By Dahlynn McKowen
Hugs are the universal medicine and a handshake from the heart.
On a road trip to California's breathtaking North Coast region, my hubby Ken and I, my teenage daughter Lahre, and my nine-year-old son Shawn, stopped to have lunch and stretch our legs a bit.
As we walked toward the restaurant's entrance, a gruff looking man jumped up from a nearby bench and opened the door for us. "Good afternoon and welcome to Denny's," he said in a very jovial voice. In his hand he held a ceramic mug full of steaming coffee — which was inviting on such a cold day — but from the looks of the rest of him, it appeared that he hadn't had a good meal or a shower in a long time.
With a scraggly beard and dirty hair that went well past his shoulders, it was obvious he was homeless. An old bike loaded down with a sleeping bag and the rest of his earthly belongings rested against the bench, and his clothing told of hard times, from a weather-beaten jacket right down to his old boots with mismatched laces. But regardless of his appearance, he greeted us as if we were his best friends, adding as we entered, "Today's soup and sandwich special's a great deal."
Once inside, my teenager whispered to me, "Mom, he smells." And Shawn asked questions about him, not quite understanding the concept of a homeless person. After we ordered our lunch, Ken and I explained the best we could, telling the kids to look beyond the dirt and grime to the person underneath and within. As we explained, the four of us watched other customers approach the restaurant; they appeared unsure of the homeless man and many snubbed him or ignored him.
Seeing this rudeness truly frustrated me. The day I became a mother, I had resolved to set a good example for my children. Granted, some days, when things just didn't go right, being a good example was tough.
When our meal arrived, I realized that I had left the car-sick pills in the glove compartment. With the windiest part of our trip just ahead of us, the kids needed to take their medicine. I excused myself from the meal and went to the truck.
As I neared the front door, the "doorman" was opening it for an older couple and welcoming them to the restaurant. They rushed past him and didn't even acknowledge his presence. I let the couple come through first and then said a loud and gracious "thank you" to the doorman as I exited. He teased me by asking if I was running away from my family, and I told him I needed to get something from the truck. When I returned, I showed him the car-sick pills and he laughed, saying he had ridden his bike that direction once and understood the need for the pills.
We talked a bit longer. He told me that the restaurant's manager wouldn't let him inside unless he purchased food. All he could afford was coffee (which, he said, didn't count as "food" according to the manager), so he had to stay outside. But he learned that if he stayed close enough to the front door, the wait staff would sneak out and refill his mug.
I went back inside and told his story to my family. I then asked our waitress, who was bringing the kids their dessert, to add one soup and sandwich special to our bill. Both the kids looked at me funny — as we had already eaten — but Ken knew exactly what I was doing. The waitress was confused, too, but when I explained the order was for the doorman, and that he was to eat his meal inside with the rest of the customers, she smiled and thanked me.
Both children asked why I would order a meal for the "smelly guy." Again, I shared that everyone has goodness inside of them regardless of what they look like or even smell like, and by expressing one simple act of kindness to a fellow traveler in life, the world could possibly become a better place.
By this time, we had to get back on the road to stay on schedule. But before we left, a visit to the "happy room" was necessary to relieve our bladders. As we rounded the corner of the very full restaurant, the doorman was sitting at a table enjoying his meal. When he saw me, he jumped up and thanked me profusely for the hot meal. He then extended his hand for a handshake, which I gratefully accepted. It was then I realized he had tears in his eyes — tears of gratitude.
What happened next drew gasps of astonishment from the restaurant customers, staff and even my own children: I gave the doorman a hug. Just as surprised as the rest of the crowd, the doorman held me tight for just a few moments. Pulling away, his tears were now streaming down his face, and others were beginning to cry, too.
While we can't choose many things in life, we can choose when to show gratitude, and I was doing just that. I was saying thanks to a man who had simply held open a door for me, and also saying thank you for that opportunity to teach my children by example. Hopefully, when someone opens a door for Lahre and Shawn during their journeys through life, they will remember to say thank you. And hopefully they'll have a great soup and sandwich special on the menu, too.