I’ve been listening to Oprah’s soul series podcasts lately, and one that has me spellbound is called You Matter, by Ilyanla Vanzant.She wants everyone to know and understand that they matter in this world. And it’s true. Everyone should know they matter…
In the past couple of blogs I used my time to give unsolicited advice or tell stories about my life, but today I want to tell you a story about another person’s life, one who may not realize he matters.
Most, but not all, of you may know that several days a month I can be found volunteering at the USO. Some days we struggle to keep busy, with few troops moving about the country, but this past Tuesday we were full to the brim with new recruits heading off to basic (or boot camp) along with graduates of various advanced training schools at nearby Ft. Lee. These young men and women never cease to amaze me, and I always, okay…mostly enjoy, their company.
There’s always that one, though. Am I right…the one person who can irritate the bejeezus out of you. And there was one in a group of new recruits heading off to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. He stood out right away. This is what I saw…He was thin, almost to the point of gaunt. He had bright blue-green eyes with very thin, blond hair, which was standing up in a home done hair cut kind of way. He stood at the side of our long counter and asked for a soda and then another and then a grilled cheese sandwich. He asked if he could have as much as he wanted to eat. He was just that one kid who asked for so much. The requests kept coming, and got a little irritating. I’m a mama through and through when I’m there, but sometimes the impatient mama in me comes out. Didn’t he realize, I kept thinking, that we had others to take care of? We couldn’t just focus on meeting every need he had, but yet, kept asking. He and his group were there for the long haul that day, so I knew we had hours to go with this young man who stood at our counter.
Finally, though, when I had a second to breathe, I looked at him. Really looked at him, beyond his gaunt appearance and neediness, and I saw him. I heard him. He came in with his own bag of Doritos, from home he said. He guarded them like a treasure. Most of these kids come in not knowing what to expect from us, but none have ever brought in their own bag of Doritos. I didn’t know why that struck me at the time, but it did. His eyes had a bit of a nervous, almost pleading, intensity about them and his social skills were awkward. I thought to myself, maybe he was on the spectrum somewhere. He bounced up and down and really wanted his story to be heard, but the counter was still so busy, full of kids who asked for ramen, soda, hot dogs or sandwiches. So I couldn’t, yet, focus on him. Finally his belly was full and he said, “I need to go find my group.” I breathed a little sigh of relief as he left my counter, now I could also focus on others. But I watched him walk away. Shyness and uncertainty punctuated his every step. He looked so lost and alone.
The counter slowed down, the grills were off and we had a few minutes to catch up. Two young women had just walked in. Newly graduated from their advanced training. The relief and the joy on their faces was palpable. They were overjoyed to be going home. They sat at my counter and began telling their stories. I was happy to finally be able to engage with our guests instead of just dishing out food and drinks, when the gaunt young man appeared again. He sat down beside them and asked for another sandwich. Now I could focus a little more on him and hear his story. It wasn’t just wall-to-wall young men and women calling over each other to ask for something. He and the new grads began chatting. They were giving him advice to make it through basic training. I was fixing his sandwich, with my back turned to him, when I heard on of them ask what he was most excited about. He said, “A bed.” In my three years at the USO I’ve never heard that response before, and my head whipped around. “A bed?” I said, “why are you excited about a bed?”
“Because I don’t have one,” was his reply.
“Why don’t you have a bed?”
“My mom never bought me one. I sleep on a broken couch.”
Now, you have to understand that the mama inside me was screaming, and my emotions were written all over my face. I’m sure my eyes flashed with every feeling roiling through my heart. I don’t know what he saw in me, but I just wanted to scoop him up. It all made sense now, the intense need for attention, the silent plea in his eyes, the need to protect the bag of Doritos, the awkwardness, the shyness. It all made sense. He didn’t realize he matters in this world. And my heart ached for him. I wanted to run around the counter and envelope him up in a hug, but I didn’t. I was dumbfounded to the point of immobility. I hope he saw in my eyes everything I couldn’t say. In that instant, I hope he could tell that he mattered to me.
He and his group left a short time later. I waved good-bye as a always do. I told them I was proud of them for what they’re getting ready to do. I thanked them for their upcoming service to our nation. I wished them safe travels and watched them walk out our door. The gaunt young man kept his bright blue-green eyes locked on mine as he waved and walked out of sight. I didn’t get his name, but I hope he knows how much I want him to succeed in the Air Force, how much I want him to find a place to belong so he doesn’t look so alone. I hope he knows I’m glad he has a bed for the first time. And I hope he someday comes to know how much he matters in this world.