A boy once told me I was terrible at making eye contact. We were in the university cafeteria, and I swear I was listening, but my eyes were flitting about the busy space, landing back on him every few seconds. Our friendship never recovered his innocent observation, as I became incredibly self-conscious of what my eyes were doing all the time. I didn’t want to suddenly start making constant eye contact, so I ended up swinging between intensely staring and completely ignoring him during our conversations.
Over the years, I attempted to get over my eye contact phobia. And I did, with people I knew and trusted. But eye contact is so gutsy. It makes you completely vulnerable to the other person. I wasn’t sure I had the courage to go there with people I didn’t have a history with.
Then I got addicted to steeped tea.
I love the steeped tea from Tim Hortons with my whole heart. You can practically see the Canadian flag flapping proudly from my igloo, can’t you? I get one almost every day. Let me tell you, that $1.80 is well worth it.
The Tim Hortons closest to my home has a drive-thru. Every so often, a homeless person would be sitting next to screen where I would order. He would usually be holding a sign, pleading for work, or food or money. My boys were instantly curious, and I struggled to explain homelessness in words a two- and five-year-old could comprehend.
I began purchasing gift cards to pass on to the men while I was in line. It was a pitifully small gesture, but I wanted them to count on a sandwich and hot cup of coffee for the day. I always received a fervent “God bless you” in return.
I began seeing someone shivering next to the ordering screen every time I rolled into the drive-thru. I kept running out of gift cards and found myself averting the man’s eyes as I inched my vehicle forward. Sometimes I would drive to another location; the need just felt too overwhelming. I mean, was I making even a shred of difference?
Last week, we were at our regular Tim Hortons, and there was yet another man begging. The sign he held indicated he was looking for work. Close by, another sign had “RIP Gary” scrawled on it in bold, black letters. I was out of gift cards, and I turned to talk to my boys so I wouldn’t have to meet his gaze. But my oldest son stared straight at him.
“Mommy, don’t we have anything to give that man without a home?”
Oh, my heart.
I pulled up to order my regular tea and added a gift card. I was forced to park my vehicle and walk over. It was lunch time and the drive-thru line was eight cars long and growing rapidly. I would have to walk past all these people, in my decade-old lavender sweatshirt and sleep-deprived, make-up free face. I left the car running and took a deep breath.
I was walking over, so he had no choice but to raise his gaze and meet mine. I awkwardly stuck out my hand and introduced myself. I wanted to give him the card and run away, but the sign I had seen was bothering me.
“Did you make that sign?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered, and his eyes immediately filled with tears. He had lost his friend, Gary, just a day earlier. As he wondered out loud if anyone would remember Gary, his sorrow was so palpable, I felt tears prick the corners of my eyes. There was nothing I could do. Nothing I could say, no pat response I would dare offer. So I crouched down next to his yellow backpack, locked my eyes on his and sat there in the pain with him.
I let his eyes gift me a piece of his story. A story of a man mourning a friend on a cold day.
I jogged back to the car to the squawks of my children, requesting I play their favourite song for the gazillionth time. As the chirpy voices filled the vehicle, I broke down. For a man who was missing his friend. For Gary, who had died feeling alone and hopeless. For eye contact made over asphalt and the smell of running car engines.
When we got home I lit a candle for Gary. I stared at the dancing flame as I spread smooth peanut butter on crisp stalks of celery. And I prayed peace over Gary and for his friend who was missing him.
Eye contact is hard.
It’s hard to invite someone into your pain. And goodness, is it ever hard to be invited into someone else’s pain. But we do it. Sometimes because it’s a person we love. Sometimes because a friend tells us we’re terrible at it. And sometimes because we hope our boys will see us making awkward eye contact, and learn the simple humanity of bearing one another’s burdens. Even in the drive-thru.