Is this what a man’s life is worth?
The numbers at the bottom of a receipt. Is that what his life is worth? One hundred sixty-eight dollars. And 65 cents. The sum total of what may have been the last of his worldly possessions.
I knew a guy who may have been homeless. Where he had been staying and with whom I did not know. After he wasn’t heard from for a few days, someone went to check on him. He was taken to the hospital, still alive, but with a grim prognosis.
By the time he was in doctors’ care, he had a handful of cancers, all stage 4, rampaging through his body. Years of hard living — tobacco, alcohol, God knows what else — was catching up to him.
His is a cautionary tale of what might have been. He had incredible talents and ability. He could have been a great artist. Or a great scientist. He was actually quite brilliant. He’d even hitchhike to Georgia Southern every day, where he majored in biology — for a while. In his teenage years, he might even have been a very good golfer, until a hip injury derailed him.
He’d also go diving for golf balls at a nearby course, plunging into a dark pond at night, and reselling them to golfers. His forays for Top-Flites ended when he came eyeball to eyeball one night with an alligator, and lived to tell about it.
His tremendous talents just wasted away as he continued to keep getting wasted. Over the years, after a failed marriage and continued relationships with the bottle and any number of illicit substances, he had adopted the foolhardy and timeworn strategy of the chemically-dependent: Nothing was ever his fault. No, not the time I took him to the emergency room after another long, strange night. For once, he had some money in his pocket. But as always, after a couple of drinks, he got loud. And he bragged about his holdings. So some folks offered to take him for a ride. Did they ever.
They beat him, took his dough and left him for dead on a dirt road. He struggled to his feet, found a nearby house and banged on the hatch in the wee hours. He was then somehow able to get a cab ride back to his parents’ house.
He would find ways to procure things. Those credit card offers in the mail? He’d fill them out, send them in, get a card and spend its limit.
His attitude was if they keep sending them to him, that’s their fault. Even if he had no way of ever paying the accrued debt back. He never did. His father? Well, the burden fell to him.
When I heard he was in the hospital, and knowing his situation should he make it out was less than comfortable, I went shopping for him. I didn’t know what he had or didn’t have, but I also figured he probably would have to scrounge around to find two nickels to rub together.
Working construction under the table doesn’t exactly help fill the 401k.
There were shirts, pants, a pair of shoes, socks, underwear, long underwear, T-shirts, a toothbrush, toothpaste and deodorant. It was all waiting for him, should his condition ever improve that he would be released from the hospital. Instead, he went from that hospital to another and there he remained for the last couple of weeks of his life.
I left the bags at the nurses’ station. I briefly considered leaving them in his room, but I also didn’t want to get into a discussion with him at that point. I had endured countless nights of drunken ramblings and paranoid delusions. Given he was probably more than addled on a morphine drip, I had no curiosity about what thoughts bounced around in his head.
I hadn’t spoken to him in nine years. Didn’t feel like breaking the streak that day. Never got the chance, either.
Finally, his end came. Even then, it didn’t come easy. They shocked him back to life twice on his final day until an older brother told them no more. He may not have much dignity left in life, but he was going to die with some.
His ashes were scattered in a creek behind his oldest brother’s house. A few words from another brother and then his son took the container and emptied into the water. “Give ’em hell on the other side, Dad,” he said.
He died on Feb. 24 two years ago. The family waited until an appropriate time to scatter his ashes. It was Easter Sunday — perhaps fitting for a number of reasons, one of his many nicknames, “Lazarus,” and he was a carpenter by trade. The date was 4/20, also somewhat fitting, and it was also the day that would have been his parents’ 63rd wedding anniversary.
Instead, their prodigal son, their middle son of five and third child of seven, of which I am the fifth of five and seventh of seven, was home at last.