My sister, Nani, and I were enjoying just being together on that warm, sun-filled afternoon in Old Town San Diego. Strolling down the streets and investigating the small shops with their unique, interesting treasures was a delightful way to while away the day. But then we saw him—a beggar hunched over on a bench by the side of a dirt road, his legs crumpled up underneath him, his right arm shaking uncontrollably. The sign next to him confirmed what we already knew. It read: “Parkinson’s and Emphysema.”
The emotional impact of the sight stopped us in our tracks. We turned and looked at each other, but no words were needed to explain what each of us felt. The deep ache in our hearts was painfully evident on our faces—and was understood. Only months before, our own grandfather, whom we called Papa, had died from Parkinson’s disease.
My loss struck me again with full force. How I miss him. How I miss just sitting with him.
We couldn’t just keep walking past the man, so we dug through our purses and pockets looking for money. Between us we came up with about $5.
The man didn’t sense us approaching him. It was only when we stood right in front of him that he lifted his head and we saw his face.
He’s young! we both realized with surprise. We had judged him to be an old man, bent over with age and disease, but he likely was only in his early 50s.
As I stretched out my hand to give the man the money, he looked straight into my eyes. I saw kindness there. “Thank you,” he said. I asked him his name. “Ben,” he answered. I told him mine was Erica.
“It’s nice to meet you, Ben,” I added. “I hope you feel better soon.” He responded with a beautiful big smile and words that touched my heart: “I already do,” he said.
Nani and I turned and walked away, but we hadn’t gone far before I broke down and began sobbing. I knew I was crying because I was seeing Papa in that man. The empty ache I had felt since Papa’s death only intensified when I saw Ben with Papa’s disease. I couldn’t pretend everything was fine and keep a smile on my face.
But what disturbed me the most wasn’t the similarities between Ben and Papa, but rather the differences. No matter how ill Papa was or how lonely he might have felt at times, he was never truly alone—and I thank God for that. Papa had us—his family. We were always there for him. He had an incredible wife who never stopped doing everything she could to care for him and to make him as comfortable as possible. His children consistently looked out for his well-being. His sons-in-law supported him and showed him kindness. His grandkids loved him deeply.
Ben, on the other hand, was homeless and utterly alone. He had no one to take care of him. No one to cook for him, to bathe him. No one to cut his nails and trim his hair. No one to read to him. No one apparently cares for him at all—except for his heavenly Father, who loves him passionately.
But does he know this? I wonder. Does he know Jesus?
Dear Jesus, please be with Ben. Help him to find comfort in You. Help him to feel better. Thank You for the kindness I saw in his face. And please, help our family to heal after the loss of Papa. Amen.
Erica Ariza lives in Michigan with her husband, Pablo, who is a pastor. She is a social worker in maternal and infant health. This article was published February 24, 2011.