This I Believe: The Grieving Thief

From the book This I Believe: Life Lessons (Wiley). The book is based on the public radio series. | Leslie was also featured nationally, reading the essay on The Bob Edwards Show on SiriusXM.

By Leslie Guttman

The bookstore was warm and cozy. It was packed, maybe because people didn’t realize the rain had stopped. I was on a lunch break. I got a weird feeling. Someone was looking at me.

I looked up. A woman with long black hair about five feet away quickly looked back down at the book she was leafing through. I looked down, too. More people came in through the door. The gust of air that followed them smelled clean, as if it had been freshly laundered.

I glanced up again at the dark-haired woman in time to see her slip a book with a sky-blue cover into her satchel and walk off. I hesitated and then walked after her

“Pssst,” I said, pointing at the satchel. Up close, I saw that she was about 30 and probably homeless, or close to it. Her khaki parka was filthy, her hair matted. The satchel was faded and stained, bursting with her belongings. She gave me a sorrowful look. Then she handed me the book and ran off.

As I leafed through the book, the manager came up behind me, apparently having seen what happened. It was a journal designed for someone who was grieving. Someone like me. It was beautiful, the paper creamy and heavy. It had space to write the answers to statements like: “I miss the way you…” and “It’s hard for me to be without you when I…”

“She’s been wanting that book,” said the manager. “She comes in all the time and looks at it. Sometimes, she puts it on hold, but then she never gets it.”

Dammit! I thought. Why did I have to be such a Goody-Two Shoes? When will I learn to mind my own business?

Why didn’t I just let her steal it?

I ran out of the store.

It was raining again. I thought I saw her parka up ahead. I caught up with her a block away. I tapped her on the shoulder. She turned around. Her eyes were dull and she was missing some teeth.

“Did you just lose someone?” I said.

“My grandmother,” she said. “I used to talk to her every day, and I miss her so much I can’t stand it.” I told her about my stepdad, who had just passed away. His kindness and caring had helped knit our family together for over 18 years

I told her to wait a sec. I knew I was now in a Buddhist fable where nothing is an accident. When I came back and handed her the book, we both stood on the curb in the rain and wept. For the first time since my stepdad had died, I felt understood as only a stranger can understand you, without inadequacy or regret. I believe life, or God, or whatever you want to call it, puts important strangers in our path so that they can help us or we them — or both. This I truly believe.