How to Say Goodbye

Being able to speak for those I served.

“’Morning Kenny,” I call when the guests start
streaming into the soup kitchen dining room. 
Kenny is always the first one in the breakfast line and doesn’t need any
coffee to be this peppy.  I lean on the
serving counter between us as we chat for a minute about the latest Star Wars
book he’s borrowed from the library before I go back to the stove and continue
working on breakfast.

From the back of my kitchen I call out to people
I recognize, and some whom I don’t know just smile and wave at me while I stir
the giant pot of oatmeal.   I look out
through the large window cut into the wall dividing my kitchen from their
dining room.  The bright morning sun
floods in through what used to be stained glassed windows glaring down upon the
wide-open space which no longer houses stiff rows of pews.  Now folding tables fill the room, and the
guests start pulling plastic chairs around as they call out to their friends.

I walk to the far left of my kitchen to catch a
glimpse of one table in particular pushed into the front corner.  I look for some of the guys I know, Shorty
and Rich are always friendly to me.  They
are putting their bags down, claiming their little plot of real-estate before
they even get their first cup of coffee. 
Breakfast is prepared and we’ll serve the meal soon, but for now I have
a minute.  I grab the decaf coffee I
brewed in my own little coffee pot and head out the side door into their dining

A moment with a long time volunteer.

Keeping the light out of my eyes I turn my back on the windows.  I chat with some of the people I know, and simply smile and nod towards one of the many unfamiliar faces in the crowd.  I keep to the front of their dining room, near the kitchen and the industrial sized urn of coffee.  Through the kitchen window I watch as the volunteers finish getting ready to serve breakfast before I lend a hand serving.  I greet everyone who comes up to the window.

“Hey, any day on the right side of the dirt is a
good day,” I chirp for the hundredth time. 
It always gets a laugh.

After breakfast it quiets down and the guys who
were outside all night start to curl up for a nap.  They lean against the walls or slump down
over the tables and shield their eyes against the bright sun.  No one disturbs them while they rest.  I saw George curled up too, the hood of his old
gray sweater pulled tight over his head as he slept at the table.  It was a guest who first noticed he wasn’t
sleeping anymore.

“Hey, I need some help!”  He calls out to the supervisor who came
running to his table in the back corner.

I watch through the serving window, isolated in
my kitchen, as the EMTs arrived.  They
check his vitals, but he had been dead for several minutes by now.  Everyone stands quietly aside while they put
him on the gurney, his face as gray as his sweats.  Slowly they wheeled him out, the dining room
oppressively silent.  The rest of the day
is somber, and the weeks that followed too. 

Death connects us.  We’ve all had experiences of death, we will
all experience death ourselves sooner or later. 
It is the great equalizer.  As I
soak in that reality, the truth of our mutual mortality, I find myself drawn
out of my kitchen into their dining room. 
At first, I am
simply afraid someone else will be found dead rather than asleep.  I don’t want to
see death; I don’t want to lose one more person. I want to hold onto them all
as tightly as I can, as if anything I could do will hold them in the relative
safety of the dining room. 

Not sure I can accomplish anything I leave my
kitchen behind and spend time walking between the tables, subtly checking for
any small movement in sleepers curled up in their chairs.  I venture further and further into the sea of
tables leaving the security my orderly kitchen behind, finding any excuse to go
into the dining room to check on people. 
My intrusion is not always welcome. 
Suspicious glares meet me; I’m an intruder in their space, their

Today, things are quiet in the kitchen and I find
myself ahead of schedule.  Without
anything pressing to take care of I decide to take a lunch break, a rarity, and
I actually sit down to eat.  I fill my
paper plate with chicken and veggies, go out into the dining room and quietly
sit down at an empty table near the kitchen door.  No one talks to me so I just focus on my
lunch.  As I munch on my food the gentleman
across the table reaches over to hand me a napkin.  I had forgotten to pick one up when I had
fixed my plate.  I smile and accept it
gratefully.  We chat for a few minutes
while I finish my lunch, just making inconsequential small talk, but slows down
for a moment as we sit in the warm glow of the afternoon sun. 

I make a point of taking lunch breaks now, and as
I go past the walls of my kitchen the guests started to let their walls down
too.  They welcome me into their lives,
and little by little we learn more about each other. 

The send off was touching!

I’ve had four years like this, working for and with the guests at the soup kitchen.  I leave for the last time and it is a little like leaving home.  So many people here have become a part of my life and I feel how connected we were despite our differences.  I walk out of the silent dining room now empty of guests.  All the chairs neatly stacked against the walls; the light now dim as the sun has passed to the other side of the old church.  I had said my goodbyes at lunch, but now I say one last goodbye to the dining room which had become a home for me too.  I bow in a reverent namaste before I finally leave, and move on to find a new home.