I never know who will take me up on going for a walk – if anyone. Usually there is one person who walks with me and my volunteer partner. Sometimes there are two, sometimes none. We walk with men who are staying at a shelter in my neighbourhood. My idealistic idea was to start a running group. I can’t do everything, but I can put my expertise and knowledge in physical fitness to use in a caring and loving way. I know the powerful link it has with mental and emotional health. However it didn’t take me long to learn that poverty and physical health are closely related. Many of those who are mobile have injuries or long-term conditions which keep them from running. Some of them can walk though, so we do that. We walk and talk and sometimes sit for a coffee.
Jake* is big and gentle. I wasn’t sure if he could even walk the first few times I went because he was always sitting down with a foot which had been terribly burnt in a fire. He also wasn’t super motivated until I mentioned that a Starbucks coffee might be in the cards. He’ll walk for that I discovered. So we walk slowly to a Starbucks about half a mile away. As we walk we chat. We talk about Jake’s youth, where he grew up, where he went to school, his sisters, his parents, his daughter. Jake has kind eyes and a quick laugh. He is also addicted to crack, panhandles for money, and I can smell alcohol on him at 9:30 in the morning. It doesn’t bother me. I have no expectations of him – he owes me nothing. I enjoy walking and talking with him and hearing about his story, and he tells me he likes walking and talking with me too – I think because I listen and ask him questions and remember what he’s told me. Also I don’t judge him. I wonder about his sisters and daughter (his parents have passed). They must be wishing and hoping for the best for him, but I understand that they have to stay away as well. I’ve been in that position.
There were often other people around my mum. She was surrounded by social workers, nurses, old friends and acquaintances who’d resurfaced. She was a physical and mental wreck due to decades of alcoholism. I had maintained a physical and emotional distance for as long as I could. I did feel the duties of a daughter though, so would provide care and company as if by script. I did not want to be there though. I wanted my mum to be loved but for some reason I could not often call up that emotion. I watched in awe as these total strangers were able to treat her in a way that I could not. They chatted, listened and laughed with her as she was in that state with no judgements or expectations. They had no feelings of disgust or disappointment or anger. They just saw a human being who needed love. I was very grateful to all of them that they could give her what I couldn’t. If you can outsource love, I think that’s what we were trying to do by the end.
On another day in the week I lead an exercise program for patients from a forensic outpatient group at a mental health hospital. These are people who have been deemed not criminally responsible for illegal acts they’ve committed. I don’t know what they’ve done – nor do I want to. I treat them all with the respect and compassion I would treat anyone. I work with them with genuine effort and interest because I want the best for them. I care about them. We move and sweat and lift beside each other and laugh and fill our blood with endorphins. Many of these clients live with their parents or siblings. I wonder about their immediate support teams too. The people who know about the crimes they’ve committed. Who are burdened by supporting them. Are they able to show them love and respect, or are they relying on people like me? I don’t mind filling that role. It is much easier from a certain vantage point. I feel like I’m paying back the people who were able to give it to my mum when I couldn’t. Let me share my love this way.
Sometimes I send my son out into the world after a difficult morning. We’ve gotten in a fight, said not nice things to each other and we both feel badly. I can’t always back down – I’m the parent. I have a role to play in raising and teaching. But I plead that he will encounter someone who will show him love in this day. I want (need) him to experience kindness, love and respect, but it doesn’t always flow seamlessly beside the more difficult teachings of life lessons and discipline. When I am feeling angry and tapped out I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the teacher or friend or family member who extends a branch to him. I think I physically feel the weight of it all coming off me. There are other people in the world who will love my child – it doesn’t all have to weigh on me.
I find myself thinking about Jake’s mother. He tells me how she would buy his new school uniform and iron it to make him look sharp for school, and the pain in my chest nearly brings me to my knees. He was once a loved little boy. I am sure his mother was relying on the world to love her son when she wouldn’t be able to anymore. I do my small bit where I can. I hope others fill in other gaps too so there is enough for him. And I pray to god that there will continue to be people who love out there for my kids when they need it.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy