After finishing the MLK march today, I walked back down MLK Avenue toward the church we had started from. There were still some people along the road, groups of women and children mostly, some with cloths spread out and picnic fixings on the streetside for the kids. The holiday atmosphere still prevailed, with strangers greeting each other with “Happy King Day!”
My friends picked me up and rode me back to the church just as a bathroom was getting more urgently necessary, and when we got there, I said goodbye and turned to go around the church to the field next door, where my car was. At the smaller door to the right of the main door, a middle-aged man in a heavy coat was shaking the locked door handle desperately. He seemed to be in pain, clearly wanted to get in somewhere, and it was bloody cold still. I asked him if he was all right and he said, no, he wasn’t. He said he couldn’t find… he needed to go…I asked him where he needed to go, and he said, “I need to go to the hospital,” and I just said, “Well, let’s go.” He was limping. I put my arm under his to support him and we got to my car, where it was warm from the sunshine, and got him into the seat. He was still in obvious pain. He said “both my legs are cramping,” and then he told me he was homeless and a diabetic and hadn’t eaten for two days. I had a $20 in with my loose coins in the console of the car, and I said, “Well, I happen to have this, you take it and get a meal today. You need to eat,” and he quietly took it. It vanished in his coat.
“Where do you want to go, St. Mary’s?” I asked, and said, “No, Fort Sanders,” in old central Knoxville. “I tried to get there yesterday but the buses wasn’t running on account of it was Sunday.”
So in the brilliant, cold sunshine I drove the car along the Eastern section of Knoxville, crossed the old Clinch Ave. viaduct at the heart of the city and entered Fort Sanders. We were talking about living and dying and he said, “I don’t want to live. I done tried to kill myself 13 times and my luck’s so bad I can’t die.” On Summit Hill, we passed a housing complex and he said, “My mama live down there. I asked her if I could live with her and she said no. When I was 13 years old she married a man, she didn’t know what he was, but he came after me at night and she told me to get out. She thowed me out and from 13 to 15 I was out on these streets right here. Every night men would come after me, different men, and they’d say, ‘You too young to be on the street,’ and they’d take me home and then, one night I woke up and there was two of ’em on me. I can’t forget it. I just want to be someplace warm where nobody ain’t touching me. I can lock all the doors and the windows in a place and I still can’t stop shaking.”
I asked him how old he was. He said 53. He told me his name. And then he said this, “Today I wanted to die and then you come along. You my ram in the bushes.” “What?” I asked, “What do you mean?” “You remember that old story ’bout Abraham and how he found a ram in the bushes so he didn’t have to kill his son. Well you’re my ram in the bushes.” I laughed, “I’ve been called many things but I’ve never been called that,” I said.
We got to the hospital, had to drive around the block to get to the emergency entrance. After I pulled up and asked him if he could make it on his own through the door, and he said yes, he said, “I want you to do one thing for me,” which really took me aback because who knew what he might want? I didn’t have any more money. “I want you to pray for me.”
I started to say, “I will pray for you,” even though I do not pray, but then I realized he wanted me to pray with him right now, in the car, before he got out. So I took his hands and pretended to be a much better person than I am, and I prayed over him for his comfort, for him to get pain relief for his cramp and a good meal and a place to sleep tonight, and that tomorrow would be better. And he began to weep, tears falling on his thin brown wrist sticking out of his coat sleeve, and he said, “Lord, please forgive me for my life, please, forgive me.” He must have said it six or seven desperate times. And although I do not pray, after listing the things I hoped would come to him, I finished with, “In Jesus’ name,” because I thought that was what he needed to hear. And he opened the car, and we looked into each other’s eyes for a long moment, and he walked toward the emergency room door.
I just wanted to write this down before I forget the details.