midpoint (2006-49)

The tie that binds

Endings and Beginnings

by Stephanie Piper

The call comes at noontime, my cell phone pealing in my desk drawer, my heart jumping out of my chest as I scramble to answer it. And then my son’s voice, saying the only words I want to hear: Mom, the baby has arrived. She’s perfect. Mother and child are fine.

“She’s here,” I shout to no one in particular. She’s safe and healthy. My office fills with well-wishers. There are hugs and tears.  

The birth of our second grandchild, the first Piper girl since 1890, is cause for widespread rejoicing. I dispatch pink roses to the hospital in Providence and call my distant family and check airfares. I go to lunch and float along the downtown streets, resisting the urge to grab strangers by the arm and tell them my news. Our girl is here, and if I had access to a church bell, I would ring it loudly and long.

But it’s the phone that rings again, jangling insistently in my shoulder bag as I start on my Greek salad. More news. A man has died, a resident of the apartments owned by the shelter where I work. 

I didn’t know him, but I knew who he was. He used to sit at the bottom of the stairs, waiting for the bus. He was heavy and weary and in poor health, but he got up every day and went to work. He kept to himself and made no trouble. Like so many of the people who come to us, he had walked a long and lonely road. The small apartment was his safe haven. I was glad his road ended there, and not under a bridge.

But why today, I ask myself, hurrying back to the office. Why, on a day full of new life, this sudden jolt of mortality? I was all set for uncompromised joy. Now this.

Greg, the deceased man, has no kin here, so the apartment residents and staff arrange a memorial service. It is held in the dining hall, with his Bible and a bouquet of fall flowers set on a table.  

There are people to speak for him. They talk about his quiet kindness. They talk about how he went faithfully to work every day, despite his many ailments. They say he knew how to listen.

We sing “Amazing Grace.” And then a shelter regular makes his way to the piano. He’d like to do a song that reminds him of Greg, he tells us. He plays “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” with lots of pedal and flourish, and we join in the chorus: “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free. His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” 

I sit on a folding chair and watch the sun slant through the dining hall windows and wonder about the tie that binds a tiny, perfect newborn girl in Rhode Island to a 50-something, formerly homeless man in Tennessee. Did they pass on this bright October day in some celestial corridor, she on her way to us, he on his way home? Did they nod and smile and acknowledge their mysterious connection?

The little girl entered the world to the sound of rejoicing, phones ringing off the hook in Knoxville and Manhattan and London, hand-embroidered dresses at the ready, a full complement of grandparents and adoring cousins waiting on both sides of the Atlantic. The man left it to the final chorus of an old hymn played on a tinny piano, a few friends gathered to see him on his way. And yet it seems to me that on this day of arrivals and departures, they shared a common gift. Loving hands received them. Loving souls surround them. May it be so for all of us.