I leave my home, with lights that turn on when I flip a switch and a furnace that engages when I set the thermostat. I drive past ocean-front homes, and marinas, and a yoga studio, and dozens of restaurants.
My mind wanders from who could be texting me, to when I’ll help my daughter practice for her piano lessons, to how I can get my son to eat something other than squeezable fruit.
I cross a patchwork of invisible lines until I arrive at a small building in Portland. I shrug into its maroon front door, shoulder first. The door isn’t locked – you can’t lock a door that doesn’t properly shut – but it is heavy. I rely on my full body weight to push it open.
It’s dark in the hallway. There is a light affixed to the wall, but it’s a light only in name. I have never seen it provide any sort of illumination, and I’ve been stumbling into this hallway for more than a year.
My toe finds the first step, and I climb up. The going is steep, like the stairs to an attic. The stairway is narrow, which only adds to the feeling I’m climbing into a space used to store items only rarely needed, or only rarely remembered.
When I reach the first landing, I turn to my left and shuffle forward, my right hand balled into a fist and ready to knock. It’s still dark, so my stance is one of preparation, but also protection. Even in the driest heat of summer, the moist smell of rot fills my nose.
I never wait long at the door, this one grey, I think. A lock is turned, and the jamb releases with the hollow pop of a bubble bursting. A smiling face greets me.
Promised work papers may have again been delayed. Promised placement in a preschool may have been denied. Promised attention to a bedbug infestation may have been distracted. Regardless, the face that greets me smiles.
It may be the father, preparing to work an undetermined shift as a dishwasher. It may be the mother, trying to find time to study for a nursing exam despite the lack of child care. It may be the son, worried his baby sister will crawl to the television. Regardless, the face that greets me smiles.
They speak a language whose name I cannot pronounce. They miss parents and siblings I can never reunite them with. They fled a conflict I do not understand. Regardless, the face that greets me smiles.
I opt for generic brands when I buy groceries for them. I brought the father a bike that was stolen a week later. I found him a job within walking distance from their apartment, where he makes barely enough money to pay their rent. Regardless, the face that greets me smiles.
I dread having to cook my family a multi-course Thanksgiving meal. I am taking my children to have breakfast with Santa. My husband and I had a conversation about whether we would buy each other Christmas presents.
They make phone calls to a landlord who never answers, even when the ceiling caves in from a water leak. They wear layers inside an apartment where they can see their own breath. They do not move out, because they have nowhere else to go.
They are the names on the giving tree at your office, or your church. They are the parents accused of laziness by a system afraid of freeloaders. They are the stories lost in the debate over who can come to this country, and on what terms.
They are the challenge, whatever you understand the challenge to be.
Volunteering for an immigrant family from Rwanda means losing perspective and then being smothered by it, sometimes all within the same hour. In the amount of time it takes to listen to one Justin Timberlake song, I can drive from my address to theirs. We are separated by nothing, and we are separated by everything. They look to me for hope, and I look to them for forgiveness.
Regardless, the face that greets me smiles, and I smile back.