Whenever I drink coffee, each sniff of the java is a treasure trove of memories.
My father and I have often talked together over coffee, our conversations ranging from politics to life issues and faith and a host of other subjects. But this story is about a very special cup of coffee that I will always be grateful for – because it marked the beginning of a much-needed life-saving change.
When I got married 13 years ago, my marriage was all I could hope for. My wife and I had our ups and downs but we worked them out as best as we could, drawing on the help from our parents and in-laws as well as our church community.
But a few years later, trouble started brewing and our marriage soon became pained by mental, physical and emotional abuse – with me as the victim. At first, the incidents were infrequent and I was often made to feel that I was at fault for drawing my wife’s anger. So I tolerated the incidents, we would seek forgiveness and work harder at our marriage and move on.
But later, the violent episodes became more frequent, happening almost once a week, where I would be subjected to choking, beating, and frequent slaps for no rhyme or reason. I asked my wife to join me in counselling or seeking medical help but she refused and I would often be subjected to more beatings and slaps for making such suggestions, as she continued to say that I was at fault.
Many times, my wife would chase me out of our matrimonial home at night with nothing but the clothes on my back. I was often chased out without any money or even the house keys, and I was forced to spend the nights alone outside. In the morning, she would allow me to return home to change and shower before she left for work and I would leave for work after her.
I spent at least one night per week, sometimes two per week, alone outside in this way. I slept fitfully on metal benches and waited for dawn, often thirsty and hungry but unable to look after myself due to my lack of cash.
I had thought of making police reports but decided against it because of the shame that it would cause to my parents and in-laws, and community. Besides, I started to believe that perhaps it was my fault that this violence was happening and that I had to find out how to better please my wife, so as to stop the violence.
But after many nights of sleeping in the cold dark nights with not even a blanket or shawl, I began to feel withdrawn and eventually thoughts of suicide filled my mind. I thought that perhaps it would be better to end it all rather than face the incessant torture. But thankfully, my faith in God gave me the strength to not follow through.
Across the road from my home was a 24-hour cafe and I had often wanted to have a drink there but was unable to, because I had no money. I did not know anyone I could borrow money from at those late hours and in my disheveled state, I did not think anyone would trust me enough to lend or give me any cash.
But one night, after another unceremonious ‘banishment’ to the night, I decided to muster the courage and ask for a cup of black coffee on credit. I practised my best lines, and then walked slowly to the cafe and made my request to the owner.
”Don’t worry, the coffee is on the house. I have seen you downstairs at night and I think I know what is happening to you. Don’t worry, it will be all right and you can pay me back when you are more stable,” the owner said, and then handed me a cup of hot coffee.
”Have a seat over there and take your time. Next time, tell me or my staff what you want and you will have it. I will tell them to get it for you at no charge.”
At first, I thought I had gone deaf or was hearing voices in my head. His gesture was kind but the cafe owner had a business to run and he did not know me from Adam. He had no reason to trust me.
But I was in no position to argue with him just then. My thirsty self took him at his word and I had my coffee and slept better that night, although still fitfully.
The next morning I paid the cafe staff for my coffee. And the cafe owner was true to his word – he and his staff would prepare my coffee whenever I needed it, at no charge.
One night, he told me: ”Don’t worry about paying me back, I know that you are a good man. You are going through a hard time, so take care of that first. The coffees are a gift.”
I thanked him profusely, to which he just said: ”When things get better, pay it forward. That is always better than paying back.”
That simple act of kindness broke whatever shells and walls I had been building inside me, and I spent that night sobbing silently before I settled to sleep. While I was facing terrible abuse at home, a complete stranger had reached out to help me with no expectation of repayment, a simple act of kindness to a fellow human being.
The care owner’s kindness changed my life and mindset from that moment on. I had wallowed in despair and felt like a failure but I managed to draw on reserves of inner strength and soon I refused to play the victim in the abusive relationship.
On some nights, the cafe owner would chat with me as I drank my coffee and we soon developed a good friendship. I did not share my marital woes with him and he did not pry either, but we felt comfortable with each other and I saw him as a source of deep inner strength.
I drew strength from this kind act to eventually face my wife and call out her abusive behaviour. We tried to salvage our marriage but eventually divorced a few years ago.
When the divorce was finalised, I returned to the cafe and saw the owner was there. As I paid my tab for all the previous cups of coffee I had drunk, he looked up at me and smiled at my changed countenance.
”You look better now. In a better place,” he said.
”Yes, thank you. For the coffee, and for everything that came from that,” I replied.
He smiled again as he said: ”Many good things come from coffee. Remember these coffee times as you pay it forward.”
We still chat over coffee at his cafe when I drop by. And I tell him that I am paying it forward, with grateful thanks for that first cup that started it all.