Brandon, Joe, and Stefanie
“There’s this old man living near the kids’ school,” I told my friend Stefanie as we talked on the phone. “He sits in front of his house day after day, year after year, and when anyone drives by he waves and grins happily, one gnarled hand in the air, the other clutching an old cane with a piece of what used to be cloth wrapped around the top.”
“He’s always waved, but lately he’s started blowing me a kiss. It’s dumb, I suppose, Stef, but he’ll never know how much those silly kisses have given my heart a lift when I’ve been in a rotten mood. You know, one of these days I’ll drive by and he won’t be there anymore forever, and I’ll always regret not having stopped and told him so.”
“You should stop and tell him,” Stefanie encouraged. “And don’t wait too long. You might miss a real blessing!”
Miss a blessing? I thought a lot about what she said after we hung up. She was right. Life is full of missed opportunities, and usually they’re the ones that cause us the most pain. Still, he didn’t know me. If I never stopped it wouldn’t make any difference in his life. And what difference could it possibly make in mine? Oh sure, I’d feel good inside. Do it as though to Jesus Himself, right? But what would I really get out of it?
Jesus’ words from Matthew 5 came echoing back at me from somewhere in my memory, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? …And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others?” I made up my mind.
The next day I visited a local bookstore and picked out a little glass suncatcher that said “A Hug For Someone Special” between two smiling teddy bears. The clerk put it in a box with a gift card to which I had signed my name and Stef’s.
I pulled up in front of his house. It was drizzling cold that March morning, so he wasn’t outside in his usual place. “This is for Jesus and you, Stef,” I thought as I stood on the wet doorstep, one hand holding my little gift, the other pushing the bell.
The door opened almost at once. It was dark inside the house. I could barely see someone standing there. “I’ve come about the old gentleman who sits out front, “ I began. But before I could say more, a strong hand grabbed mine and a small Mexican lady was guiding me inside, ushering me to a table in the kitchen. Standing at her stove, her well-worn apron covered with stains from who knows how many adventures in cooking, she chattered away, seemingly unintimidated by the presence of a stranger in her home. As she talked she set a plate of home-made tortillas in front of me. The smell of the grease assaulted my nose. You would tell she’d used it before – and before that.
The man’s name was Joe Dominguez. Bessie was his sister. It was her home, but she took care of him. Joe was 76 and had moved here many years ago. I kept listening and dutifully ate a somewhat paper-tasting flat cake. Joe had worked at the Air Force base near our home until a stroke and mild paralysis of his right side had made it necessary for him to retire. “He don’t need much,” Bessie said. “He just loves to sit outside and wave to everyone. And the kids in the neighborhood are good to him. They’re always makin’ him things or bringin’ him cookies. Chocolate chip is his favorite.”
“Is he here?” I asked, remembering the little white box on the table next to my second, half-eaten tortilla.
“Yeah, he’s in his room watchin’ his soap operas. Come on, I’ll show you Joe.”
Bessie led me down a dark hall and opened Joe’s bedroom door. I wasn’t prepared for the confusion of crayoned pictures, do-dads, and Catholic prints that covered his walls. Yes, the kids surely did bring Joe a lot of things. And there was Joe, sitting on the bed, in the same old gray shirt and pants I’d seen him in a hundred times before. I wondered absently if they were all he had to wear. He recognized me right away as the “blonde lady in the red car,” and a smile spread from ear to ear, bunching up the wrinkles under his eyes. His teeth were crooked and yellow and old. His breath smelled stale. His once black hair was now a thin, wispy gray, and his brown skin looked like weathered leather.
“Hello pretty lady,” he said in his somewhat misshapen speech. I took Joe’s hand in mine. It was frail. Powdery. I introduced myself, and Bessie left us alone to get acquainted.
He sat on the edge of the bed with his knees pressed tightly together and his hands folded politely on top them, waiting like an expectant child. He’d seen the little box in my hand. He told me haltingly about his many pictures and the statuary sitting around his room – several Mother Mary’s complete with votive candles, and a chipped plaster crucifix with part of Jesus’ feet missing. We talked of his soap operas, his sister, his favorite friends. And especially of his love of chocolate chip cookies. But again and again his attention went back to the little white box in my hand.
Finally I walked over to the bed and held out the gift. “This is a present for you, Joe. It’s from me and my friend Stefanie.” I explained that Stefanie lived 1800 miles away in Tennessee and that I’d told her all about him.
Joe looked astonished. “Tennessee? Told her ’bout me?” he repeated wonderingly. He took the box. “This is for me…” It was more of a statement than a question. And with one stroke-curved hand he removed the lid. He carefully lifted the suncatcher out by its red and gold ribbon, his mouth forming a silent “ooh” as he held it up between us. No ray of sun would ever shine so brightly through that piece of glass as the joy that shinned from Joe Dominquez’ face just then. His smile got wider, his eyes wrinkled even more, and I believe for just a few moments he forgot about his folded-up hand and the leg that dragged behind when he walked.
Together we hung it in his bedroom window where the afternoon sun of other days would bring it to life. I put my arm around his age-stooped shoulders and for awhile we just stood quietly watching the pretty thing hang there against a dismal outside sky. It didn’t matter that there wasn’t any bright light this day to waken the colors. Inside Joe’s room we had all the “Son” we’d ever need.
Before I left Joe and Bessie I got several hugs and a marriage proposal! I also got to know a little about Bessie’s family. She showed me many pictures of beautiful young people and grandchildren, all with olive skin and jet-black eyes and hair. She even showed me a picture of herself “in her time,” as she called it, when she was young and not nearly so care worn. And she shared with me how she took care of Joe, how much he loved her and depended on her. I couldn’t help wondering who really depended on who in that relationship.
As I said goodbye to Joe, I gave him a hug and promised to visit him soon with some chocolate chip cookies. I realized later I’d never mentioned his little “kisses.” It doesn’t matter though. I had gone there that day to do as “unto Jesus,” but instead I had been welcomed as if I were the Lord Himself. And I came away a whole lot richer from having seen Joe’s toothy grin shinning through that little piece of glass.
How often do we miss some of God’s most precious blessings because we don’t take the time to stop and love those whom we think have nothing to offer us in return? I’m so thankful that Jesus and Stefanie knew that sometimes blessings are found in the most unexpected places. Like in an old Mexican gentleman who had nothing to give but a smile and a handful of kisses.
(reblogged from 11/18/14)