Sunday, June 3, 2012

A happy garden

Our garden's coming back to life under the steady hands of Everett. Steady, I say, because he works for six straight hours with his striped athletic socks pulled up over his jeans, his boots marking the soil until he rakes the dirt plumply back in shape. Yes, he reeks alcohol from his skin and his lips quiver when he speaks, but there's something else I see when I look at him. I see his humanity.

Too often I have driven past those sitting on overturned buckets on the corners of freeway exits, with misspelled signs, and I've kept my face resolutely toward the stoplight. "Avoid contact," I think to myself. I glance at the dogs that lay at their feet and wonder how they can afford to own dogs if they can't afford to feed themselves.

But now Everett has come into our lives. A real person whose story has a family, much sorrow but also much joy in it. And I realize how often I've been quick to pray but slow to act mercifully toward those in real need. I'm reminded of James who says, Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says, "Go in peace; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?" 

Even more than these people on the street corners, though, I've been thinking a whole lot about my brother Andrew. My very own brother was homeless. And though there were reasons for his having walked away from our family, I am sure he felt pushed. For many years, I expected that he'd end up in jail or die on the streets of Los Angeles.  What I didn't expect that that he was employed for a decade and a half before he died at the same job. He didn't make enough to live, but he had a job, a not-enough-to-live-on minimum wage job, that barely bought him food and helped him do his laundry, let alone gave him enough to rent an apartment (after he was kicked out of the last one he shared with a roommate--and no, we don't know the story behind that). And because he was homeless, by the time he died he'd jettisoned all the belongings he'd left home with back in about 1988 when he drove away from my parents' home in a stuffed-to-the-gills Toyota pick-up. At the end, he had a single duffel bag and what fit into the small locker at his job at the Universal Theater Theme Park.  Among those those belongings, however, was a phone he'd found just a week earlier in which he'd put my mother's and sister's phone numbers--the two numbers that hadn't changed in the decade since he'd lost touch with us.

Those two phone numbers were just about the saddest things of all the sad things we found the week after Andrew choked to death on a hotdog during his dinner break at work. And, believe me when I tell you, not only his death (which in itself is a hauntingly sad way to die!) but many things were sad about that week. But those two phone numbers told me he was still hanging on to our family. That he was--in some way--still lonely for the past he'd left behind. He remembered and was homesick, in whatever way he could be.

Andrew and Everett make me think of all the men, women and children who are out there, with families they've left behind, or lost, or somehow can't have. The sadness of their lives without.  Everett walked into our house to have lunch the other day, looked at the family pictures on the wall, the fire in the fireplace and the quilts on the backs of chairs, and said, "I remember this. I remember having a home." Yesterday our mutual friend told me, "He hasn't been in a home for eight years."

And that's almost how long it was that Andrew was gone from our lives until he died. I still feel it--that I didn't do more for my brother. That I couldn't figure out a way to be in relationship with show him mercy. It was a complicated situation, rife with pain, but I know this: Andrew suffered from the loss more than anyone else did. But I can't do anything for him now. And even the possibility ended four years ago on my younger daughter's 19th birthday.

But I can't help thinking that what we're doing for Everett--or what our garden is doing for him--is partly for my brother. What I see in Everett's eyes when I look at him is pride. Pride that he has enough money now to buy a bus pass--for the first time in almost a decade--with money he's earned. And maybe someday there will be enough saved to rent a room. That will be a very happy day. For Everett. And all of us who care about him.

Almost as happy, I think, as my garden is.
And that's really, really happy.

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