What a pair of shackles and Nike swoosh taught me about gratitude
This morning found me at the hospital with one of my kids waiting to check in for a small, out-patient procedure. The number 699 flashed in red above the reception desk, I pulled number 714 and looked for a seat.
I scanned the chairs and noticed four men in matching orange jump suits scattered throughout the room. Sanitation workers? Prisoners? Nonchalant, I scanned the orange-suited men and saw that indeed they were prisoners, each of their wrists cuffed, their ankles bound in chains.
We took our seats just in front of one of the incarcerated. I offered a thick “excuse me” as I side-stepped his big, black shoes; noting the chain on his foot shackle hanging just over the turquoise blue Nike swoosh on his crossed feet. I thought to myself: that’s a powerful image.
In a voice that betrayed all attempt to hide her thrill, my 12-year-old whispers hard in my ear: “I’ve never been this close to a prisoner before.”
For both her benefit and my own, I turn around to engage with the cuffed man behind me. I want to communicate with him; to ask him what he has learned, and listen hard to how he answers. I want to know what helps him through his long days and what doesn’t.
I want to say, “Man, every morning when I wake and my vision starts to adjust to the light of day, I whisper to G-d: “Thank You for opening my eyes.” When I sit up for the first time, after laying defenseless for hours in the dark, I say: “Thank You G-d for releasing the bound.” I say these prayers and more every day and without exception, but, after meeting you today, I see that your eyes are open to worlds I cannot see, and that you, my brother are bound in ways that I am not… and will likely never be. There are a lot of things that I say a lot that I don’t mean as much as I could – not as much as I hope I will tomorrow.”
I want to bless him to pray like he means it in a new and deeper way too.
Instead, I reach into my purse and offer him a piece of gum.
In retrospect, a totally ridiculous attempt to demonstrate that every human deserves the opportunity to know what basic kindness feels like and enjoy the taste of chemically engineered spearmint.
He smiles warmly and says “No thank you.”
A minute later he and his mates are called to rise for their respective appointments. My heart flutters as I realize my opportunity for genuine communication has come to a rapid end. I turn my eyes downward not wanting any of them to notice me noticing them and how loud the sounds of their shackles are clinking on the stone sound as they shuffle past. Not wanting to shame them as I and the others around me study the armed guards at each of their sides.
“I hope that you’ll have chances to make good choices in your life brother. I hope that someone sees good in you and that you see it in yourself too” I blessed them, just loud enough for my daughter to hear and answer “amen.”
714. Our turn.
We rise, unencumbered, to greet the woman at the reception desk. A woman in a wheelchair seated to my right smiles at me as I move freely towards the reception desk with my arm draped around my daughter’s shoulder.
Grateful in a way that I have never been for the simple gift of standing without chains.