,” the man on his left observed gravely. “It reminds me, John, of the time you and Yeshu attempted to repaint the house and prepare dinner in the same afternoon.”
The man on Chris' other side protested, “Surely we were much worse! But then, we had several hours before you and Maryam returned and discovered what we were up to.”
“Who are you?” Chris broke in. He meant the question to come out belligerently; instead, looking at the two men's perfectly relaxed expressions, it came out rather bewildered.
“Ah! I am sorry,” the first man apologized. “Please, call me Yosef, and this is my nephew, John. And you would be?”
“Chris. And my two terrors over there are Kian and Elsie.” His anger returned as he looked back at the wreckage. Kian had gone on from finger painting and now appeared to be trying to make his own confetti by hacking wildly at a sheet of foil with a pair of scissors, not incidentally spreading the remains of the paint all over the foil, the scissors, and himself.
Chris took a step forward, and his kids looked back up. Seeing the look on his face they blanched, and suddenly seemed to realize how much trouble they were in.
“Chris?” Yosef interrupted politely. “Would you be able to assist me for a moment? I think John can take care of helping the children to clean up.”
“Assist with what?” Chris' bewilderment was back. How can these two be so utterly unconcerned?
Yosef steered Chris back through the lobby. “I recently helped John build a shelf, and we thought we might donate it to True Light. But it will take a second person to carry in and properly hang on the wall.”
Chris was skeptical. “And True Light is just going to let you randomly start doing construction projects on their building?”
“I spoke with Arthur last week. And this will be the perfect size to keep the messier art supplies out of the younger children's reach, yes?”
The shelf was certainly large enough, and really quite beautiful, but Chris wasn't quite ready to let go of his aggression. “And you just happen to walk in at the very moment my kids decide to destroy an entire room after they got into something they shouldn't have? Nice timing – though if you had managed to show up half an hour earlier you might have saved everyone a lot of trouble.” Chris gave a bitter laugh.
“Everything in God's timing,” Yosef gently reproved him. “Now, if you can take that end, I will take this end and the tools we will need.”
They carried everything back to the play room in silence, and then Yosef spent several minutes helping Chris figure out where to hang the shelf and then find the relevant studs to attach it to. Chris' temper was finally cooling, and his curiosity was reasserting itself. Finally he couldn't take it any longer and burst out, “How could you be so... so calm, seeing this... this catastrophe?!” His out-flung arm encompassed the entire room.
Yosef laughed kindly. “I, too, am a father, and I have seen my own share of catastrophic messes. It also helps to remember that very few things in life are truly as bad as they appear at first sight, especially when you are already under stress.”
“If you say so.” Chris wasn't convinced, but he couldn't help but prompt: “You said something about John trying to paint your house?”
“Oh, yes. That was a memorable day. My son, Yeshua, was about the same age as your Kian, or perhaps a little older, and John, who was a little older yet, was also visiting us at the time. Now my wife's parents had recently died, and so Yeshu and John decided to do something to cheer her up. They eventually settled on baking bread for her – except that they had no experience with the task, and did not know what ingredients to use, or how much of each.”
“Oooh,” Chris winced in sympathy, some of his own cooking misadventures after Janice's departure coming to mind.
“But that was not the only part of their plan,” Yosef continued, pausing only for a moment to double-check that the latest set of screw holes was properly placed. “They also remembered a journey we had taken a week or so prior. I was delivering a pair of benches to a very wealthy family, and had brought my wife and the boys along. Maryam, my wife, had remarked on how cheerful some mosaics had made the house look, and so my Yeshu decided to replicate them in our own home. We did not have any of the necessary materials, but Yeshu and John determined to improvise – and so they raided Maryam's collection of supplies that she used when weaving. By the time Maryam and I returned home that evening, not only was the house filled with smoke from the blackened bread, but Yeshu and John had managed to cover the majority of the house in a coating of flour, oil, figs, honey, and a whole rainbow of poorly-mixed dyes!”
Chris laughed and cringed simultaneously. He could imagine the scene all too clearly. “So what did you do? And pass me that screwdriver, will you?”
“Of course,” Yosef responded, then continued the story. “Well, we told the boys that we loved them, and thanked them for their consideration in trying to cheer up Maryam, but then explained why they shouldn't be using Maryam's dyes without permission – or for anything except dyeing cloth – and why they ought to learn how to bake bread before attempting it on their own. Then we showed them how to clean everything up, and then Maryam taught them how to bake bread and I helped them find seashells and interesting rocks, and we figured out together how to make proper mosaics. And they did brighten the house – the more so because they were made with love.”
Chris focused on the carpentry for a few minutes to let the story sink in. “I was going to yell at my two,” he finally confessed. “I was going to say something completely unforgivable and I would have hated myself for it ever after but I would have said it anyway, and my kids would never have forgiven me.”
“Nothing is truly unforgivable,” Yosef disagreed, “and children in particular can be very forgiving. Many adults could learn from them. But still... I am glad you did not say it.”
“Well, if it weren't for you walking in at that exact moment, I would have.” Chris gave a rueful laugh. “God's timing, huh?”
Yosef paused in his work to look at Chris intently. “He loves you very much, Chris.”
