As I turned the corner and descended the second leg of the L-shaped staircase, I heard a sound that yanked my attention away from my feet and had my eyes desperately scanning the space around me to find its source. My legs continued to carry me in the direction I was already headed in – muscle memory surely to blame – but the sound pulled my face in another direction entirely. My heartbeat quickened and I no longer felt any of the aching in my feet. I was consumed by the sound. It felt as though the sound had affixed handles to my face and spun my head around at will – the movements of which felt more instinctive than voluntary. A moment later, my eyes locked on to the source of the sound. What I saw induced a mix of slight relief and immense sadness.
On the floor, a few feet away from me, an infant cried in her mother’s arms as she begged the commuters for money.
I was relieved when I saw the baby was not alone. I was overcome with sadness when I saw the state that baby lived in.
Already by the turnstile to enter the train platform, I paused a moment to reach into my back pocket for my wallet. It was desire that drove me to do that – I was already keenly aware that I had no cash or change to spare. As one might expect during the rush hour commute, a small line of people started to form behind me and urged me to proceed through the turnstile. I gave into the pressure and pushed my way through. The final click the turnstile made as my hip passed through it seemed so final – as if it had just judged me for my response to what my eyes just witnessed.
Moments later, I was on the PATH train headed to my next stop. My thoughts were hardly focused on going home. I could not get the sound of that child’s cry out of my mind. It kept ringing over and over again in my head. I briefly struggled with why I was so moved by what I witnessed. I have seen suffering and poverty before and was no stranger to it. Spend a day traveling through countries like India, and you will find it hard not to notice the plethora of infants and children living in extremely poor circumstances.
Having exited the second train and walking to my car, the sight and sound of that child’s plight tugged mercilessly at my heartstrings. At some point during this commute home, my mind started to periodically substitute the face of the child I saw with my own son’s. I felt myself on the verge of tears every time that happened. Thoughts of where and how that child slept at night, of whether it ever starves, of its overall health and happiness raced through my mind in an endless loop. And with each one, the feeling of helplessness in being unable to help that innocent child grew within me.
I went to bed that night with an immensely heavy heart – heavier than it had been in a long, long time. Lost in the seemingly infinite loop of the disheartening sights and sounds of my commute home, I drifted off to sleep wishing for a way I could help change that child’s life.
Days later, I encountered the woman and child again during my commute home in the exact spot I had found them the first time. While I was happy to see the child was sleeping peacefully in her mother’s arms, I was dismayed by the fact that I had no cash or change with me again. To make matters more challenging, I was in a rush to catch the connecting train as I had left from work later than usual. Despite my hasty march towards the train, I lingered in view of the woman and her child long enough to notice a small cardboard sign that sat next to her which shed some light on her situation. It stated that she had lost her job, had 2 kids, no working papers, and no money for rent. A moment later, I found myself by the turnstile once more, reaching for my back pocket in search of the wallet I knew had no money in it. This time, I pressed through the turnstile with less hesitation. The sense of failure I felt made it easier to do so. Failure, because I was unprepared to help the woman and child despite the very powerful emotions I had for them just days earlier. This time, the finality of the turnstile’s last click came from the judgment I passed on myself; the acceptance of my own failure.
Somewhere before I boarded the train, I silently vowed that I would not be so unprepared the next time I saw them.
Day before yesterday, Friday, I was pleasantly surprised when my boss came over to my desk and said that I could leave work early for the long Memorial Day weekend. I looked forward to getting home and spending some extra time with my wife and son. I don’t get to spend as much time with them now that I work in the city – the commute in and out combined takes up about 4 hours of my day. I quickly packed up my things and set out into the humid summery afternoon to go home.
It had been over a week since I last saw the mother and child. I started to wonder if they were prohibited from being in the subway stop by police. Either by their absence or my own preoccupation with my daily grind, my thoughts about them were somewhat more subdued. I did think of them every day without fail. Every walk to the train stop came with a splash of anxiety about what situation I would find them in if I came across them again. I suppose the passage of time allowed me to accept their situation a bit more, as well as my ability (or inability) to change it.
About a block before the train stop, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye that slowed my pace. Between the flow of people on the sidewalk, I noticed the mother and child sitting at the foot of a building. The child lay sleeping in her mother’s arms. In an instant, the thoughts that were subdued rushed back into my consciousness with more intensity than ever.
