We don’t go to church every Sunday, only when we can pull it off. Even then, sometimes it doesn’t work out so well.
“I’m tired of being stared at,” my husband Bob says. Like recently after the morning service, when a teenage girl wearing a strapless red satin gown stood gawking while we exited the church and made our usual brave attempt at appearing approachable. (“Is that dress appropriate for 10:00 A.M., do you think?” Bob whispers to me. “But aren’t you glad nobody’s telling her she can’t come here dressed like that?” I whisper back.)
For the past several months we’ve been trying out a new church, Lutheran this time. Nobody there is mean or rude. They’re nice people, even welcoming. The church is in a suburb of Phoenix that is financially secure and barely integrated. And though both Bob and I come from backgrounds that match that description, the members of this congregation don’t seem to know what to do with us. We do understand their confusion; our family is a hodge-podge of ages, skin tones and (with service dogs in tow) mammalian species, a kind of unscripted performance art.
Bob and I are white, and our two dependent adult children are black. Among us, we have several variously visible handicapping conditions, some of them baffling to the casual observer. The kids each have a service dog. Tony’s is an 85-pound golden/poodle mix named Dude. Dara’s dog, Penny, is a Corgi, still sparky with happy-puppy energy. We arrive early to scope out a seating arrangement that allows both room for the dogs to curl themselves out of the way of foot traffic and a direct line of retreat should we need it. So far we haven’t needed it, but it’s only a matter of time.
Dara has diabetes, the sort that used to be called “brittle,” meaning it is harder than usual to control. Service dog Penny is our latest attempt at an early-warning system to let us know when Dara’s blood sugars are climbing to dangerous levels or falling toward sudden unconsciousness. Penny alerts Dara by tugging a knotted bandana from her pocket, after which a finger-prick blood test confirms the need to take action with either additional insulin to lower a high blood sugar or a snack to bring up a low one. We never make it through an entire church service without at least one such alert. Between scarf-wielding dogs and emergency bloodletting, stealth is not an option.
Tony has autism. He wears a backpack stuffed with drawing supplies that he whips out to sketch his surroundings without regard to whatever else might be going on. He writes his name and misspelled pleas and promises on pledge cards he finds in the pews and drops them into the offering plate like missives to God himself. As we leave the sanctuary he shakes hands left-handed with the pastors and anyone else standing near.
Where shaking hands is concerned, though, I take the prize for unsettling the public. I have a swelling disorder called lymphedema that is partially controlled by wearing coarse, close-fitting sleeves and gloves. They have a distinctly medical look that on an elementary school playground would evoke cries of “Cooties!” The grown-up equivalent is a grimace that says they’re afraid of hurting me, or a quick rub of their palm down their side to remove the sensation of having touched the rough texture of my glove. Or of having touched me, I’m never sure which.
Never mind, it is not their party, anymore than it’s ours. According to Christian tradition worship is at the invitation of God, not the congregation hosting it, and is not open to discrimination. Of course it never happens that way, any more than it does in other public venues. Considerations of dress, social class, race, sex and mental or physical capability present occasions for confusion and awkwardness. I want to carry a sign explaining why we look and act the way we do. But what would it say?
* * *
Summer. Desert Arizona. One-hundred-seven degrees. Husband Bob returns home from running errands and plops into his favorite chair in front of the fan to recover. He sips something wet and bubbly from a 42–ounce Circle K cup, his last stop before coming home.
“There were bikers outside the Circle K,” he tells me.
He shakes his head. “Bicycles.”
There are always a few brave souls out to test themselves against our extreme weather, but they usually start in the early dawn hours, and it’s already past mid-day. “They were in good shape, I hope.”
Bob takes a long draw on his soda while he considers “Nope,” he says. “They looked fragile.”
Fragile. Bikers. I’m not getting a very clear picture here. “How old?”
Bob shrugs. “They’re a family. Five of them, and their bikes. The mom and dad were maybe in their early 40s.”
“Kids? Out biking in this heat?”
“Three kids. Teens, I’d guess. Or maybe one was a pre-teen. Two boys, and the oldest was a girl. And all their gear strapped onto the backs of their bikes.”
“Like, tents and cooking pots?” Unbelievable. Bike trekkers, in the middle of summer.
“I didn’t look that close. They were huddled in the shade of the building. I walked by the dad and said hello, and he said, ‘There’s no trees.’ So I pointed him to the park a couple of blocks north. They didn’t have helmets, now that I think of it,” Bob says. “Not even hats.”
Not trekkers, then, if they lack even the basic equipment. The only possibility begins to dawn on me, but Bob beats me to it. “I bet they’re homeless,” he says. “A family living on the street. How could I have missed that?”
Easy: like us, they weren’t carrying a sign explaining themselves to the casual observer. We stare at each other in silence. Bob shrugs. “We’d better go find them,” he says.
“And do what?” But we’re already on our feet preparing to head out into the muggy afternoon, slipping on sandals, grabbing up a gallon of drinking water.
