Sort of a Christmas Story. But not the kind you’d expect. There were no Wise Men. But we met our version of George Bailey. In this case, a man who cared deeply, and his dog who loved belly rubs.
There was an arctic sleeping bag, some wool socks, a heavy duty hat, some heavy duty gloves. A new winter dog coat, a sleeping cave, some ice booties. Just part of the hundreds of sleeping bags, hats, gloves and socks The Pongo Fund gave out to help those with the least, survive the brutal winter cold.
He was cozy in his tent with tarps for doors. Coming outside, that was the problem. Because outside was cold. He opened the tarps and we met him halfway. On our hands and knees, with his kissing machine pit bull on her back demanding belly rubs. That was the toll. If you entered the tent, you needed to pay in belly rubs. It was worth it.
He wasn’t expecting us. He lived alone, just him and Baby Girl. He was maybe 50. And Baby Girl no longer a baby, but a sweet senior.
He was thankful, he said. But he was antsy. It was awkward. We did the gifting, we exchanged gratitudes. Baby Girl got far too many belly rubs and each time we tried to stop she’d pull our hands back to her belly. She clearly knew what she was doing, she was a belly rub pro.
We had food and treats too, for both of them. For him, enough food to keep him well fed for a few days. Based on the weather, that food and the other supplies would keep him safe. But it was the fidgeting, his jumbling around, that we couldn’t understand.
Was he uncomfortable receiving these items? Because sometimes that’s the case. That those the most deserving, are also the most uncomfortable receiving.
He kept saying thank you, thank you, but that he needed to go, and after just a very short visit we were back on the sidewalk. One step behind us, he was there too. Holding the sleeping bag.
This was a really good sleeping bag, built to withstand the coldest temps. Super lightweight in terms of pounds but super heavyweight in terms of warmth. He needed it and he deserved it.
And yet, he held it in his hands as if he was going to give it back. So we asked him if it was the wrong kind of sleeping bag. If it was, we could get him something else.
He said it was great. He said anyone using it would be lucky.
But on the next block was an older man whose life had fallen apart a few weeks earlier, and he was not prepared for this deadly winter weather. This sleeping bag would keep him from freezing so he wanted to get to that man fast as he could, to give him the sleeping bag.
We had a quick back and forth in conversation. But overall it was uncomfortable because in his mind he was already walking down the street to give this man the sleeping bag, and yet, the people who had just given it to him, were somehow standing in the way of his being able to do that.
He wanted to go, yet he didn’t want to offend us. It was an unusual moment.
We said he didn’t need to give the bag away. Not those exact words, but that’s what he heard. We didn’t get to finish the sentence. But he was crushed. He tried to give it back to us, he said if he could not give it to the man on the next block, then he didn’t want to use it either.
None of us walk in anyone else’s shoes. Nor do we sleep in their sleeping bags. But we all carry a good amount of our own pain and frustration, and for him, in that moment, his pain and frustration was that he deeply wanted to give to someone else, something that he desperately needed. To someone else, who he felt needed it more.
It had nothing to do with sleeping bags or hats or gloves or socks.
It had to do with kindness. Just pure and simple kindness.
It’s within all of us. And for him, living on the street with mostly nothing, he still knew someone else with less. He said he could cuddle with Baby Girl, but the other man did not have a dog. He didn’t want to keep explaining it to us, he just wanted to take him the sleeping bag or give it back.
This had gone sideways fast. Not the first time a moment like this had come up, life is life and sometimes it doesn’t go according to plan. Please keep in mind, all of this conversation outside his tent had taken just a couple minutes. It was very brief. But in that time we’d somehow become polar opposites.
We needed to slow the conversation down for this man who was deeply frustrated. Frustration based on the only thing he knew, that every second forward was one more second that someone else was cold and he wanted to fix that.
What he didn’t know is that we’d already been to that man’s tent. And that he had also received the same sleeping bag, socks, hat and gloves. In that moment, the man who wanted to give away the sleeping bag almost crumbled to the pavement, when he learned his new friend had already received the same gifts.
This man who loved others so much that he would give everything to help them, now got to exhale when it hit him, that what he had, his friend had too.
We knew he would still struggle with that part, because this was a man who would likely be the first to do anything for anyone. So we told him that everyone on his street had gotten the same items. Everyone would be warm, just like he was going to be.
That everyone had also gotten food and laundry quarters and soap and a washcloth and toothbrush and toothpaste and other basics too. There were flashlights, batteries, headlamps, all sorts of things.
He apologized to us, said he didn’t mean to be a problem. That’s what he thought he was. A problem. But he wasn’t a problem. He was simply a human being who cared deeply about others. He said it was how he was raised. They didn’t have much but what they had they shared.
Baby Girl was warm and fluffy in her coat, happy as could be with her sleeping cave, toys, treats. She was content. And she also knew how to calm her person, which she did with a quick nudge to his knee to get his attention. Then going back inside the tent, stopping briefly to make sure he was following.
The Spirit of the Season. We hear the words all the time. But seeing them in front of you is quite different.
The Pongo Fund helps many, both two-legged and four.
Sometimes that help is quick and easy. Sometimes it takes a few extra minutes. But whatever amount of time it takes, it’s worth it. Because we all need to be helpers. And because everything we do, we do together.
Sometimes it leaves us torn to the core. But there’s another tent still to visit, so we need to go. We’ll cry later.
For each one of you who joins with us to do this work of blessings, we thank you. Because we could not do it without you. We thank you with words, and we thank you with tears.
But most of all, we thank you with love.
Being a helper.
And this is why we Pongo.
Sit. Stay. Eat. Live. thepongofund.org
The Pongo Fund, Portland, OR.