September 15, 2010

I Wish I Had A Photo...

It was truly a split-second moment, but it warmed me from the inside out all day. As I was driving to work yesterday, I came upon a stop sign at the end of one of the streets in my neighborhood. I typically don’t see anyone out walking at this time in the morning, except perhaps kids heading to school and the occasional parent walking with a younger son or daughter. As I was pulling up to stop, I was in a hurry. I had noticed a group of three adults walking toward the intersection where I was stopping, and I realized they would probably be wanting to cross the street in front of me. I noticed that one of them was an older man and the devil in me whispered “get to the stop sign fast, and pull out fast so you don’t have to wait for them.”

As luck would have it, there was traffic coming from both directions at the cross street, so that devil was left dissatisfied. I stopped, and immediately realized I was in the crosswalk, so leaving my foot on the clutch, I took my other foot off the break to allow my car to roll backwards a bit. As I was doing so, I watched the threesome look around the intersection as if deciding which direction to take in order to cross the road. I met the eyes of one of the women and waved her across in front of me. She smiled and mouthed thank you. The other woman grabbed the arm of the elderly man, who was making his way to walk around the back of my car, and pulled him gently in the direction of crossing in front of me. Again, I made eye contact with the first woman, who again mouthed “thank you” and I nodded and smiled, and then I glanced over at the man. He met my eyes and without warning, grinned.

I don’t know if I have words to adequately describe his smile, or the power I felt behind it. I immediately grinned back at him and nodded. The entire time he crossed in front of my car, he kept smiling at me, until the women recaptured his attention with part of their conversation.

I truly was taken aback. His smile lit up his face like… like… a young child who just got the best gift in the world and it wasn’t even Christmas. The smile wasn’t just in his mouth; it traveled all the way up his face, crinkled up his forehead and beamed out of his eyes. The power of that smile literally yanked a grin out of my own mouth, and I could feel my own smile traveling up my face and out my eyes.

His smile stayed with me through the whole drive to work. It made me think… how many times have I smiled at someone as I crossed in front of them? I know I do, but you know the kind of smile I’m talking about perhaps – the kinds where you just lift the corners of your mouth and nod a little. A polite gesture of greeting or thanks. And people respond in kind… a quick lift of the corners of their mouth and a nod back. Unimpressive. Nothing much to remember. Move on and fahgeddaboutit.

Around the end of my work day, I had a brief memory flash back to that gentleman and his smile and there was a burst of warmth inside. That smile still had power. That little, elderly ray of light probably has no recollection of me. I wish I had a photo.  But I think I will always remember him. I know I will, now that I’ve written this.

A single, sincere smile can echo through your soul.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we all smiled like that? All of the time? What would the world be like?


  1. Smiles are powerful.

    One smile story that I'll always remember invovled a meeting I attended at a secured juvenile residential treatment center in Columbus a number of years ago. There was a large group of social-work type professionals of all varieties gathered in a room to discuss a young man who I believe was about 16 years old at the time. The young man was present for the meeting, too, and he sat there sheepishly as all these professionals discussed this and that about his diagnosis, behavior, etc. Granted, he was a troubled youth with some pretty bad offenses on his record. But something about watching him sit silently at the table while all these "professionals" talked at and about him, but not to or with him, really struck me in the moment I was there. He had no family or friends present. It was all a bunch of professionals on paid time. I was struck by the tragic nautre of his life. A life that was imposed on him, not one that he spite of what his criminal record may have revealed. What he was, sitting there as an adjudicated juvenile deliquent, was a wounded child. I was looking at him with these thoughts going through my head while others were talking. At one point as he was looking around, his gaze met mine. I instinctually gave him a little friendly smile. I will never forget his reaction. He hesitated for a second or two, like he was surprised, and then he gave me the biggest, broadest, sweetest, brightest, happiest smile in return. The smile almost had an appearance of excitement behind it; it was like he was so happy to smile.

    Our smile exchange was brief, yet when I reflected upon it later I was cognizant of the power of that moment; when in the midst of a meeting of clinicians, he and I had a moment where it was just the two of us, exchanging a smile for no reason other than a connection of basic humanity. It occurred to me that that young man, for all the people and counselors and clinicians and psychiatric nurses and psychologists and psychiatrists and judges and probation officers and social workers and advocates involved in his life, probably rarely ever had anyone just simply smile at him.

    Just smile. For no reason. Not in any particular context. Just in a moment of coincidental crossroads. Where 2 people expose their humanity in the univeral symbol of a smile.

    I remember being deeply moved when I left that meeting. I knew the smile we exchanged meant something to him in the moment. It meant something to me too.

    I also remember leaving that meeting and his counselor from Children's Hospital Guidance Center saying that he didn't think the young man would live past the age of 18.

    About 2 years ago I heard a story in the Columbus news about a multi-county police chase that ended with one of the suspects jumping off a bridge in downtown Columbus and drowning in the Olentangy River.

    It was the young man I exchanged the smile with in the residential facility. He made it past 18. He was 19 years old when he jump off that bridge and drowned.

    I cried when I heard about it.

    I hope that the smile we exchanged meant something to him, even for a brief moment in his life.

    It meant something to me.

    And it still does.

  2. both those stories are so moving I can hardly see for the tears running down my face. thank you so much for sharing them.

  3. all I can say is WOW. to both stories. Guess I'll try smiling more often.

  4. My gosh - what powerful stories. Made me cry too. Thanks for sharing xx

  5. "That smile had power" is a powerful sentence itself. I like that thought very much - definitely a story worth sharing today.


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