My dad’s death, a tree, a homeless man, and hope
Today is the three year anniversary of my dad’s death. To honor him, this year I bought a memorial tree with a plaque in my neighborhood. I walked to the park after work today hoping the tree and the plaque would be planted. Three fresh trees with no plaques were there and I wondered if one of them was my dad’s. I walked through the grass to see the third tree and at the same moment, a heron flying over a pond caught my eye. Herons have been flying over me a lot lately and I’ve wondered if they were a message from God. I walked down some small steps to a dock to get a closer look at the bird and all of a sudden I heard, “What brings you down here?”
A man was stretched out across a bench behind me near the water using his backpack as a pillow. Before he could catch my eye, my gaze fixed on the hardback copy of a book he was reading — To Kill a Mockingbird. As he set the book down on his chest to look at me, I saw he was an older man with a white beard, beautiful piercing blue eyes and a tanned wrinkled face. “That’s a good book,” I said to him. I then noticed a stack of books below the bench, along with a pair of sturdy boots, cigarettes, a half empty water bottle and a bunch of crushed cans of Natty Ice (that’s what we called it in college). I realized he was probably homeless. A bit dishelved, the man looked up at me sheepishly. “I picked up this book from the little library stand in the park,” he said. “The book is way better than the movie if you ask me. Movies always miss parts in the books.”
“I agree with that!” I smiled. “It always seems to be that way, doesn’t it?”
“What brings you down here?” he asked again and I replied, “Today is the anniversary of my dad’s death so I went for a little walk.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he replied. “I remember when my parents died. After my dad died, my mom went to one of those homes where they take care of you. She was happy there. She wasn’t alone and there were people to take care of her. I was glad about that.”
“Do your siblings live nearby?” I asked. “No,” he replied. “I’m the only one left.”
“Do you have friends?” I asked. “Friends?” he replied. “Well, I’d call them acquaintances. They’re nice. Most people are nice. Some people check on me and I’m meeting a man at 2 p.m. tomorrow who is going to let me do my laundry so I don’t scare people away with my stench,” he joked. Then he shared a bit about where he slept outside last night.
“How long have you been homeless?” I asked. “Since the divorce,” he said. “Thirty years ago.”
“Thirty years?!” I asked. “What is it like?”
“You take one day at a time,” he said. “Some days are hard and some days are good. But it’s important to not sweat the small stuff because the small stuff doesn’t really matter.”
Bill went on to share some stories about odd jobs he had throughout the past decade and local businesses that really helped him out. We ended up talking about faith and he said, “You know…I used to think all of that was a bunch of nonsense, but in the past few years, I’ve thought God must be keeping me around for some purpose.” “Oh yes,” I smiled. “Absolutely. You are a special one.”
“Me?” he asked. “I haven’t made much of my life. I’m homeless.”
“Your circumstance doesn’t determine your identity,” I reminded him. “Who you are isn’t tied to the circumstance you find yourself in.”
He tilted his head to the side a bit and said, “Hmm…that is true.”
At that point, it started to rain so Bill and I parted ways. Later this evening, my brother, mom and I went out to dinner to celebrate my dad’s life and as my mom dropped me off, I saw a man knocking on the door of the convenience store at the bottom of my apartment complex. I recognized the sturdy boots and backpack. “That’s Bill!” I told my mom. It was 9:03 p.m. and it seemed like the store just closed. He sauntered away and my heart sunk.
I’m not sure what Bill has faced in his six decades of life, but I can guess he has seen more than I have. As I sit in my warm home listening to the rain outside, I wonder where he is and if he has found a safe place to sleep tonight. Aside from the physical challenges, I also wonder about the decades of isolation and loneliness. Who is there to fully see and know Bill? Who is there to encourage him and give him hope? Who loves him? Who is a safe place for him?
In To Kill a Mockingbird, author Harper Lee writes, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” I wonder if Bill read that sentence in the book today. I wonder what it’s like to climb inside his skin.
As my dad’s death anniversary has been approaching, I have been thinking a lot about what he had experienced on earth and how he viewed life. I think he carried a lot of shame so it was difficult for him to be vulnerable around other people. He wasn’t a stranger to loneliness. In a weird way, today I saw parts of my dad in Bill — a longing for more in life with no idea how to get there. Grasping for hope with no idea where to find it. Relying on self instead of falling into the arms of others.
The story isn’t over though. I almost feel like I have a bird’s eye view. Maybe that’s what the heron represents — a higher perspective, a different vantage point. I see the ways God is pursuing Bill and I saw God pursuing my dad even when he couldn’t see it himself. If I’ve learned anything in the past three years, it is that God will move Heaven and earth to be intimate with his kids.
There is fire in my heart this season to scream from the mountaintops: it’s time to stop hiding. It’s time to stop hiding the flaws. It’s time to stop hiding weakness. It’s time to stop hiding pain. It’s time to stop hiding shame. It’s time to come out of hiding.
Someone referenced this song today and I think it’s absolutely perfect:
Come out of hiding
You’re safe here with me
There’s no need to cover
What I already see
You’ve got your reasons
But I hold your peace
You’ve been on lockdown
And I hold the key
’Cause I loved you before you knew it was love
And I saw it all, still I chose the cross
And you were the one that I was thinking of
When I rose from the grave
Now rid of the shackles, my victory’s yours
I tore the veil for you to come close
There’s no reason to stand at a distance anymore
You’re not far from home
I’ll be your lighthouse
When you’re lost at sea
And I will illuminate everything
No need to be frightened
No, just throw off your fear
And come running to me.
There is an invitation to come running into God’s arms just as we are. There is an invitation to come running into the arms of others just as we are. There is an invitation to be a safe place for people to fall into. Bill and my dad’s stories seem a bit tragic, but I know we don’t see the full picture — and their lives are a reminder to the rest of us that we still have time to make a choice. To choose love and risk and vulnerability and intimacy. To find a safe place where we let God touch those tender places in our stories so he can heal them. To find safe people who do not judge but come alongside to carry the burdens with us.
I feel so strongly that this is the season where loneliness ends. This is the season where isolation ends. This is the season where hiding ends. God is placing the lonely in families (Psalm 68:6). Family is your destiny. Belonging is your birthright.
And as that song lyric says, we’re not far from home. I can feel it — this is the year we find it.