Jack Kornfield is a Buddhist teacher, and the founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, California. He shared this story with us, written by a woman.
It was Sunday. Christmas, our family spent the holidays in the Bay Area, but in order to be back to work on Monday we had to drive the four hundred miles back to LA on Christmas Day. Normally an eight-hour drive but with kids it can be a fourteen hour endurance test. When we could stand it no longer, we stopped for lunch in King City – a little metropolis of six gas stations and three diners. Road weary, saddle sore, I sat Eric, our one-and-a-half-year-old, in a high chair and looked around and thought “What am I doing in this place on Christmas Day?” It was nearly empty. We were the only family.
My reverie was interrupted when I heard Eric squeal with delight and glee. “Hi there!” Two words he thought were one word. “Hi there! Hi there!” He pounded his fat baby hands (Whack! Whack!) on the metal high chair tray. His face was alive with excitement, eyes wide, gums bared in a toothless grin. He wriggled and chirped, and then I saw the source of his merriment, and my eyes couldn’t take it in all at once. A tattered rag of a coat, obviously bought by someone else long ago; dirty, greasy, worn baggy pants; the zipper at half-mast over a spindly body; toes that poked out of the old shoes; a face like none other – gums as bare as Eric’s, whiskers too short to be called a beard, and a nose (varicose) that looked like the map of New York.
I was too far away to smell him but I knew he smelled. And his hands were waving in the air, flapping about on loose wrists. “Hi there, baby! Hi there, big boy! I see you, Buster.” My husband and I exchanged a look that was a cross between “What are we doin’?” and “Poor devil.” Eric continued to laugh and answer “Hi there! Hi there!” Every call was echoed.
I noticed waitresses’ eyebrows shoot to their foreheads and several people were going “Hmm … umm” out loud. This old geezer was creating a nuisance with my beautiful baby. I shoved a cracker at Eric and he pulverized it on the tray. I began to get upset.
Our meal came. The cacophony continued. Now the old bum was shouting from across the room “Do you know Pat-a-cake? Atta, boy! Do you know Peek-a-boo, Peek-a-boo? Hey look, he knows Peek-a-boo!” Really loud. Nobody thought it was cute. The guy was drunk, and a disturbance, and I was embarrassed. My husband was humiliated. Even our six-year-old said “Why is that old man shouting and talking so loud?”
We ate in silence, all except Eric, who was running through his repertoire for the admiring applause of a skid row bum. Finally I had enough. I turned the high chair. Eric screamed and clamoured around to face his buddy. Now I was mad. Dennis went to pay the cheque, imploring me to get Eric and meet me out in the parking lot.
I trundled Eric out of the high chair and looked toward the exit. The old man sat poised and waiting, his chair directly between me and the door. “Lord, let me out of here” I thought, “before he speaks to us.” It soon became obvious that the Lord and Eric had other plans. As I drew closer to the man, I turned my back, walking to sidestep him. And as I did so, Eric, all the while with his eyes riveted to his new best friend, leaned far over my arm, reaching with both arms in a baby’s pick-me-up position.
In a split second of balancing my baby and turning to counter his weight, I came eye-to-eye with the old man. Eric was lunging for him, arms spread wide. The bum’s eyes both asked and implored “Would you let me hold your baby?” There was no need or way for me to answer since Eric propelled himself from my arms into the man’s. Suddenly a very old man and a very young baby consummated their love relationship. Eric laid his tiny head upon the man’s ragged shoulder. The man’s eyes closed. I saw tears hover beneath his lashes. Aged hands full of grime and pain and labour so gently cradled my baby’s bottom and back. I stood awestruck. The old man rocked and cradled Eric in his arms for a moment, and then his eyes opened. He said, in a commanding voice as he looked directly at me, “You take care of this baby.” Somehow I managed “I will … I will” from a throat that contained a stone. He pried Eric from his chest – unwillingly, longingly – as though he was in pain. “God bless you, ma’am. You’ve given me my Christmas gift.”
I said nothing more than a moderate thanks. With Eric back in my arms, I ran for the car. Dennis wondered why I was crying and holding Eric so tightly. And why I was saying “How could I have forgotten? How could I have forgotten?”