Angels in “The Swamp”

I stood anxiously with the others. We all waited, silently, many staring down at bright little screens, to board the long elevator down to the metro. None of us looked at each other, and the man with the sign didn’t look at us either. He didn’t call out, forcing us to acknowledge his existence, pushing us to feel the discomfort of witnessing suffering. He simply sat in his wheelchair outside the elevator with a smile on his face and a cardboard sign in his lap—something about an injury, something about needing help, something about God bless you.

We all boarded the elevator, packed like sardines, yet somehow still unaware of each other’s pulses. I let out a deep breath, and I tried to ignore the twinge in my chest thinking about the man with the sign. I thought about the man from five years ago who didn’t have a sign, but who had a kindness in his voice that left that twinge I felt with a gentle, sorrowed warmth.

I’m beginning to learn that I’m not good at goodbyes. I’ve lived nearly six years in our nation’s capital— also known as “the swamp” to those who haven’t taken the time to explore its beauties—and now within a few weeks, I’ll be headed out, on to the next chapter of my life. How does one make sense of ripping roots out of the ground? I figured I’d try to start in the same way I tried to begin to make sense of saying hello to this place. I’ve been looking around for this city’s stories and trying to find their words.

The man from five years ago is named Lou. I regret sharing that it took me close to five years to learn that. I still see him occasionally on my way into the office, or during my lunch break, but he’s no longer the man I had the chance to meet when I arrived for my first day on the job; when I walked right past him. He kindly spoke, “Excuse me, miss, I don’t mean to bother you, I’m just hoping to find something to eat.”

My dad came to visit me in D.C. for a week, and even saying goodbye to him after that time felt messy and verklempt. Life’s impermanence is heavy. Change is hard. We get root-bound, but then have to go through root shock before we learn to grow again.

Over the course of five years, I watched Lou begin to show the physical and emotional wear and tear of a life lived on the streets without reliable access to generosity or kindness. How many times can you watch people walk on by before starting to care a little less about keeping up your appearance, to be a little less able to speak from a place of love? How many times does it take before you start to lose your smile, start to talk to just yourself? By the time I asked Lou his name, by the time we got to share a sliver more of this life together than the hustle of my morning commute, he’d transformed into a stereotype of who we expect to see experiencing homelessness. I see him now, remembering the heart in how he used to approach those who passed him, and I can’t help but wonder—did we do this to Lou?

I ran across the street in an attempt to catch the elevator before the doors closed. It’s a long elevator. If you miss it, you wait a while for its return. I missed it—and he was there again when I did, the man in the wheelchair with the cardboard sign.

Saying goodbye to a place isn’t just tough emotionally, but the stress of logistics start to pile up, too. How am I going to move all of this across the country? What work projects do I need to finish before I hit the road? When am I going to schedule in my farewell gatherings and also have enough time to clean my apartment thoroughly for the next tenant? The weight of figuring all of this out has at times felt paralyzing, regardless of my excitement for the new adventure.

He sat peacefully just like the time I’d seen him before, looking ahead quietly with a smile, his sign on his lap. I was exhausted from work and felt like being invisible to the world, but it was just the two of us there, and my mind wandered back to Lou.

“Missed it!” I said to him. He had undoubtedly watched that elevator enough times to know the gravity of the situation, and took some time to laugh jovially about it with me.

We exchanged some dialogue about the metro elevator, about the weather, and then I asked him what his name was.

“Angel,” he responded.

His name was Angel, and I just happened to need one about then. It was one of those surreal moments in life that instantly throws you out of kilter for a moment. I thought back to a time on a different D.C. elevator when I was rundown leaving a client’s office. I’d recently been making sarcastic jokes to friends about the meaningless banter office folk share on elevators when a man entered and asked me, “How’s it going?” I pulled my sardonic script from my pocket and gave a lackluster, “Hey, at least it’s Friday! How are you?” The man responded, “These are the best days of my life.”

Angel asked me if I lived or worked in the neighborhood. He had seen me before. I told him I worked in an office up the way, and introduced myself to him.

“We know each other now,” he said, “Now we’re friends who can say hi.”

It was that easy. I wished Angel a lovely weekend, and boarded the elevator. I let myself feel the tears that crept down my cheeks as the metro picked up speed. My fellow passengers politely pretended they didn’t notice.

Saying goodbye is all roped up in our shared pains. That’s why even when it’s welcomed, it’s not necessarily easy. That moment with Angel reminded me that these sorrows, however, are in fact shared, and that that’s not something we should forget. The story of Angel versus the story of Lou is the story of the choices we have when it comes to sharing both the hurt and joy of humanity. The way we do will affect how the rest of our life is lived each time our days remind us of our mortality, each time our hellos move into their autumn and fall into our goodbyes.

I’ve lived a lifetime in this swamp, and soon, I will die and be born as a baby again, experiencing the heartbreaks and celebrations of figuring out how a life works, and looking for new angels in the swamp to teach me how. Where will I find them? I wonder. Who will give me cool on summer days and heat in winter’s chill? Will I have the courage to say hello? I wonder: Will I be that angel for someone?

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