Lost and Seen
My encounter with Ronald
In 2015, my marriage was failing. Rapidly.
Marital problems or not, life goes on. I had a job to do and responsibilities to fulfill. On a particularly emotionally raw Saturday, I peeled myself out of bed to lead a volunteer outing. We visited a men’s shelter on the north side of Chicago. The church basement shelter housed a few dozen men. Mattresses were leaned up against the wall to make room for dining tables. I remember a stage, murals on the wall, the yellow tint to the light, but mostly, I remember Ronald.
After getting volunteers set up in their own tasks, I asked if I could join a man named Ronald at his table. We chatted about the weather, Chicago, the lunch menu, and other mundane topics. Eventually I asked how long he had been at the shelter. I don’t remember his answer. What left the deepest imprint was the way he told the rest of his story. His gambling addiction led to homelessness. He had lost everything. His family. His job. His home. All of his money. Ronald looked me in the eye while speaking, his shoulders turned toward me. I sensed some shame, but mostly, he spoke with acceptance and accountability. I thanked him for his openness and for trusting me with his story. With lowered eyes, I told Ronald I was experiencing loss too. My marriage was failing. I was afraid. I didn’t know what would become of me. The life I thought I had was gone. I was ashamed. I felt unlovable and broken. More than anything, I felt lost. Slow teardrops fell down my cheeks. Ronald caught my eyes. I looked up. I said, “I’m scared.” He replied with a steady and certain voice, “I know you’re scared. But you have light and love in your eyes. You are a bright light. You are going to be ok.” Our eyes locked, I thanked him for his kindness. We returned to our chatter about everyday topics like movies and sports.
Here we were, two very different people in very different circumstances, connecting through our grief. Initially, I felt guilty. What do I have to complain about? I may have had a broken heart, but I also had an apartment I could afford, job security, family and friends, and money to meet my basic needs. I knew that I would eventually be ok. Would Ronald? I didn’t know for sure. I left our conversation feeling seen, heard, and connected. I hoped Ronald did too.
I think about Ronald often. Our brief conversation taught me so much about what I needed to know in life, working in social services, and teaching about homelessness. Despite our differences, we are all human. We are all neighbors. We can all care for one another in small, powerful ways like Ronald did for me that day.