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“The Stairway to Love,” Part 2 – A Christmas Story by Linda Penton

December 28, 2013

Our new Children’s and Youth Ministry Coordinator, Linda Penton, has many artistic gifts, including a wonderful ability to tell stories, as shown by her book, Herding Beans: Short Stories from My Walk with God. For the last twenty years, she’s written a story for her family at Christmas time. I asked Linda if she would share this year’s story with us, her Parish family at St. Paul’s, and she was happy to do so. Many thanks, Linda, for sharing “The Stairway to Love” with us to stir our hearts this Christmastide!

I posted the first part of this story on December 21. You can access it by clicking here. The second part of the story is embedded below.

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The Stairway to Love, Part 2

He found her still sound asleep when he woke up and left her there as he sat reading in a chair across the room. She turned a couple of times. Once she had risen, muttering and fighting off some invisible foe. But it wasn’t until the sun came into the west window bathing the room in the golden glow of sunset that she finally stretched like a cat in the warmth and opened her eyes. Shock and confusion registered there in waves on her face as she surveyed the scene around her. Tom could tell she didn’t remember, at first, what had transpired there during the wee small hours of the night.  Then as her eyes came to rest on him recollection dawned and she clutched the blanket closer.

“You!” she uttered in a cracked voice rusty from the cold she had suffered and the long sleep. “Whadd’ya want with me?”

Tom replied vehemently “I don’t want anything with you! Except to save you from freezing or being beaten to death.”

“Why?” she croaked.

“Well, call me stupid but I don’t like to find frozen bodies outside my window if I can do something to help it.” Tom was being sarcastic now.

“You some kinda perv. or something?”

“No, I’m Tom Rigby and this is my apartment.” He answered more calmly. She sat up and saw the pile of freshly laundered clothing on the arm of the couch. “Why ‘re ya doin’ this for me? I’m a nothing, a nobody t’ you. Why d’ ya’ care?” the tears were flowing again as she gathered the fresh laundry into her arms and buried her face in them.

Tom gently touched her bowed head as he asked her if she remembered anything about the evening before? Rubbing the side that the waiter had kicked  she nodded. Over the next hour they pieced together the events that had brought her to his apartment. Finally he suggested she get dressed while he would make an omelette.

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Much earlier he had decided that there would be no Christmas Eve party for him this year and he had gone out quietly to pick up a few groceries at the corner store. He didn’t quite understand but he felt responsible for her in some way, like she was a long lost relative or something. He also knew he could not turn her back out into the cold, not just because it was Christmas Eve, but because he had muttered, “There but for the grace of God go I!”

Over the next few days, while Tom was off work, he watched the colour come back to the frost bitten cheeks. Her hair fell in shining blond curls to frame her face once more and the cracks deep as knife wounds and swelling from infection in her hands began to heal.  She attempted to clean the dirt that had become imbedded under her nails and she even laughed once at some funny show on TV.

At first she had argued with him and tried to leave every day but finally he had convinced her to stay, at least until he had to return to work. After three or four days they had fallen into a routine where he cooked meals and she cleaned. They played cards in the afternoon and read quietly or watched TV in the evening. By day six they finally ventured out for a short walk around the block because she seemed to have regained some strength but by the time they made it back to the apartment she was weak as a kitten and shivering uncontrollably from the cold.

“Now you’ve done it!” She complained, I’m getting as soft as a spring chicken and I’ll die for sure out in the cold now!”

Tom rounded on her with anger in his face and tone, “Well I thought that’s what you wanted. So I guess you should say thank you and go!” He ended harshly turning back to finish peeling the potatoes he was cooking for their New Years Eve supper.

“Yea, Thanks a lot!” Then he heard the door slam and the clatter of her boots on the fire escape as she made tracks for the alley below.

“OH Dang!” Tom dropped the knife into the potato pot and ran after her with nothing more than a hand towel over his shoulder.

He caught up with her half a block away and grabbing her jacket from behind he swung her around to face him, “What do you think you’re doing?” he shouted at her. “You’re not strong enough to walk around the block but you’re just going to take off, without your extra coat or your stuff.”

