It was the middle of the day, sunny but chilly. Winter was well on its way. A couple more hours of light before dusk would settle, before anyone and everyone would hurry home, and melt into warmth and love.
My right earbud of my headphones is tucked in as my friend and I chat and laugh on the phone and I drive. I’m on my way home. The same road I take, every day. She’s mid-sentence as I look out to my left and my heart drops. I interrupt my friend, “I’m sorry, I have to go,” as I see him out there. Squatting against a cold, metal pole at the stoplight. His sunglasses look familiar. His haircut the same. The shape of his face. His cardboard sign the battle cry he’s been singing his whole life, “I need help. I’m trying to do better but I’m having a hard time.” I drop my phone in my lap. The light is red. So is the warning sign flashing inside my heart.
I slow to a stop, the second car in a line. Without thinking, I roll down my window and scream out his name. I don’t know if it’s him, but maybe it is. My throat feels like it’s closing and my voice is sharp and desperate. The guy squatting against the back of the onramp sign, lifts his shameful head from below and shakes it, left to right. It’s not him. I ask him his name and he says, “I’m Mike.” I’m not convinced that Mike isn’t who I am looking for. But I should have known in that moment it wasn’t, because the look on Mike’s face somehow seems sadder than just a second ago. Like I’m disappointed he isn’t who I’d hoped he’d be. Like he’s wishing someone who loved him was driving the streets, scouring strangers’ faces, shouting his name out of windows, searching for him.
The light turns green and the the car in front of me starts moving. I have to move. But I feel paralyzed. Afraid to leave the scene. Afraid to let go. Again, without thinking, I yell out the window to Mike, in the same shrill and desperate voice, “I’m sorry!”
And I am.
I’m sorry I didn’t find who I was looking for. I’m sorry the person I am looking for is living the life he is. I’m sorry Mike is leaning against cold, metal street signs, begging for help and a real life, exposing his addictions and vulnerabilities on a piece of cardboard. I’m sorry for myself, too. I’m sorry I have to feel so much and hurt so hard.
I pull over at our regular gas station, a couple blocks from home. I’m shaking. I’m realizing what I just did. I’m praying for Mike. I’m praying for the person I didn’t find. I’m exhausted. I call Jesse. He says, “Come home.” I do and I tell him everything. Everything that happened. Everything that didn’t that I wish did.
We get some extra blankets we have in the closet and go back out there. We drive by Mike’s spot. He’s not there. We drive up and down a few streets, looking for him. I want to give him the blankets so he knows that maybe I wasn’t looking for him, but I’m glad I found him. I want to show him warmth before the stars fill up the sky. But not tonight.
I’ve seen Mike a good amount of times since then. I’ve even talked to him a few times. I’ve offered hope and love the best way I know how. We finally got to give him those blankets and a sweatshirt. I’ve bought him water bottles and Clif Bars. Every time I see him, I pray someone is out there doing the same for the guy I was looking for on that sunny but chilly winter day. I pray someone is out there looking for their Mike and they find him instead. Offering him blankets and kindness and Jesus.