It was 11:00 PM. I walked into his house and there were dozens of beer cans strewn about. There were several overflowing ashtrays. The smell of vomit mingled with the scent of cigarette smoke and stale beer. It was really more like a small half finished shack than a home. It was February and it was cold because he had run out of fuel for his wood pellet stove.
He had struggled with addiction throughout the twenty years that I had known him. There were periods of sobriety, as much as one year, but he was never quite able to break free. When he was sober his family and everyone else who knew him were amazed at how talented he was with his hands – carpentry, auto body and anything else he put his mind to. He built the gate on our front fence.
Earlier that day he had phoned me and asked me to buy him some beer. He said he had run out and he was starting to feel withdrawal symptoms; “jones-ing” he called it. This wasn’t the first time he had called with this request and, as I had done several times before, I explained that I would do anything for him except buy him beer. I would even pick him up right now and drive him to the nearest de-tox center, an hour away, if he wanted. He didn’t like that answer and he hung up.
He called again at 10:30 that evening. He was obviously intoxicated; he had obtained some beer somehow. He asked me if I would go to the local Mcdonalds and buy him a “Mighty Angus burger” meal. My wife and I had just crawled into bed. I was tired and I just wanted to go to sleep at the end of a long day but I remembered that I told him I would “do anything” for him. Besides, he was on a binge and he may not have eaten for days. I got dressed and started the truck. My wife expressed some concern for my safety but she agreed that it was the right thing to do. As I drove to MacDonald’s I remembered that it was the extraordinary jubilee year of MERCY and Pope Francis’ had talked about engaging the poor when we encounter them rather than just handing them some money and walking away. I decided I would stay and visit for awhile when I dropped off the food.
He looked quite surprised and perhaps a little suspicious when I asked if I could come in and visit with him. I had to clear some beer cans off the sofa to make some space to sit down. He started to relax as we talked and laughed about the sit com that was playing on the TV. I also inquired about some of his more recent construction and auto body projects. I told him how people admired his talent. Our conversation was light and fun and then, out of nowhere, his face became serious and he said “you’re a hard core Catholic aren’t ya?” After I clarified what he meant by “hard core” he proceeded to ask some point blank questions about all the current hot button issues – abortion, contraception and same sex marriage. I did my best to respond sensitively and intelligently. Regardless of the issue, the discussion always seemed to come back around to the affirmation of the incredible God given dignity we have as human beings. He also belonged to a certain minority so he quizzed me on some of the Catholic Church’s past institutional abuse of his minority and I agreed that some apologies were in order.
There was some silence after he ran out of questions and then he said “you must think I’m just a loser drunk.” I responded “no not really, I think you’ve got some strengths and some weaknesses just like everybody else.” He asked “you mean you’re not going to judge me and condemn me to hell?” to which I replied “no, because there have been times when my life has come off the rails and fortunately there were people who cared, encouraged me and helped me get back on my feet again. So I’m just passing on to you that which I have been given.” More silence and then he changed the topic. We engaged in some casual conversation for a little while longer and then I went home.
Just recently his mom passed away and he was one of the pall bearers for her funeral. She and her husband had adopted him as a small child. They were very close. Prior to his mom’s funeral he had maintained a long stretch of sobriety. Less than two weeks after his mom’s funeral I was talking with his family and they informed me that he had also passed away. Shortly after his mom’s funeral he started drinking again and it seems that his body just finally gave out after so much abuse. He was 47. His family, who are neighbors on our street, asked me to sing at his funeral. I was honored that they asked. It was a beautiful, hopeful, bittersweet service. Here is a verse and chorus from the song I sang:
Our lives are but a single breath
we flower and we fade.
Yet all our days are in your hands
so we return in love what love has made.
Eye has not seen, ear has not heard
what God has ready for those who love Him.
Spirit of love come give us the mind of Jesus.
Teach us the wisdom of God.
When I read this Sunday’s gospel I immediately thought of him because he was like the poor man Lazarus whose life was filled with suffering and torment. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to know him and hopefully, in some small way, he found in me some kindness and compassion. This Sunday’s gospel also makes it clear that we will need a reference from the poor to get into heaven. I hope he puts in a good word for me.