At first I thought it was someone just playing around, and then I heard it again, and again. I began looking around the parking lot for someone being disemboweled because that was the sound I imagined would come with being ripped apart. Not knowing where it was coming from or what was happening; I called 911 on my radio and reported a “disturbance” in the parking lot.
As I rounded the next corner I found the source of the commotion. There in the middle of the parking lot sat a full grown man with his socks and shoes off hitting himself in the face and screaming uncontrollably. Hovering over him was an elderly gentleman trying his best to collect the socks and shoes and get him on his feet again.
The man sitting on the parking lot was much larger than the elderly gentleman and could not be budged. A confused crowd was forming around the two and at first sight I thought it was a horrible fight between two grown men. I notified 911 with my location and turned on my overhead emergency lights as I rolled up to the scene. Not until I got closer did I figure out what was going on.
The man on the ground was very obviously disabled and the elderly man was his father. I immediately cleared the crowd and asked the father if he needed any assistance. The elderly father explained to me that he had picked his son up for a day visit from the group home where he lived.
“I knew better than to go at it alone, but sometimes he does really well. I wanted to spend some time with him so I brought him to the mall. He was fine until we got to the parking lot. When he gets upset he takes off his socks and shoes in protest.” said the father. “His name is Donald”.
Donald was about 6’3” and weighed about 220 pounds. He was in his mid 30’s with a rough complexion and many self-inflicted battle scars. His emotions seemed to calm slightly when I arrived at the scene, but his face was still contorted with anxiety as he fumbled with his socks. Donald looked like he could handle himself—along with his father and me.
“I’m getting too old for this” the man said with a broken voice. I was guessing he was probably in his mid to late 60’s but looked to be 80. He was tall, thin, and frail with white balding hair, wearing a dark flannel shirt and blue jeans. He looked like an old farmer who had come to town in his pickup truck to get some supplies.
“I’m so tired.” He said as he turned away for a moment.
“I know what you are going through sir” I said, realizing how cliché it sounded after it left my mouth. “You do?” he said rather skeptically. “Yes, I do. I have a son just like your son. He’s much younger and not as big, but he has special needs just like your Donald and he displays very similar fits when he doesn’t get his way.”
I placed my hand on his shoulder, “And I know you’re tired.”
I knelt back down on Donald’s level and picked up his shoes and socks. I wasn’t sure how he would react to me invading his space and I fully expected to be kicked or punched by this large, confused man. I slowly unballed his sock and began putting it back on his foot. He extended his leg in a sort of surrender to let me know that he would comply. I rolled the sock gently over his toes to his heal and then up to his ankle. His pale, crooked feet felt cold and damp and his long sharp toenails were in need of a trim.
Probably true to his age-old routine, he extended the other foot for me to do the same. Once I got both socks on, I unlaced his large tennis shoes and one by one slipped them onto his feet. I then cinched them up and gave them a double tie like I had done for my own son so many times before.
A stark vision of Jesus washing His disciples feet flashed across my mind and I wondered if this was what He meant when He said, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.”
After getting Donald ready to get back on his feet again, (in a strategic attempt to gain leverage) I asked the father what Donald really liked. “Chicken nuggets and coffee” he replied.
I turned back to Donald and asked, “How would you like your dad to take you to get some chicken nuggets and coffee buddy?” He gave a silent nod of approval and we helped him off the ground and into the truck.
After getting Donald buckled in the front seat, the elderly father returned to his side of the truck with a simple expression of gratitude. He shook my hand in appreciation and said “Thanks” in a broken tone drained by the emotion of the moment.
I shot back with, “No problem, I do this for a living.” We both smiled with a strong connection as I gave him a pat on the shoulder opening the driver’s side door for him to get in.
I knew from experience that he wasn’t thanking me for helping him or his son as much as he was being grateful for receiving empathy instead of sympathy. Sometimes just being aware that someone else knows—I mean really knows—what you are going through is enough to bring great comfort in the midst of great despair.
As the two men drove off the parking lot in the old pick up truck I watched as the weary dad lifted his arm and placed it around the shoulder of his son. A prodigal never finds love so satisfying and sweet as he finds it in the unconditional arms of his father.
I realized I had just experienced a divine appointment. In response, I stood for a moment on holy ground praising the God of mercy and comfort, asking for more strength for the future with my own son. My worshipful prayer sounded like this:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the same comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)