We all have secret and burdens that we carry around with us everyday. It might be the hurt from a previous relationship, the disappointment from a failed job interview, or the thought of a missed opportunity. Some people wear these injuries like armor. Someone who had trouble with men in the past might not be trusting of new acquaintances in the future. Someone who blew it at an interview might not be so confident during the next one. But a physical representation of these burdens is rare, and for this little girl, meant so much more than “just” a thing that she carried around.
She came to Covenant House’s front door Tuesday morning, dressed in dirty rags, holding a little aluminum paint can in her arms. From the second she stepped inside the shelter, she mystified the staff. Whatever she did, wherever she went, the paint can never left her hands. When Kathy sat in the crisis shelter, the can sat in her arms. She took the can with her to the cafeteria that first morning she ate, and to bed with her that first night she slept. When she stepped into the shower, the can was only a few feet away. When the tiny homeless girl dressed, the can rested alongside her feet.
“I’m sorry, this is mine,” she told the counselors, whenever they asked her about it. “This can belongs to me.”
“Do you want to tell me what’s in it, Kathy?” Sister Rose asked her.
“Um, not today,” she said, “not today.”
When Kathy was sad, or angry or hurt — which happened a lot — she took her paint can to a quiet dorm room on the 3rd floor. Many times on Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday, Sister Rose passed by her room, and watched her rock gently back and forth, the can in her arms. Sometimes she’d talk to the paint can in low whispers.
Sister Rose had been around troubled kids all her life (over 41,000 homeless kids will come to the shelters this year!) She was used to seeing them carry stuffed animals (some of the roughest, toughest kids at Covenant House have a stuffed animal). Every kid has something — needs something — to hold. But a paint can? Sister Rose could feel alarm bells ringing in her head. Early one morning, she decided to “accidentally” run into the child again.
“Would you like to join me for breakfast?” the Sister said.
“That would be great,” Kathy said. For a few minutes they sat in the corner of the cafeteria, talking quietly over the din of 150 ravenous homeless kids. Then the nun took a deep breath, and plunged into it….
“Kathy, that’s a really nice can. What’s in it?” For a long time, Kathy didn’t answer. She rocked back and forth, her hair swaying across her
shoulders. Then she looked over at Sister Rose, tears in her eyes.
“It’s my mother,” she said.
“Oh,” Sister Rose said. “What do you mean, it’s your mother?”
“It’s my mother’s ashes,” she said. “I went and got them from the funeral home. See, I even asked them to put a label right her on the side. It has her name on it.” Kathy held the can up before Sister Mary’s eyes.
A little label on the side chronicled all that remained of her mother: date of birth, date of death, name. That was it. Then Kathy pulled the can close, and hugged it.
“I never really knew my mother, Sister,” Kathy told Rose. “I mean, she threw me in the garbage two days after I was born.” (They checked out Kathy’s story. Sure enough the year Kathy was born, the New York newspapers ran a story, saying that police had found a little infant girl in a dumpster …and yes, it was two days after Kathy was born.)
“I ended up living in a lot of foster homes, mad at my mother,” Kathy said. “But then, I decided I was going to try to find her. I got lucky — someone knew where she was living. I went to her house.
She wasn’t there, Sister. My mother was in the hospital. She had AIDS. She was dying. I went to the hospital, and I got to meet her the day before she died. My mother told me she loved me, Sister,” Kathy said crying. “She told me she loved me.” (They double-checked Kathy’s story … every word of it was true.)
Sister Rose reached out and hugged Kathy, and she cried in her arms for a long, long time. It was tough getting her arms around her, because she just wouldn’t put the paint can down. But Kathy didn’t seem to mind. Sister Rose certainly didn’t….
She saw Kathy again, a few days later, eating dinner in the cafeteria. Kathy made a point to come up and say hi. Sister Rose made a point to give her an extra hug.
While Kathy’s burden was very, very real, ours might not be. Staying considerate of others might be hard, but you truly never know what they are dealing with in their own lives. Be kind, be compassionate, and the world just might end up as a better place than when you arrived into it!
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