On Wednesday at 4:00 am
On Wednesday at 4:00 am, I drove Mark Combs to the airport. Mark came to live with me a year ago in August. He came to me with his eyes cast down and no trace of a smile. He had two pair of pants and two pair of shoes. He had three shirts. That was all he had to his name. Over the months, Mark began to smile and look me in the eye. I tried to bribe him to sleep in his bed. He never would. He slept on the floor for a year. Nor could I get Mark to really eat. He found something that he liked and would eat that until he grew sick of it. Cooking for him became pretty easy. Gradually over the months, Mark began to open up about his life before he got to my house. Little bits here and there. But, I never really learned everything that made Mark Mark. I worried about Mark constantly. I did not realize until last night, a day past his leaving, how much of my energy had gone towards worrying about this young man.
The terms for living at my house were: no lying, working three days a week, and getting into a college. Mark kept all of these terms. However, he chose not to go to college which killed me. He had a full ride, but he simply would not go. He did not see the need and did not want the debt which I kept explaining he would not have. He wouldn’t go. On Monday, I took him over to Niwanis’ on Jefferson to have James twist his hair one last time before he headed out. I asked James to give him and hour and a half of his best advice. He did. I think Mark heard some of it. Not sure about all of it.
His friend Solomon and he left for Phoenix , Arizona yesterday. They have an apartment that they are renting for 400.00 apiece. They are getting jobs when they get out there. They both have savings. Mark took a fully packed suitcase of clothes that will probably be too hot for Phoenix. I have no idea why they are going to Phoenix. Our ride out to the airport was sadly silent. I lectured my wisdoms on life again. Made him promise me that he would call Phillip to talk about saving for the future. When we got to the departure lanes, Mark wanted to do it alone. He did not want me to go in. We got out of the car. He said that he would miss me. And, we hugged each other. He told me that he loved me, and that was it.
A young man who had lived with me for a year simply walked away.
I kinda felt empty. I do not know what I expected- maybe a thank you. Maybe a “Wow, you sure did save me last year- thanks for taking me in.” But absolutely not one thing. When I took this on, I asked God if this were really what He wanted me to do. He wanted a single 54 year old white woman to take in (at first) two 18 year old boys of color. My mother was beyond words. The conversation among friends and acquaintances was that I had lost my mind. I thought that I was doing something that God put on my plate. It felt crazy. It was also scary. It was also way beyond me. I was very alone in this. I was on my own with this mounting responsibility. And, it got harder and harder. It was never easy. It was isolating. And, over time, my faith wore out.
I saw a boy give his $50.00 state issued Christmas gift card to his mother on the corner of 21st and Grand. I saw her turn her back and walk away. I was made aware of the inequity in life. I was made aware of prejudice. I had to ask tough questions and get tougher answers. I had to learn to be quiet to hear. I learned that a year of offering love and support cannot make up for a life with no guidance and no constant love. I learned that you cannot just love someone back to life. And, if they have already formed their opinion of what this life has for them- or can offer them, you can provide contact after contact to give him a leg up into a different world , but it won’t catch. It won’t catch, if there is no trust in either the system or white people or older people or just faith that there could be another way of life. I learned that, from his view, I spent a lot of time being busy. I learned that as hard as I tried, I could never get a hurt boy to sleep in a bed. I learned that I couldn’t just plop him into church. I learned that prayer can come across as fake. I learned that mistrust goes very very, very deep. I learned that gangs will try to get you no matter what your age. I learned that it is rough when you finally get your birth certificate to prove that you are alive and there is no name in the father spot. I saw what it felt like to be a ward of the state. I watched how it felt to be alone in this world. I watched a boy try to want a hug. I heard a boy ask me if he could call me, ‘MOM.” I heard a boy finally ask me for a hug. And, I saw a boy get out of the car and say I love you and walk away.
And, what was it all for? I hope that he makes it. I bet I never hear from Mark again. That is the wildest part of it all. After all of the working and working and working to make him whole, and after the looks and hurtful background noise I received about what I was doing, I simply found myself standing in faded jeans and a t-shirt at 4:28 on a September morning watching a person walk away. And, I didn’t even know if the year mattered to him. I wanted him to turn around and tell me that I had taught him things or that his life had been changed forever because of me. But, he simply walked out. I don’t think that I have the strength to ever do that again. I sure hope that that was God pushing me to do it, because , otherwise, I really was crazy. I have to hope and pray that Mark’s life was made more full over the past year. I have to hope that his silence was simply an 18 year old not knowing what to say. I have to hope that soon, I will look down to my phone, and Mark will have texted that he is doing great and that he is on solid ground and feels safe.
What I have learned on this long walk through this valley is a lesson I thought I already knew. But, I really didn’t. What I learned was what “to love others as yourself” truly means. Love is quiet. Love is overwhelming. Love is uncompromising. Love is isolating. Love is constant. Love is broad. Love requires strength. Love requires duty. Love demands accountability. Love does not choose.
So, I took a long walk with God this year. And, I learned love.
Kiss your babies, tell your parents you love them, and take a walk in the park with a friend.