“Please pray for me that I honor Cory and my mother-in-law”, I asked my friend on the phone. I hung up as I passed into a part of town unknown to me. I double checked the locks on the car as the streets decayed into greater dilapidation with each block. I arrived at my destination but circled the neighboring blocks a few times in incredulity. Surveying unkempt buildings surrounded by passing vagrants, iron fences and aid societies, I mentally noted that my mother-in-law had sent me to the “ghetto”. As I parked, I double checked the locks again, my heart rate accelerating. Grabbing my purse, my breath caught short in my chest. I prayed for courage reminding myself that there was nothing to fear. My mother in law visited this place often — the St Vincent de Paul Homeless Day Center and Shelter for Women. Moreover, this is exact the kind of area my brother-in-law would have frequented without trepidation. I rang the intercom and announced myself. I knew was I looking for Carl – a six foot seven inches tall black man with salt and pepper hair.
He greeted me but I could tell that he couldn’t immediately place my face in his memory. [My own short-term memory is failing me recently due perhaps to sleep deprivation or a defense mechanism for the grief.] “We met at the memorial service. I am Denise’s daughter-in-law. Cory was my husband’s little brother. I brought the extra food, water, the book, and free compliments.” Without hesitation, he offered to assist me. “I want to honor Denise and she has very specific instructions. Please help me so that I execute this properly”. I read aloud the text Denise had sent me. “We are celebrating the life of my brother-in-law Cory Roussel who was killed on Oct 26 in Houston. Cory’s life purpose was to show love and compassion to all and he would find creative ways to do that. One way is that he printed out free compliments and posted them around downtown Austin. I would like each of you to enjoy your compliment and feel the love he so freely shared”.
I gave a bottle of water to first worker at the office – a coffee toned women with glasses. “Cory sold water for a living. This is in his memory and appreciation for you. ‘Hydration is vital’ (a selling line shouted by Cory by Congress Ave)”. I gave her a free compliment. Carl ushered me into another room with other shelter workers and volunteers. Carl hushed the room and the attention fell to me. “My brother-in-law Cory Roussel was murdered last Sunday, October
26 inHouston. He gave out free compliments in Austin as a way to spread unsolicited joy, love and kindness in the world. I am here in his memory to give each one of you a compliment and a bottle of water”. I paused sending another quick prayer to heaven for courage; I had promised myself I would look each person in the eye with intentional contact for as long as the receiver would permit. I resolved that I would not be the first to look away. Each person received a compliment and water as they whispered condolences. One woman in particular met my eye and would not look away first. My self-challenge was being tested; I looked away when others entered the room. I repeated the commemoration and gave them a slip of paper with a compliment on it.
I bit in my lip as we entered another room. I was kicking myself inside for already breaking eye contact over distraction. I should have lingered as longer as the receiver could bear. This room, a large open space with tables, computers and a couch, was where the women being served, the homeless “clients” congregated. Carl called the room’s attention – nine women’s eyes were fixed towards me. Again, I said, “my brother-in-law was murdered last Sunday. I am here in his memory because he loved generously. One way, he gave himself was posting free compliments all over Austin. I am here to personally to give one of you water from the family and a compliment so that you too feel loved and valued.” I approached the first woman. She was seated, blonde and bedraggled, mid-thirties. I lowered myself to her eye level, my hand went into her hand. She leaned in and hugged me, “I’m sorry” she murmured. I let myself feel her embrace, tears came to my eyes. I felt a warm weight of someone behind me – another woman perhaps two additionally embracing me. I trembled, crying with deferred grief, “Thank you for loving me”. Rising from the hug, more women gathered offering sympathies and squeezes as I resolutely without fear looked each one in the eye. Carl passed out water as I shook hands and gave compliments. A woman – dark haired tied up with a bandana – inquired about Cory’s age. “27”, I replied.
She inquired “Whatcha do? Leave him outside? Is that how he died?”
“No” I replied calmly, “He was beaten to death.”
“A seven year old was beaten to death?”
I articulately more clearly, “He was 27”.
“That’s why I protect my own so that so nothing like ever happens to them”
“I sincerely hope that you never experience anything like this” I held her gaze and then she looked away.
When everyone had received a compliment and water, Carl and I posted free compliments on the bulletin boards. I chuckled as I pinned them over the AA pamphlets, an irony that only Cory would appreciate.
As I was about to leave, one of the clients asked how she could help me. With a red coat and a black mantilla veil, this woman of twenty-something year-old looked like a black Blessed Mother Mary. I requested her prayers and for her to love others. She insisted, however, on “reverse panhandling” me – handing me a bag of unopened gummy worms to pass along to someone else.
Carl saved the rest of the paper to post at the men’s shelter, and he signed with a sad sigh a remnant of the slips of paper for posterity – dated with the location.
As I drove home, my heart was at once very light and heavy. On the radio, an announcer read the hagiography of the Saint of the Day – St. Martin de Porres. A mulatto man, abandoned as an illegitimate child in 18thcentury, who humbly served the poorest of the poor with great zeal and tenderness. I invoked Cory, “please pray for me to have the courage to continue to serve with humility and love everyday”.