From Tara Brach’s beautiful Secret Beauty Solstice Talk:
This story was told by a Unitarian minister. It happened during a family trip. Her and her husband and two children were traveling on Christmas day.
They stopped at a restaurant that was nearly empty.
Her one-year-old, Eric, was in a high chair and she heard him squeal with glee as he sang, “Hi there! Hi there! Hi there!” — these are two words he thought were one. And his face was alive with excitement.
Then she says, “I saw the source of his merriment and my eyes could not take it in all at once. A tattered rag of a coat, baggy pants, both they and the zipper lay over a spindly body, gums as bare as Eric’s, hair uncombed, unwashed, and his hands were waving in the air, flapping about on loose wrists. ‘Hi there, baby! Hi there, big boy! I see you, buster!’ My husband and I exchanged a look that was a cross between ‘what do we do’ and ‘poor devil.’
“Eric continued to laugh and answer, ‘Hi there! Hi there!’ Every call was echoed. This old geezer was creating a nuisance with my beautiful baby. I shoved a cracker at Eric and he pulverized it on the tray. I whispered, ‘Why me?’ under my breath.
“Our meal came and the nuisance continued. Now the old bum was shouting from across the room, ‘Do you know patty cake? Attaboy! Do you know peek-a-boo? Hey, look, he knows peek-a-boo!’ We ate in silence except Eric, who was running through his repertoire for the admiring applause of a skid row bum.
“Finally we had enough. Dennis went to pay the check and implored me, ‘Get Eric and meet me in the parking lot.’ I trundled Eric out of the high chair and looked towards the exit. The old man sat poised and waiting, his chair directly between me and the door. ‘Lord, just let me get out of here before he speaks to me or Eric.’ I headed towards the door.
“It soon became apparent that both the lord and Eric had other plans. As I drew closer to the man, I turned my back, walking to sidestep him and any air he might be breathing. As I did so, Eric, all the while his eyes riveted to his best friend, leaned far over my arm, reaching with both arms in a baby’s ‘pick me up’ position.
“In a split second of balancing my baby and turning to counter his weight, I came eye to eye with the old man. Eric was lunging for him, arms wide open. The bum’s eyes both asked and implored, ‘Would you let me hold your baby?’ There was no need for me to answer, since Eric propelled himself from my arms to the man’s.
“Suddenly, a very old man and a young baby were involved in a love relationship. Eric laid his tiny head on the man’s ragged shoulder. The man’s eyes closed and I saw tears hover beneath his lashes. His aged hands, full of grime and pain and hard labor, gently, so gently, cradled my baby’s bottom and stroked his back.
“I stood awestruck. The old man rocked and cradled Eric in his arms for a moment and then his eyes opened and set squarely on mine. He said in a firm, commanding voice, ‘You take care of this baby.’
“Somehow I managed, ‘I will.’ from a throat that contained a stone. He pried Eric from his chest, unwillingly, longingly, as though he were in pain.
“I held my arms open to receive my baby and again the gentleman addressed me, ‘God bless you, ma’am. You’ve given me my Christmas gift.’
“I said nothing more than a muttered, ‘Thanks.’ With Eric back in my arms, I ran for the car.
“Dennis wondered why I was crying and holding Eric so tightly and why I was saying, ‘My God, my God, forgive me.’
Don’t put anyone outside of your heart. Often the story we tell ourselves about someone else is very far from the truth.