In contemplation of a new Christmas, I offer a true tale of redemption and hope.
When I was a boy, my mother owned a white MGB convertible. It looked like a bullet carved out of cream cheese, sounded like an earthquake and moved like a cheetah when she put it through its paces on Commonwealth Avenue. She was a law student at the time, and the inside of the car looked like a bomb went off in a courtroom: papers everywhere, legal textbooks stacked on the floor, yellow legal pads overflowing with outlines crowding the trunk. It was her favorite thing.
Late one night, a Boston College student suffering from severe emotional and addiction issues came walking down our street with a can of gasoline and a pack of matches, looking for a place to die. He found my mother’s car sitting unlocked in the driveway, let himself in, and closed the door. He covered himself with the tweed coat she had left on the passenger seat, poured the gas, and popped a match. I woke that night to the sound of engines and the sight of red lights heliographing across my ceiling. Every fire truck in the world was in front of my house. The MGB was on fire from bumper to bumper in the driveway. Three firefighters were holding up the back end while a fourth put the hose to the gas tank. They beat the flames back eventually, and it sat there on four melted tires hissing like a scalded cat. My mother’s favorite thing looked like something that had fallen from space.
One of the firefighters pried open the door. The car was empty. Well, almost empty.
Inside was a massacre of paper: Books incinerated, legal pads soaked beyond recognition, everything destroyed. This was a multi-tiered disaster because my mother’s law school finals were right around the corner. A law student without outlines is a chef without a kitchen. The only things to survive the conflagration were a slightly charred book on torts and her stout old Black’s Law Dictionary. Eventually, they hauled it away, leaving only a black scorch mark on the pavement and some heat-twisted coins on the lawn. Everything else was gone.
One week later to the day, just after dark, there was a knock on our front door. My mother opened it to find a scruffy young man standing there with his head down. “Can I help you?” my mother asked. The man pointed his finger at the two charred books on the floor of the entryway — the survivors of the fire we’d left there because they still reeked of the blaze — and said, “I’m responsible for this.”
She brought him into the kitchen, sat him down, and got his story. As it turns out, he was living with severe depression, and had been self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. His whole life had collapsed around him, and came to my mother’s car fully intending to die by his own hand. When the first flames kissed his skin, however, he fled. He was there that night to confess, and to have my mother deliver him to the police. He sat at our table awaiting his fate.
My mother looked him up and down, got his information, and told him to get out. “Come back here in one week,” she said. “Don’t make me have to find you.” He walked out in a daze, like someone on the executioner’s stage whose headsman had forgotten the axe. During that intervening week, my mother consulted with family, friends, medical professionals and even a priest trying to decide what to do.
A week later, the man returned, and found himself once again in our kitchen. My mother handed him the name and number of a psychiatrist affiliated with his school, and then delivered her demands. You will go see this person, she told him. You will get into treatment, and you will complete that treatment. I don’t have to tell you what will happen if you don’t follow through on this. He walked out of our house that night with a look on his face like he’d been hit with a sledgehammer made of Silly Putty.
The man entered and completed treatment. His condition was diagnosed and dealt with. He overcame his substance abuse issues. Not long after, he moved to Chicago and opened a series of clinics designed to help disadvantaged children living with the same conditions he himself had endured. We got gushing Christmas cards from him for a number of years, but eventually he faded away into the new fate he had found, beginning at our kitchen table.
My mother passed her law school finals. She replaced the cream cheese MGB with an older red version that had three windshield wipers, but eventually retreated into the safer realm of Hondas and Subarus. Years later, the scorch mark was still visible in the driveway the day she sold the house. I still see MGBs on the road from time to time, and I always wince a little. Dammit, I say to myself, that would have been mine someday.
The feeling passes quickly, and instead I contemplate the filaments of hope, healing and redemption spiraling out from that moment in the kitchen. My mother helped him, he helped himself, and went on to help others, who helped others, who helped others. There is no accounting for the number of lives that have been positively affected by that one selfless act.
Think on this today, if you will. These are grim times to be sure, but within reach of your arm is the capacity to do more simple good than you can possibly imagine. Nothing stops; the ripples from an act of kindness or courage extend ever outward. Throw the rock into the pond and see where those ripples go. The life you save may be your own.