It was Wednesday morning–mid-80s by 10:00 a.m, with searing Santa Ana winds expected in the canyons. No surprise then, our local beach was crowded–a teeming mixture of resort guests and local residents. I clambered over the rocks, snapping photos of the harbor seals and peering into the tide pools. Surfers jogged past me, wetsuits dripping, wholly absorbed by the music blasting through their ear buds.
It was on this very warm day that I caught my first glimpse of the grizzled man who wandered over the sand berms with an overstuffed bundle on his back. He dropped his cargo, carved out a shallow trench with his bare feet, and then unfurled his sleeping bag in the narrow space between the limestone cliffs and the incoming tides. Seagulls stood watch over him while he rested, same as they do with Freckles.
I turned my attention again to the hermit crabs and anemones. Hidden from view: rip currents. Rescue boats hugged the shoreline.
A flock of pigeons swooped in, picked through the man’s belongings and came away hungry. He dozed, snored, and eventually groaned himself into wakefulness. I watched him out of the corner of my eye, saw him struggle to his feet, chest heaving, and gather his belongings. Everyone else went about the business of having fun…or pretended not to notice.
There was something off about his breathing. Labored, loud, ragged wheezing–like an asthma attack, or worse. My intuition kicked in. I decided to follow him up the ramp, to watch over him from a respectful distance. He winced when his skin made contact with hot cement—naked toes that peeked through compression socks, the kind you wear when you’ve just had surgery. His sleeping bag dragged behind him, a rudderless sail. His tote bag pulled on his shoulder, a heavy anchor that slowed his progress even further.
Should I run up beside him, I wondered, maybe offer to carry something? I decided against both, based primarily on some very real concerns about safety–his, as well as mine. He might have a history of being attacked from behind, same as I do. And, well…you just never know.
Halfway up the hill, he stopped abruptly. He bent over double, wheezing and clawing at the collar of his t-shirt. That’s when I first saw the collection of hospital bracelets—red, yellow, white, CAUTION: AT RISK FOR FALLING—around his narrow wrists.
Forgive me, God, for my foolish hesitations.
I ran to his side. “Tell me how to help you.”
“I lost my inhaler,” he gasped. “I’ve gotta get to the hospital.”
My knees were shaking, but I answered in a steady voice that belied my nervousness. Just like new neighbors, I told myself, chatting over the back fence.
“Know how to get there?”
He wiped the sweat from his brow, scratched at the EKG patches that revealed themselves when he lifted his grimy t-shirt. “Yes ma’am,” he eventually said. “Shuttle goes right past it.”
It was then that I spotted the bloody bandage by his clavicle. My heart raced, fueled by a volatile mixture of fear and deep concern. “Stab wound,” he said, with a casual shrug that betrayed his physical condition.
He reached into his tote bag. No bus pass. He emptied his pockets. Nothing there but gum wrappers and lint.
I grabbed a wad of bills from my camera bag, tucked them into his palm and cradled his hand in mine. “Grab a little something on the way,” I said. “You’ll feel better for having eaten.”
At that point, his breathing had settled into a more consistent, if still irregular, pattern. “Thank you,” he said.
Awkwardness gave way to second-guessing. Should I have called an ambulance? Perhaps I should’ve taken a bigger risk, and offered him a ride…
Maybe he sensed my inner turmoil. I have no way of knowing, save for the fact that he flipped his wrist right then, and brushed a finger across the inked calligraphy on his wrist. “WWJD?” he said quietly. “You know what that means, right?”
Of course. It was the shorthand version of the Golden Rule, intertwined with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Lessons taught in Sunday School, which I’m still learning every day.
I nodded, just slightly. “What Would Jesus Do?” I said.
He practically jumped for joy when I answered. “Yep!” And then he outlined with his finger a faded red blotch, a punctuation mark at the end of the acronym. “And that’s a heart, can you tell?” He paused for a beat, as if to draw my attention to its deeper significance. “My heart…your heart…you dig?”
“Ha! I sure do.”
I don’t know whose smile was wider in that moment, and I have to say: I’m not honestly sure what Christ Himself would have done in those particular circumstances. But I feel pretty certain that I’d entertained an “angel unawares,” from whom I’d received a gift more valuable than I’d given.
“Take care of yourself,” I said, around the lump in my throat. “Get someone to check that bandage, okay?”
“Thanks, love, I will.”
Before we went our separate ways, I snapped another discrete photo (with his permission), so I could share this beautiful man’s story with you.
I don’t know that I’ll ever see him again, but I’ll always remember that chance encounter—a singular moment, in which two vulnerable people opened their hearts and the light came streaming through.