Her hands still displaying painful cracks from her long stay out doors curled up in a defensive motion. She was shaking all over and crying soundlessly. Tom felt like such a brute as he gathered her in and just stood holding her while she clung to the front of his shirt like a drowning person clings to a piece of flotsam.

Eventually, the cold seeped into his back and he began to guide her back toward the fire escape. He got them back up into the warmth of the apartment and ordered her to “SIT!” as he went to pour two shots of brandy. He came back to force the glass into her shaking hands and sat down beside her. He put an arm around those emaciated shoulders, quietly pulled her toward him. After her sobs had subsided he urged her to drink the brandy and told her he had no intention of forcing her back out onto the street. “You can stay with me here for as long as you want.”  he ended emphatically.

“But I can’t! I have no money to pay you and I’m more than a little crazy most of the time!” she protested.

“I don’t need your money. You eat like a bird and I’d just spend it on booze at the bar or gamble it away playin’ cards.” He justified, “At least this way it does some good and besides I kind of like your company.”

She looked up at him then, big blue eyes still swimming in tears, “You like my company!?” she repeated with wonder in her voice.

“Yeh, strange eh! Filthy old ‘Bag Lady’ freezing on the street and here comes me, ‘Big Hero’, to the rescue. Now I can’t explain it and I don’t know how it happened but this here so called ‘Hero’, is the one who really needed rescuing from loneliness and bad habits and you, ‘Bag Lady’, are the princess charming who has wormed your way into my life.”

A year later, on Christmas Eve a small crowd of friends gathered in the alley behind the apartment building to celebrate. The minister stood on the bottom step of the fire escape stairs, with the old sleeping bag hung up as a back drop. Lucy was holding the old back pack but now it was stuffed to overflowing with flowers. In the bottom of the pack, under the bridal flowers, her old identification cards and the pictures of the man and the boy smiling over their catch were the only vestiges left of Lucy’s former life. When they had repeated their “I do’s” Tom swept Lucy, back pack, flowers and all into his arms and carried her up the two flights of the fire escape stairs back into the warmth of the apartment that was now their home. The chattering crew of friends soon followed them to stand in a circle around them as they drank a toast to the Bride and Groom.

Lucy felt her husband’s arms come around her as he leaned in for a kiss and when she opened her eyes she saw the circle that these new friends had formed  around them. A circle of friendship, love and support, defence against mental illness, loneliness, pain and sorrow.  Oh, she understood all too well that there would be hard times in the future but she also understood now that she was strong enough to survive anything because she was accepted and needed. She had become a part of that circle. She belonged to a community, she was needed and loved as Tom’s wife but she also understood that she was valued for herself and who she had become during the last year.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

POST SCRIPT

I was inspired to write this story as a result of hearing a radio broadcast about an organization hoping to end homelessness in ten years.

The characters are fictional, however they are comprised of the combined personalities of people I have known and portray the difficulties encountered by so many of the homeless people I have been fortunate to encounter and become friends with while working on the downtown streets of the City of Calgary.

I dedicate this story to Danny One Owl and his wife Mary, Mark, Fred, Crazy Sally, Terry B and Terry O, Ron Beard, Blaine and all those dear men and women who live rough in parks and under bridges, as well as all those who survive on grates behind buildings or in doorways whose names I don’t know but whose stories I have heard. For all who spend days riding the trains, or reading in the library or moving from one store to another in the pursuit of warmth.

It is my premise that homelessness will persist as long as there is no treatment for the mentally ill or brain injured, and no help for family violence, prejudice and disrespect for the rights of others. The statistics bear out that only two percent of people find a happy ending such as I have portrayed in this story.

However, each person on the street has a story to share that will break your heart, and the only thing that will help them is genuine unconditional LOVE.

Linda Penton

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The sculptures in this posting, and in Part One of this story, are by the wonderful Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz.

The man and woman in the photos in this posting are Ricky Smith and Jill May, who lived together on the streets in San Francisco for 10 years. Linda in her postscript says, “statistics bear out that only two percent of people find a happy ending such as I have portrayed in this story.”  Tragically, Jill is one of the 98 per cent. She was burned to death in 2007 at the age of 49 by a drug dealer. To learn more about the lives and love of Jill and Ricky, you can click here.

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