As in past encounters, my legs had already carried me past them – the byproduct of walking at a New York City pace. This time, I turned around and headed for them while reaching for my wallet. I pulled out all the money I had in it – just a few dollars – and handed it to the mother. She looked up into my eyes and smiled. She seemed to be in good spirits despite her situation. Being closer to the both of them than I had been before, I took a moment to glance at the child. Her face was lean in appearance. And though she looked peaceful in her slumber, the expression on her face made it hard to determine whether she slept willfully or from exhaustion. My heart crumbled. I started to move away from the mother while my eyes were still fixed on the child. My mind registered the mother’s expression of gratitude, but I did not acknowledge it. My mind had already set itself on another purpose and functioned to that end alone, fueled by the appearance of that child and the instincts that come from being a parent.
I desperately surveyed my surroundings looking for something very specific. I found it a moment later across the street, and rushed towards it – a pharmacy. Once inside, I walked up and down the aisles until I found the baby supplies. Along the way, I picked up a basket. My ‘Daddy Instincts’ had taken over completely. I was immersed in a storm of questions and calculations. How many pounds is she? How old is she? Is she ready for foods other than milk? Does she need formula? Does she have diapers? My basket filled up quickly with the answers to my questions and calculations. Diapers, wipes, baby food, formula bottles, disposable spoons – that’s all I could find in the aisle in my frantic search. Frantic, because I wanted to make sure I got back to them before they moved on.
The cashier rung up my order a few moments later. I could not tell you how much I spent. My mind was set on making it back to them in time. I took the bag off the counter and darted towards the exit. I turned right as soon as I got out of the door and headed for the crosswalk. A few steps in, my body came to a complete halt at the sight of something I did not expect. Before me sat another woman with a child and a cardboard sign. I looked back and forth at them and the bag of goods I held in my hand, confused about what I should do. I had purchased everything based on the child I had seen first. This other child was older and bigger. Something inside me broke. I wondered if God was testing me. Was I supposed to go back in the store and buy something else for this other child? Was I supposed to give this other child something from the bag of goods I had so intently assembled for the first child? Still feeling the urgency of getting back to the first mother and child, and being unable to think clearly, I shook my head and proceeded to the crosswalk and crossed the street.
My footsteps back to the first mother and child seemed to have lost something. I felt defeated. Just a few minutes before, my sense of purpose and conviction were so clear. Now they were both muddled with indecision and questions. As I approached the mother and child, I tried to collect myself a bit more and think of how to communicate to her what I was giving her. I didn’t get the sense that she spoke much English. She looked up as I got close. I handed her the bag and said, “This is for the baby.” She smiled and accepted the bag. The baby still slept in her arms. Once more, I turned away before she expressed her thanks – which I registered out of the corner of my eye. I didn’t want it. I didn’t know what I wanted.
The feelings of defeat consumed me as I walked the rest of the way to the train stop. All of the experiences with this mother and child leading up to that point led me to believe that maybe I was placed in that situation for a reason. That all changed the moment I saw the other mother and her child. If I was there to help, why couldn’t I help them as well? How could I feel so strongly for one child one minute and be completely indecisive for another child in a similar situation the next? Could I have been so naïve that I thought that helping this one child was somehow a big deal in the grand scheme of things? Was the suffering I perceived real at all or was it a carefully orchestrated scam? Those questions plagued me all the way home.
As I put my car in park on my driveway and opened the door, I stepped out with an overburdened heart. I wasn’t sure of anything I had felt or done regarding the woman and the child. The weight of it all hung around my neck like a yoke. I didn’t understand myself…and that troubled me most of all.
Just then my wife opened the front door to greet me with my 9-month-old son in tow. Looking down at me from the top of the front steps he concentrated his gaze upon me, carefully analyzing who it was that stood on the driveway before him. The instant he realized it was his father, his expression changed. His eyes squinted as his lips pushed his chubby cheeks outward when he smiled widely. He waved his arms up and down as he slapped his little belly – his own way of expressing extreme excitement and happiness. I walked up two of the steps to greet him and he eagerly jumped into my arms. His little hands squeezed as tightly as they could as he clung to my shirt. Though unable to speak a word, my little boy whisked away the clouds that hung over my heart and allowed me to see things with a bit more clarity.
There, in that moment standing front of our small house while holding my son, I realized that everything I just experienced and felt was because I stood on the other side of fatherhood. The intensity of my emotions, the fact that I had felt so much to begin with, and my actions were all things I experienced because I crossed over from wondering what it would be like to be a father to actually being one. The experience with the woman and her child are one of countless other experiences I will have as I continue to grow as a person because of fatherhood. There was no right or wrong in what I did because it was more about me than about those I sought to help all along.
I wrapped my arms around my son’s little body tightly and kissed his head. I said a little prayer for the child and mother who lived somewhere across the Hudson River. I knew not whether I would ever see them again or if I would ever see how their lives turned out. What I did know was that I would do all I could for the little life I was entrusted, who I held in my arms at that moment. I carried him inside our house and thought to myself in silence…
You will never know suffering while Daddy is here with you.