I almost choked on my words, walking home through the park, mom on the other line listening to me rant. At some point, I stopped breathing because I was talking so fast. The words came tumbling out, hot and speedy with smoke on their heels. I squeeze as many of them into one breath as possible to the point where my voice cracks and my head begins to rush, short on oxygen.
Mom knew the story. She knew about the summer day I saw Roger go stumbling across the park. I didn't want to but I got up and asked if he was okay; he wasn't. He had a bad knee. He couldn't walk and I couldn't leave him there. All sorts of events followed: the car ride back to his apartment, the slow walk up four flights of stairs, through a musty entryway and into a dark living room, greeting his two dogs and taking them for a walk. Who knows the last time they had one? And now here I was, seven months, five volunteer dog-walkers, and dozens of volunteer dog-walking hours later staggering home through the park wondering why charity hurt so much.
Twenty-four hours from now, he'd board a flight out of the country. He'd bought the ticket just a few days earlier, with no plan for boarding the dogs. We had shuttled them to a last-minute reservation at a "puppy hotel" 25 minutes away, only to find out that the whole situation was severely overpriced and devastatingly subpar. But we didn't have a choice. With only a week to plan, the dogs would have to stay here. I stumbled away from their faces leaning towards us from behind a cage door, forcing my emotions down, down, down under my ribcage and held my breath until I got to the car.
I put up a barricade as I gassed the car up Ocean Avenue, only speaking if absolutely critical. Once at my house I barely managed to get inside my door. Maybe that's when I remembered to breathe as if I was holding the past month in my lungs. It had been too much. The hospital visits, the vet appointments, the scrubbing dog urine off the floor. The soup deliveries. All of it unpaid, which is how I always wanted it. I wanted to be a good neighbor. I wanted to learn charity. I wanted to do something uncomfortable and inconvenient because I thought virtue was on the other side of all of it.
But now, sitting on a bench, hot flames gathered in my throat, I wasn't so sure. All I had was anger. Anger at the last minute calls. Anger at the bad planning. Anger at myself. Maybe something was wrong with me? Why can't I be more loving? Mom says that isn't fair and I try to believe her. But I didn't know how to make sense of the whirlwind slamming around in my chest. The sermon at church last week was about the Good Samaritan. I knew the story and I knew the Good Samaritan was a role model. But what do you do when doing good leaves you feeling bad?
Someone is playing jazz in an apartment at the edge of the park. Mom gives me a few lines about boundaries and it makes sense. I didn't think I'd need them, to be honest. I guess that was my mistake: oversimplifying something complex. I thought it would be easy, serving, taking on someone else's burden. I thought charity would be easy; the simplest virtue of them all...just do good freely. But maybe charity isn't that simple? Maybe it's not something you can just sign up for like a potluck knowing in the back of your head that anything will do. Maybe growing in love is a long and tricky process of learning how to love, learning how to balance the love of the world with love for yourself. Maybe growing in charity has just as much with learning to say no as it does with learning to say yes. Maybe it has less to do with making us better and more to do with making us honest?