Thursday, June 3, 2010

Reflecting on the use of time

I slumped onto the couch after a long day and closed my eyes for a pseudo-nap before dinner. I heard some troubling news earlier in the day, and I needed to think. It was “my time.” Then, my 3-year-old son, Grant, tiptoed up to me and started chattering. I listened with half an ear, try to give him an idea I was listening. I’ll make it up to him later with some quality time, I thought. But as his words filtered through, I realized I was going about it all wrong.

A death

I received an e-mail from a friend in Bradenton, just north of Sarasota, letting me know a homeless man I knew well had been found dead Sunday, May 25, in his wheelchair, outside a Chinese restaurant. He was 57 years old.

I first met this man when he materialized at the same church I attended when I lived in Bradenton several years ago. I was looking for a writing project, and he needed a ride to a temporary job, so I interviewed him as I took him to work every day. I learned that before he became homeless, he was making $100,000 per year as a computer programmer in Washington, D.C. He was married and owned a large home.

Then things fell apart. He had been sober and bright-eyed for a period, and then he fell victim to his old demons: alcohol, paranoia, delusions.

Alms for the poor

A year passed, and I was about to move to attend graduate school. It was late summer 2006. I was driving home from the store, and there he was, curb-squatting under a fluorescent street lamp several blocks from church. My brain told me to keep driving, but my nagging conscience steered me to the empty parking lot.

We talked quietly on the curb near the cave of a bank drive thru, reminiscing about dinners we had eaten in my apartment, and he ribbed about the enormity of my son’s toy collection.

It was getting late, and I knew my wife would be worried. I didn’t have much cash — five bucks — and I was hesitant to give it to him, knowing he’d probably just use it to buy more rotgut vodka. Still, I slipped him the five. He took it, and then grasped my hand for some time. He wept.

“Thank you,” he said. “Not for this” — and he waved the money — “this won’t help, really. But just the fact that you cared enough to give it to me.”

A scrap of paper

I left Florida to attend graduate school in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Thanks to a grant and another temporary job of my own, I was able to fly back twice to continue interviews and keep up the writing project. I sat with him and recorded story after story from his life in 2007. I didn’t know then that it would be the last time I would ever see him.

I’ve thought about him many times since, particularly about the scrap of paper he carried in his wallet. The paper was folded several times, and all that was written on it was a list of names: Brian, Hailey, Jackson, Grant. My name and the names of my wife and children. Somehow, it seemed, it gave him some comfort to know that, on the other side of the country, someone was thinking about him.

But that thought gave me little comfort when I heard he died. Why couldn’t I have made one more trip to see him? I had moved to Florida again and even drove through Bradenton one day on a business meeting. But how to find him? He had no phone number, and he could be anywhere. I didn’t take the time.

Now, it’s too late.

‘My time,’ revisited

I say all this not by way of confession, but because I know that many who are reading this can relate. You can remember a day that began like any other day, with cold cereal. You answered your phone, managed your e-mail inbox, and then you heard the news that someone you cared about had died. You ate lunch. You drove to your next appointment and sat through your next meeting with a blank look on your face.

All of this was on my mind when Grant interrupted “my time.”

I sat up. I pulled him onto my lap and asked him more questions. It didn’t matter what he said, I only wanted him to keep talking — to fill my time.

Someday, Grant will be gone when I get home from work. He’ll be at baseball practice or a friend’s house. He’ll be at a college diner, or he’ll be leaving his own office, with his own wife, his own children squealing at the sounds of his keys jingling as he opens the front door. I may have a lot of time with Grant, or I may have a little — I just don’t know.

So I kept him talking. And he told me he was scared. In our church, a child can choose to be baptized by immersion at 8 years old. He’s 3, but he said he’s scared to go under the water. I held him and told him it was OK to be scared.

I asked him what else he was scared of. Big dogs, he said. He looked down.

It’s OK, I said. I’m scared of big dogs, too.

He doesn’t know it, but I’m scared of a lot of things. I’m scared of bad health, of death, and mostly, of the thought that any one I loved would ever die thinking he was alone.

This column first appeared in The Palm Coast Observer on Thursday, June 3, 2010.


  1. Brian you have a beautiful eye and an ability with words that is a gift to those of us who read them! Thank you for sharing your column on your blog. My day is blessed by your thoughts and feelings expressed here. Thank you.

  2. I greatly appreciate your good writing, and your generosity toward the homeless man. That generosity goes so much farther than the money. Your valuable time meant so much to him, and means much to such as I. As the mother of a homeless man I feel for those people, and SO appreciate you!