An unexpected lesson learned from the unlikeliest of sources
On her face, an expression of abject despair endured through days both bright and blue. On his, a melancholic melody sang forth from the weather-worn crevices and contours that betrayed his true age. They never smiled. They never laughed. They appeared to be absolutely miserable, and there was no indication that fate was prepared to spare them even the slightest bit of mercy.
Their names were James and Julia. When I first met them back in the summer of 2004, they were sitting quietly on a North Philly park bench, her hand in his, humming along to a Nancy Sinatra tune. I was accompanied by two other volunteers from a local shelter. We were one of three outreach teams tasked with seeking out and checking in with homeless people scattered throughout the neighborhood.
My partner Luis casually approached the pair and began chatting them up. Julia had very little to say. James said nothing at all. It was a courteous yet brief exchange that lasted less than a minute.
As it turned out, not much conversing was necessary. Luis knew James and Julia quite well. James, he told me, was an out-of-work carpenter with chronic back pain and a criminal record — an unfortunate combination for a blue-collar worker in desperate need of a steady paycheck. Julia, on the other hand, had been making good money as a waitress. But then something terrible happened to her that required emergency surgery and a two-week Vicodin prescription, setting the stage for an opioid addiction that ultimately led to her dismissal from the restaurant where she worked.
To this day, I remain in the dark about what it was that landed her in the hospital in the first place.
Upon learning their story, I felt quite badly for James and Julia, just as I did for all the other souls who had been forced out onto the streets by bad luck, bad decisions, or some combination of the two. And with each successive encounter, that sympathy continued to grow.
James never spoke a single, solitary word to me or anyone else on our outreach teams, except for Luis. It was easy to understand why. James was ashamed not only of his own destitution, but also of his failures as a husband. From what little I could gather from conversations with Julia, James grew up in a conservative Catholic household that adhered to traditional gender roles. I had a similar upbringing, and I suspect that James was raised to believe, just as I was, that the responsibility for providing one’s spouse with a comfortable and happy life fell exclusively on the husband’s shoulders. He had failed to live up to that responsibility, and it was tearing him up inside. Had I been in his shoes, I know I would’ve felt the same.
For her part, Julia also blamed herself. Had it not been for her addiction and subsequent unemployment, it’s possible that they’d have never been evicted from their apartment. The consoling words we offered her were of little use, however. The perception of addiction as a reflection of one’s character was still widespread at the time, which left her believing that her dependence on opioids, despite having been a consequence of a legitimate medical problem, was an indication that she was weak and selfish. Changing her mind about that proved impossible no matter how hard we tried.
James was in bad shape in every possible respect — financially, physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Julia was in the same boat. There was no way their marriage could survive their predicament. That was the consensus among everyone who knew them — except for me.
Over the course of the summer that I volunteered at the shelter, I crossed paths with James and Julia at least once per week. And each time I saw them, they were just as despondent as they had been during each of our previous encounters. They were enveloped in what seemed to be an impenetrable cloud of malaise and hopelessness. It wasn’t hard to understand why their marriage appeared to many to be headed for failure.
But there was one very interesting thing I noticed about James and Julia; no matter where they were or what they were doing or how they were feeling, they were always holding hands. The first time I met them on that park bench, they were holding hands. The last time I saw them in the shelter, they were holding hands. I cannot recall a single moment when Julia’s hand wasn’t nestled comfortably in James’ hand, taking refuge from the harsh reality of their situation and reciprocating the affection and loyalty of her husband.
In their marriage, I saw an indestructible fidelity shrouded by unforeseen agony. I saw a pair of soulmates bound together by an unshakable bond that gave each of them a sort of superhuman strength in the face of perilous circumstances. I saw a partnership between two people who were so deeply in love that neither was willing to consider starting over without the other, even if doing so might provide the stability, comfort, and security they were desperate to acquire.
In James and Julia, I saw something to envy.
On my last day at the shelter, I was cleaning out a closet full of old supplies when I heard the door chime. I went to go see who it was, and there stood James and Julia, side by side, hand in hand. I unlocked the door and welcomed them inside. They asked if we had any blankets or winter gloves in stock, and I was happy to oblige.
After a quick chat with Julia, the two of them turned to leave, but I stopped them. I told them this was going to be my last day at the shelter, and that there was something I wanted to tell them.
“I want to thank you for showing me what true love looks like,” I said. “I hope that maybe one day, I’ll get to have a marriage just like yours.”
James smiled. So did Julia. I looked them both in the eyes and smiled back. Then they turned around and departed for the encampment where they had been living. That was the last time I ever saw them.
A few years later, I learned through the grapevine that James and Julia had indeed landed on their four combined feet, just as I suspected they would. They had gone out into the suburbs, where Julia kicked her addiction for good and James managed to find a job that paid him well and didn’t require much physical exertion. Last I heard, they were living in a studio apartment about an hour north of the city, and Julia had returned to school to get her GED. I’d like to think they’re doing even better today, nearly seventeen years after I last saw them together at the shelter.
James and Julia shared a life together that none of us would covet for ourselves. They struggled through addiction, homelessness, and the stigma that accompanies a criminal past. But they never gave up. They persevered against incredibly long odds, and it’s clear to me that it was their undying love for each other that sustained them through the seemingly insurmountable challenges life had handed them.
Their mutual devotion, expressed through the simplest of gestures, taught me that love in its purest, most primitive form is that which compels you to wake up each and every day, including even the days on which all that awaits you is the insufferable torment of a life gone sideways, so that you can continue to stand by the person you cherish most in this world and keep fighting for the blissful future you both want for each other. And for that lesson, James and Julia have my everlasting gratitude.