I was 6 years old. It was Christmas eve. The traditional Slovak dinner was ready on the stove — mushroom soup and pierogies. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home so we could eat.
The waiting part was no surprise. Dad was late again.
My dad served as a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded during a mission. My mom said the experience changed him. He brought some demons home with him.
Those demons seemed to emerge during the holidays. My dad would get off work from the butcher shop and head across the street to a bar. His co-workers would have a holiday drink and go home. My dad would stay and drink, trying to drown those demons.
On this Christmas eve, we were home waiting. And getting hungry.
Mom decided we would eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We always got new ones for Christmas, the kind with the footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes.
Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited. My mom was anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.
A surprise visitor
Finally, headlights lit up the driveway. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, but it wasn’t my dad’s car. We could see two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger.
The slumped-over passenger? My dad. Someone had given him a ride home from the bar. Not the first time.
The driver got out, went around the car and helped my dad get to the front door. My mom opened the door. We got a huge surprise.
The man who drove my father home? A black man.
Understand this: We lived in an ethnic neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. I’d never seen a black person in my neighborhood. Many people in my neighborhood wouldn’t welcome a black person to their door. This was the 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing. There was a lot of racial tension in cities like Cleveland.
That black man had great courage to come to my house, not knowing how he would be received.
After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to have something to eat. He graciously accepted. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him and my mom and my brother. I’m guessing it was the first and only time he had pierogies and mushroom soup.
He saw he could help, so he did
Years later, I asked my mom what had happened that night. The black man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized that he was in no condition to drive, and decided to give him a ride home.
He could have found any number of reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He’d be putting someone drunk into his car — always a risk of a mess. He didn’t know my family and whether we would welcome his gesture or even appreciate it. Besides, my dad would probably just get drunk again and be in the same predicament.
Why bother with him?
There are so many ways he could have justified keeping a distance. But he didn’t. Instead, he thought about how my dad could end up killing himself after getting behind the wheel, and maybe killing someone else, too.
He could do something about it, so he did.
And he changed everything about my life – more than any of us will ever know.
A year later, my dad recognized that his drinking was a problem and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. My family had many good times with him over the years, times we might not have gotten if not for that courageous black man.
One act changes everything
And who knows how many other families were affected that night? There were a lot of people on the road. How many other lives did the man save with his brave decision to give my dad a ride?
I never saw that man again. I think about him every Christmas eve, though. He could still be alive. I’m thankful for what he did for me and for many others that night with his compassionate act. It changed so much – more than any of us can know.
I’m also reminded that each of us changes so much with each act of kindness, more than any of us will ever know.
Every Christmas eve, I pray for the man who had the kindness to drive my dad home and change my life in unknowable ways. And I pray for the courage to be more like him.
Maybe you could, too.