I’ve had occasion lately to wonder about kitchen tables.  My grandfather’s kitchen table recently travelled from Philadelphia to live in my kitchen here in Syracuse.  There are ghosts that linger around the laminate wood piece: of meals and of memories and of people, greatly loved, that are long gone.  They dine with me, even as I sit alone.

At the Samaritan Center tables, the shadow of even more men and women remain.  There’s Stephan, who followed a job down south.  There’s Angie, who needed us after her husband suddenly left her and her four children, until she got on her feet again.  There’s Terry, who ate with us for years while she was homeless on the streets of Syracuse, but now fills her days with volunteering for a local food pantry.  There’s Dominic, who after years of struggling with mental illness, was finally receiving the treatment he needed, until he suddenly had a heart attack and died.

Perhaps the spot at the table that feels most empty in my heart is Jack’s.  His Native American face was heavily lined and asymmetrical with stroke, but his grin was always wide.  His gaunt arms were always gesturing wildly, as he enveloped his friends around the breakfast table in another story.  The small group met most every morning, to sip their coffee and catch up.  Jack was kind and welcoming to a fault, often taking homeless folks in to stay in his small efficiency apartment.  He confided in me that he hated the night and being alone.  Alone, he was haunted by the memory of his wife, comforted only by a bottle.

During our long conversations, I would often try to wind our conversations back to getting treatment for his alcoholism.  For about a decade before we met, Jack was sober and even served as a peer counselor, before falling off the wagon.  I offered resources to my friend, tried to inspire him again for a journey towards recovery but he would just smile sadly at me.  You’re young, he said, and don’t understand.  I miss my wife.  I’m so tired of being sad.  My life is behind me- I drink because I want to die.  And when he looked at my stricken face, he’d pat my hand in comfort and tell me how much he loved me.  And tell me that throughout the long night, what he most looked forward to was dawn and a hot breakfast at the Samaritan Center.  Where he felt like he belonged.

Whispers came to me through his friends and fellow guests.  They had found Jack in an alleyway, alone and dead.  My heart weighed at the thought of him turning cold with the night air.  I still grieve for my friend, for his stories, for his companionship, and for the others that loved him as I did.  I grieve for the story that could have been for Jack.

That long last night in an alley is not Jack’s story.  The real story is in the table, with his friends that loved him and shared a cup of coffee.  The real story is that he was accepted, with all of his demons and all of his grace.  There was once a table where he lived and laughed, where he was welcomed, where he was well fed and well loved.