They had both wanted to meet each other. Neither of them had any money, so Tom’s old friends paid for bus tickets, cleaned off sofas, made lots of extra food, crossed their fingers, and helped it happen.
When I say they had no money, I don’t mean because they were budgeting for a two-week vacation, or because they had their savings tied up in stocks. I mean Tom came 500 miles from where he was living in a garage, making what he could off odd jobs and drinking to stay steady, with only a few dollars on him. His 22 year old daughter’s mom was moving from relative to relative on her way toward resettling near her aging parents about eight states away. Sarah, the daughter he’d never met, had no home, no job, and when her sandal strap broke we spent a solid twenty minutes in Wal-Mart trying to find wearable two dollar footwear. Sarah was tall, smiled easily, and moved comfortably through the unfamiliar neighborhood her mother had often described to her. She knew where she could find a job back in the mid-west, she had an idea of the work that might interest her. She had her mother somewhere, her hopes, and her health.
Tom, on the other hand, was not walking well, and couldn’t make it through the day without a drink. He’d spent a couple decades helping his aging mother through a long illness until her death. His own family’s affections for him were thin enough not to recognize the value of his years of care-giving, or the cost to him, a man who had no work history and was suddenly without a home, since they’d decided to sell the trailer he’d shared with his mother until she died.
It takes courage to be twenty-two years old and go see a father you’ve never met before. It takes courage to jump on a bus, break out of your world, and meet the neighbors and friends who’d been the closest family your mother had when her own family failed her.
It also takes courage to have no money, unsteady legs, failing hands that used to play as fluidly as Renbourn and Kottke, and welcome a daughter the world sees you as having failed into your heart. Tom put his arms around Sarah and told her how glad he was to meet her. He told her stories, played her songs, and made her feel as welcome as he could sitting in someone else’s home, a homeless man with nowhere to go and an addiction he could not disguise from a daughter he’d dreamed of someday meeting.
Sarah and I had dinner with the man who was her mother’s birthing coach, a man who just stepped in because someone needed to, the way ordinary people sometimes become heroes. We talked and laughed and told stories, the way families at their best must be able to do. We took pictures with our arms around each other on the porch of the house where she was born. We walked her through the streets that had called to both her parents, and played her the music that had been the center of the world.
One of us bought her a plane ticket when the visit was over, so she could avoid the long bus trip back to the mid-west. Another couple of us talked to Tom and calculated that his interest in going to a rehabilitation clinic was strong enough that it was worth kicking together the money. Maybe meeting his daughter helped motivate him, or maybe he just had no choice, but he’s there now, unraveling years of a hard habit.
Tom got lucky with a waitress 22 years ago, but he got a lot luckier 22 years later, when a wind of fresh forgiveness circled through a small group of friends who couldn’t have known how much good making small gestures and smiling in the right places could do. Sarah, somewhere back in the mid-west, holding the photograph of all of us on the porch, probably thinks of us as family. And lucky for us, at least for a moment, we were.