Tom - The Rest of the Story

We were waiting in the parking lot of a diner that morning. My stomach was churning with anticipation and apprehension. This could be the day. I watched as Tom crossed the four lane highway with caution, thumbs in the straps of his backpack, which literally was bursting at the seams with every possession he had in the world. I waved and he came over and slid into the car. Without any preamble, I said, “The apartment will be all set today. Are you ready?”

A year ago, we shared a story about our friend Tom – he was living underneath a bridge and we were enduring a long wait for some documentation to secure him housing. Tom started to lose hope that anything could change. He didn’t know what his life would become once he received an apartment, once he was stable… he couldn’t see the road ahead.

This is the story of that road. Tom is an almost impossibly thin man but his hugs are almost a vice grip, tight and unabashed. And in that car, in that diner parking lot, he hugged me fiercely and wept.

He was ready for this bold step forward into his own future.

We got to the Samaritan Center and armed ourselves with coffee and donuts. Tom and I sat down with his fabulous new caseworker from Catholic Charities, who would be providing this apartment. Together, we began the necessary task of paperwork. Tom called his sister, sharing his good news, blotting away the forming tears with his ring finger. We packed him food and extra kitchen supplies, extra hygiene products and socks. On the way, we stopped to get him some coffee from his sister’s favorite local shop. He marveled at the idea of being able to offer his sister a cup of coffee.

In the car, Tom asked to turn up the radio and sang at the top of his lungs along to an 80s rock band. I had never heard the song before, and couldn’t recall it now, but I’ll never forget that moment – Tom was radiating joy and excitement.

His tiny, efficiency apartment was a miracle to him – each drawer was open and shut, each light turned on and off, each cranny a treasure to be explored. We filled empty shelves, unpacked the few treasures Tom had and started brewing that first pot of coffee.

Perhaps the most miraculous part of that sunny afternoon was this: moments after Tom was settled, his neighbors started to come, neighbors that Tom had known from his many years outside. A handsome Irishman gave him a huge hug, two women in brightly colored shirts waved from across the way. And then, with most of his weight resting on a cane, came Ricky, who was in Tom’s camp for years. Only about fifteen years his senior, Ricky had told me before that he often saw Tom as a son. They embraced as only brothers could.

Somewhere in this moment, I was reminded of the old tale of Stone Soup. A vagrant or sometimes a trickster, in some versions, comes and promises a delicious soup made of stone. Townspeople come forth to offer a bit of garlic or onion, a few carrots, to add to the soup. The story comes to mind often at the Samaritan Center (perhaps for obvious reasons). The heart of the story is people coming together, sharing resources and building something more hearty, more substantial, together then they could on their own.

Surrounded by caseworkers, care givers, friends, people that had suffered and survived as he had, Tom simply glowed. Ricky produced an old radio as a gift for Tom. A gift to welcome him home.

Stone Soup. The Samaritan Center. It’s always been about more than a meal. The stories tell us that we, as individuals, start with nothing much at all. But it is together, it is in the very foundation of community, that we find our purpose, our flavor, our destiny. The soup is the promise of coming to the table, of connecting, of building something together, of providing for one another.

That first week in his new apartment, Tom invited his friends and new neighbors over for a barbeque. He shared hot dogs and hamburgers. And probably played a lot of 80s rock.