IT’S HARD TO SEE the light within us until someone holds up a mirror to help us reflect.
Over the past three decades, I watched my younger brother, Adam, deteriorate from musician and high-functioning bipolar to exhausted alcoholic. In November, he was found dead in a cold New York City subway stairwell.
The coroner just recently called to say my brother had seven times the legal limit of alcohol in his system, which stopped his weak heart.
Adam, who was homeless, often told me that he was “drinking away the darkness.” He was so blinded by others’ light that he failed to see his own.
My brother believed that his light had gone out.
I’ve written before that the homeless are invisible to most people. We don’t want to see them; they make us uncomfortable. By shining a light on them, I hope people will be forced to open their eyes.
Because of the last piece I wrote about my brother, at Thanksgiving, other homeless people and shelter workers who read his story online contacted me to say they’d met him in his final years.
Adam would have been shocked to learn that he was their light. His self-deprecating jokes, guitar playing and sketches on pieces of cardboard, handed out freely at shelters and on the street, brought joy to others.
Hearing that, I resolved to hold up a mirror for others who are walking around in the dark.
A veteran in North Carolina who had been stationed in Hampton Roads and has been homeless off and on since 1981 contacted me through Twitter. Many street people find a kind of safe invisibility online as they spend countless hours in public libraries while waiting for shelters to reopen at night.
On Twitter, this veteran uses the handle “Occupy_Homeless.” “You good folks that are not from our tribe, seldom understand,” he said. “Being invisible can be safer at times, but we need to be visible and you need to keep writing that. Please. It’s hard for us to trust, but I trust you to do that.”
Darkness isn’t reserved for street people, though. Last week during the weekly chess night at a Norfolk community center, I noticed one of the regulars, a young, divorced father, sitting alone in a corner.
He’s always been one of the lights in the room. Seeing him go completely dark shook me up.
He works hard at a blue-collar job and still makes time to bring his son every Wednesday evening, from another city, so they can learn the game side by side.
This man’s quiet presence speaks of hope for fatherhood, community, the mending of broken families and broken dreams.
He told me that his problem that night was a weight familiar to many: Finances. Self-worth. Family issues.
Sometimes sharing your own story can help other people pull themselves together, so I told him mine.
I told him about Adam and my pain over feeling that I had failed him.
Then I told him that seeing him with his son, and all the promise they held, helped me look away from my darkness and into their light.
He needed to know that he was a light.
As soon as it sank in, his eyes told me his spark was still there.
Sometimes we need to take that few moments to recognize when someone’s gone dark and stoke them up.
In addition to being a light, we are all mirrors for each other. We reflect what we see. To be the best reflections we can be, we cannot be blind to the suffering of others.