Dara and Tony rest in the afternoon. I stop by their bedrooms to tell them where we’re headed and extract promises from them not to budge while we’re gone. I make sure our close neighbor is home so she’ll be on call if the kids need her. And then we’re out the door.
We check the park first, but it’s deserted. “Guess they didn’t care much for my suggestion,” Bob says.
“Or maybe they had somewhere else to go.” To a shelter, I hope.
We drive the main street, slowing to peer down every side street in both directions. Half a block south on one of the main arteries I spot a clutch of bikers, but they’re walking, not riding. At this distance their bikes are a blur of grey-brown packs and duffels.
As we approach it’s obvious Bob’s description was based not on what was actually before his eyes, but what our own experiences allowed him to imagine. We’ve bike-trekked as a family ourselves, years ago, so he registered a group with five bikes and camping gear mounted on the back. But this family of five has three bikes, not five, all of them unrideable because baggage has been piled not only onto the back, but onto the handlebars and seats as well—duffels, seabags, backpacks, all neatly tied to the frames with a web of blue and yellow ropes. Functionally, these are not bikes at all, but wagons of the sort you see on the news when throngs of refugees flee a war zone.
We pull into a parking lot just beyond them, and I jump out. What do you say to a family you suspect is without resources and stumbling along the streets of your own town in the life-sapping heat? I blurt the first thing that comes into my mind: “Could we ferry you somewhere?”
The father stops and looks up at me, startled, then eyes our van. “That would be much appreciated,” he says.
And as easily as that we are sharing goals and strategizing together. All seven of us set to work untying bundles and loading them into the van. I share the water around, refilling their almost-empty water bottles. I watch the colorless liquid pour from my bottle into theirs, and it’s no longer an ordinary thing. Here in this desert, with people enduring the wearying heat, sharing water is a kind of communion, practically sacred. The connection is healing, and it goes both ways.
We ferry them to the library, which is across the street from their desired destination, where they hope to receive a cash transfer from a relative—enough to get them all out of Arizona and back home again to Missouri. We help them unload everything into the shifting shade of a leafy tree behind our library. All five of them, it turns out, are avid readers, eager to spend a few refreshing hours browsing in the welcoming cool of the library shelves.
We check that they have food and turn to leave. Walking toward the van I glance back and see the father shaking Bob’s hand yet again. They share a man-embrace. Then Bob reaches for his wallet as I knew he would—trusted he would. He hands the man some bills.
We start home, the two of us in our empty van. “How much?” I ask.
“Everything I had in my wallet,” he says. A moment’s pause while he navigates around a bus stopped in the right-hand lane.
“Is it enough?” I ask. “It’s not enough, is it?” How could it ever be enough? Five people, three of them voracious teens. No vehicle, in a town where public transportation is an afterthought. No washing machine in a climate where clothes are sweat-soaked and salty in minutes. No shelter.
“It’s enough for today, anyway,” Bob says. “And tomorrow maybe we’ll find them again. Or someone else will see them.”
Not just see them—recognize what they see.
After dinner that evening we all head back to the library to pick out our week’s supply of books. Arizona’s Poet Laureate, Alberto Rios, will be reading from his work in the conference room as well, and I’m planning to attend. Before I do, though, I hurry to the back of the library to see if the bikers are still there. The shade under the tree is no longer sun-spangled, and it’s empty of bikes, baggage and homeless book lovers. I hope the money Bob gave them has bought them a safe night in a motel. Or a sit-down meal in an air-conditioned restaurant. Or even hats—that much protection at least.
I turn back toward the conference room and slide into a seat near the rear door so I can be available if the kids need me. Our Poet Laureate is a kind and gentle man with a penchant for recording the ordinary moments of his extraordinary life. Born in Mexico, he knows the worlds on both sides of the border and shares the warmth of his appreciation for both in his work.
For this occasion, he reads one of his poems about a library, and with the very first line I’m lost in his words: It is a public place/ it is a secret place.
Public secrets. Such a surprising way to describe this place, where a very public/secret biking family has been hiding out in plain sight all afternoon. Available for viewing, but always just beyond our understanding.
Halfway through the hour’s reading, Dara slips into the room and kneels beside me. She leans toward me, weaving slightly, and whispers, “Penny alerted me, and I did a blood test, and it’s really low.” She’s unsteady, waving a jar of apple juice in front of my face. “Can you open this for me?” she says. Thankfully she’s still cognizant enough to know she needs to drink it to bring her blood glucose levels up fast. One last, regretful glance at the poet whose remaining poems I will miss tonight, and I urge Dara quietly out the door. If she’s going to pass out I’d rather not make it part of Mr. Rios’ performance.
Dara, Penny, and I sit together on a bench in the lobby while Dara drinks her juice and slowly recovers. People pass by, as oblivious to our near-disaster as I am to the secrets they’ve carried with them into this public place. Perhaps if I really want the gift of making secrets visible, it’s not signs we need to explain ourselves, but the patience and perspective of a poet.