The moment of realization struck me like a lightning bolt. The woman sitting on this bench before me had been in this very spot for several days, maybe even weeks? I strained to remember when I had first noticed her, but couldn’t get past the weight in my throat as I acknowledged the obvious. She was sleeping there, on this bench, in this lovely little park right in the middle of my neighborhood.
My cherished early morning walk had come to a halt as I stood there looking at her trying not to be noticed. The impression was one of a mystical tree. Draped in a dark green cloak with a peaked hood and flowing sleeves, she sat with her head down, all angles pointing to and merging with the earth. Her legs were like thick tree trunks, completing the image of stillness, strength, nature.
Although I didn’t want to disturb her I knew that I had to acknowledge her presence and repent for the days that I had let slip by, lost in my own self. I resumed walking and prepared to initiate conversation, or at least some respectable gesture. As my steps approached her bench I uttered, “Good Morning,” and immediately regretted my words.
But a melodious voice echoed, “Good morning to you.” I stopped to pivot, beholding the rising of the hood, and the whitest most lovely set of teeth parting in a warm smile. In just a moment I took her all in- well kempt hair, healthy glowing skin, and a tiny diamond ring on clean and dainty fingers.
Despite my shock I continued conversation, confirming that she had been sleeping in the park, and inquiring about her safety and well-being. Her responses were light and reserved, hinting at circumstances and her decision to make the park her temporary home. She alluded to domestic and mental health issues, plans to move to a shelter in Carolina, and only mild concerns about the cooling temperatures and impending weather. She was clearly a woman with choices, a woman with a plan.
Feeling our conversation coming to a close I asked if there was anything I could bring her to make her stay more comfortable. She dismissed my gesture with an airy wave and insisted, convincingly, that she had everything she needed. I pressed on, determined to offer something of value. When she finally agreed to some left-over chicken and perhaps a light blanket, I turned and quickly ran home, assuring her that I would be right back but secretly scared that I would be too late.
When I got home I made a beeline for the kitchen, wrapping food items with care, and placing them in a still perfectly functional backpack from the previous school year. I sneaked up the stairs, trying not to draw my family’s attention as I frantically looked around, surveying the endless shelves and piles of stuff for worthy offerings. I grabbed a Smithsonian magazine and a book of crossword puzzles unused by my children at camp. And then I finally saw it, the perfect gift, making me giggle as I touched them one last time. I lovingly placed my most wonderfully cozy and warm pair of socks into the bag. They had been given to me by my husband, brought home from our family’s clothing store. Indulgently unnecessary, they were the perfect gift for someone who had everything and wanted of nothing. They were the perfect gift for my new friend Dorothy.
When I raced back to the park I was relieved to find Dorothy still on her bench, peaked hood down and re-rooted in the earth. I experienced a rush of gratitude as she lifted her head once more and returned my greetings. Like a child I described my offerings as I pulled each from the bag. Only mildly feigning interest, she accepted my gifts and thanked me by name, sealing the exquisite moment of connection that I continue to cherish today.