Around and About with Richard McCarthy: Coffee at the pearly gates: The importance of a moment of connection, even with a stranger


For the Gazette

Published: 05-02-2024 4:16 PM

About a mile from where I live, there is a convenience store and a doughnut shop. For a period of a few years, a woman of perhaps 60 years of age could be found standing outside one of these establishments on most days. She would be shuffling her feet, almost as if marching in place, and staring straight ahead.

A lot of labels probably had been affixed to her over the years, but you didn’t need a doctorate in psychology, or even to have taken Psych 101, to see she was one of those who walk among us besieged by their own minds.

She didn’t have a sign she held up. Folks really didn’t need much of a pitch, though. We just gave her a dollar or a few dollars so she could be a player in the life of the store or the doughnut shop. I had the sense that what community she felt in those places was as much community as she felt anywhere on this earth.

From what I saw, I don’t think she spent the money we gave her for anything terribly nutritious, but she wasn’t looking for us to be dietitians.

I got to the point where I didn’t give her a contribution only when she was standing outside the convenience store when I was walking in. If I was driving by, I’d look to see if she was outside the store or the shop, or trudging from one to the other. If I saw her, I’d pull my car around, pull up to her, either roll down the window or exit the car, hand her some currency, and say “Here you are, darlin’. Buy yourself a coffee.” She’d smile what smile she had left in her, and say “Thank you, sweetheart.” For that moment, it felt like I’d climbed over the wall her thoughts had built around her.

At times, I wouldn’t see her for a week or two, but then she’d reappear. I never knew where she came from or where she went to. About six months-or-so ago I stopped seeing her, and this time she hasn’t reappeared.

I don’t know what has happened to my friend. It is possible she has passed away, given her age, the difficulty of her life, COVID. It is also quite possible she is in some group living situation, a place with policies and procedures and protocols that don’t include her standing outside a convenience store shuffling in place. It’s even possible something unforeseen and fortunate has happened.

I still look for her when I drive past her route. I don’t miss witnessing her suffering, but I do miss our moments of connection.

Although there are a goodly number of folks who seem satisfied they know exactly what happens after we take our last breath, I’m not one of them. But if there is anything to the idea of heaven, and I’m to arrive at the proverbial “pearly gates,” I can imagine it might be the next time she and I connect. If I look closely enough, I can see her, standing there serenely, her spirit freed from psychic wounds, eyes luminous, smiling joyously, and saying “Welcome home, sweetheart.”

Amherst resident Richard McCarthy, a longtime columnist at the Springfield Republican, writes a monthly column for the Gazette.