The evening light is warm and orange as I sit at the long bar, scrolling through my phone, waiting for my takeout order. Ever since I found out I was pregnant, this intense exhaustion has made everything just a tad more difficult, and I have given myself permission (maybe too much permission) to do things like go out for food instead of cooking. This place on the corner is my favorite. The vibe is casual and friendly, but just a tiny bit hipster, and there is always local art on the orange walls. The hallway to the bathroom is floor to ceiling chalkboard, where customers scrawl and doodle to their hearts' content. I love looking at these screeds. It's like looking into people's souls.
"No, I don't have anything."
The words are sudden and brusque. I'm confused for a minute, thinking the guy beside me is talking to me, but then I see the man standing at his elbow, a tad too close, and I suddenly understand the guy's tone. Once he has been rejected, the panhandler moves on to another customer, and then another. This a common occurrence here, and everyone has a practiced response. Nobody even looks directly at him, their eyes sliding over and away as if he is the Leaky Cauldron in Harry Potter, bewitched so as not to be seen by Muggles. I watch his discouraged progress with an uncomfortable knot in my chest. I sit on my hands, shift. Look away.
I have a sudden flash, an image of myself walking over to him, laying my hand gently on his arm. Asking him what he needs. Offering to buy him something to eat. Letting him know that he is seen.
But I don't. I let him walk out, rejected, and I turn my eyes away so that I don't have to see it. A moment later, my palak paneer wrap is handed to me in a warm, white paper bag, and I leave. Part of me hopes that I will see him on the sidewalk, that I will have a second chance at this, but he is not there. I catch sight of him halfway down the next block, so I put my head down and point myself in the direction of home. I eat my wrap curled up on my couch, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and trying not to think about his face.
The incident stays with me, though. Not only for the cognitive dissonance it caused (is this the person that I thought I was? Is this the person that I want to be?), but because it made me think about what kind of parent I want to be.
The baby in my belly is still only the size of a grape, but they have already changed me in innumerable ways. I see the world differently. I see myself differently. For instance, I now stop and think, "What would I do if my child was beside me?"
What kind of message do I want to send to my son or daughter in situations like the one I encountered in my favorite corner hangout? What do I want to show them about the world, our place in it, and our duty to others, particularly those who are not as fortunate as we are? Do I want to show them that it is okay to ignore people in need, to brush others off because their situations are too ugly or uncomfortable to look at directly? Do I want to show them that we should insulate ourselves in our luckiness and turn our faces away from neediness? Do I want to show them that selfishness and self-centeredness are acceptable ways to go through life?
No. I want to show them that the world can be ugly, but it has a lot of beauty too. That though homelessness and abject poverty are tragic realities, there are things that we can do to help: things that we should do to help. I want to show them that we can be a bit of brightness in someone's day. That when we see situations where we can help, it is our responsibility to do so. To make someone feel seen, feel known, who walks through their day being buffeted about and rejected by everyone around them.
I hope that, next time, I will remember these things that I want to show the baby nestled in my belly, and I will make a different decision than I did this time. Perhaps, by the time my baby is old enough to see and understand some of what goes on around us, it will be second nature to be generous, and helpful, and compassionate. And even if it's not, even if I still have to work at it, that's okay too. I am comfortable with showing my child that some things worth doing are not always easy. And I am thankful to my little lentil that he or she is already challenging me to be a better parent—and a better person.
Guest post written by Jessica McGale-Cooper. Jessica has been telling stories for as long as she could talk. Words have always seemed like a magical gateway to another land, and she has always loved going there. She currently lives in Alberta, Canada, with her husband of one year. She is a voracious reader, strident feminist, and avid wanderluster. You can read more over at her blog: www.becomingjessica.com.