“Yesterday I would've laughed in your face. An hour ago I would've agreed wholeheartedly. Now? I dunno.” Chris shook his head. “If Arthur kicks us out for this.... I can't take going back into the public shelter system, and I don't think Kian and Elsie can either. And it's pretty clear I can't take care of them on my own at this point. So what then?”
“Except you aren't going to be doing it on your own,” Arthur spoke up from behind them as Yosef gave one final turn on the last wood screw. “I said we wouldn't abandon you, and we won't – and certainly not for something as minor as small children acting like small children. Anyway, it's as much my fault as anyone's. I should have suggested we sit closer, or wait on the paperwork altogether until more staff arrived to supervise.”
“You're sure?” Chris asked in disbelief. “But what about all the damage? We can't exactly repay you!”
“Actually, if you wanted to earn some extra money painting murals around this place we'd love it, but you don't owe us anything for this. Besides – take a look.” And Arthur turned Chris around.
Chris had always had an uncanny ability to focus on one thing and tune out all other distractions. It was great for last minute crunches before deadlines, but less so when it came to keeping an eye on his kids. And now it had happened again. Somehow, in the space of him talking to Yosef and putting up a shelf, John and Arthur had helped Kian and Elsie to make the room nearly spotless. Markers, papers, and beads had all been picked up and put back in their packages. All the paint had been wiped off the table – and the kids. The yarn had been untangled, the confetti and glitter had all been vacuumed up, and even the carpet had somehow been cleaned of paint and ground-in pastels. It was frankly miraculous.
Kian and Elsie each dropped one last armful of construction paper scraps into the recycle bin, then turned around and saw him watching them. They ran towards him, then stopped a few feet away, suddenly shy.
“We're very sorry for making a mess,” they recited, more-or-less in unison. They peered up at Chris, clearly worried about his reaction.
Chris felt his heart seize. He never wanted his kids to be afraid to come to him, and he made a silent vow to do everything in his power to regain – and then keep – their trust.
“It's okay,” he answered, his voice thick as he dropped to his knees and held out his arms. “I forgive you, and I love you both very, very much. Can you forgive me for being angry at you and for not being a very good daddy these past few months?”
Kian ran to his father's arms, and Elsie followed a split-second later.
“Of course, Daddy!” “We love you, too, Daddy!”
Chris looked up at Arthur, Yosef, and John with tears in his eyes. Thank you, he mouthed to them. They smiled in return, and then he concentrated fully on just holding his kids.
When the hug was finally finished, Chris and the kids helped John, Yosef, and Arthur put the remaining supplies (thankfully nowhere near as depleted as Chris had feared) away on the shelf. As they were finishing, Arthur got a thoughtful look on his face. “Elsie is three, right? And Kian's five?”
“Yeah. His birthday was earlier this month.”
“So the right age for preschool. There's a church right down the road that has a good preschool program, and they've always been strong supporters of True Light. Would you like to walk down there together after my shift is over in another -” he checked the clock, “45 minutes? I think they'd be happy to enroll Kian and Elsie for the rest of the year, and it would give them a chance to spend more time with kids their own age.”
“That sounds great!” Chris enthused. “What do you kids think?”
“Fun!” Kian shouted.
“Me, too! Me, too!” Elsie shrieked.
“It's a plan.” Chris turned towards Yosef and John. “Would you like to join us?”
“Thank you, but no,” Yosef answered. “My wife will be waiting for us. It is time for us to be going.”
“Then let me at least show you out. And thank you, thank you, for everything.”
“It was my pleasure to spend this time with you.” Yosef smiled at Chris. “God has given you two wonderful children. Treasure them. And trust in Him.”
“I will, and... I will,” Chris agreed fervently. “Come back and visit sometime, will you?”
“I would like to. Until then, shalom.”
“Shalom,” Chis replied.
He watched as John and Yosef walked down the street together. John appeared to be showing Yosef a red cellphone, and Chris could faintly hear him exclaiming, “You must listen to this most amazing song, Yosef! I heard it in the hallway as I was searching for a vacuum cleaner, and the young man who was playing it kindly showed me how to purchase a copy for myself! The lyrics...” John's voice trailed away as the two figures receded into the distance.
Chris stood there in the doorway a moment longer, and breathed a prayer of thanks to a God he maybe did believe in after all, for sending him three such extraordinary people. Then he headed back inside to where his family was waiting.
He glanced over at the colorful scraps of paper filling the recycle bin and turned to the kids. “So, Kian, Elsie, we still have most of an hour before we go visit that church. Would you like to learn how to make construction paper mosaics?”
Their answering smiles lit up the entire room.
Notes from Heather:
The verse Chris half-remembers is Jeremiah 29:11. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (ESV)
I'm not entirely sure what the proper relationship between Yosef and John would be – is there a specific term for your wife's cousin's son? But if Joshua calls John cousin, then it makes sense to me that Yosef would refer to him as his nephew, for ease of description if nothing else.
To make a
construction paper mosaic, use one piece of sturdy paper
as a background. Cut
up other pieces of paper into small shapes (triangles,
rectangles, etc.), then glue them onto the backing paper
to form pictures, leaving just enough space in between
the “tiles” to give the impression of mortar.