Some people struggle through life even when there appears to be no struggle to be had. For others life appears to come easy and struggles few. That was the way it was with my brother and me. Life seemed easy for me but David, my brother, was always caught in some soulful struggle.
This caused a tension between us. My life, he would say, was prefabricated for me; I only had to learn how to fit the corners together. A few steps and it was all good. Favorable reviews would be announced from all places. Yet he struggled as if trying to do a puzzle without all the pieces or as he strongly suspected the pieces did not match the cover of the box. I did not understand his psychic pain or he my ability to fit in seemingly all situations. Why did I have pieces he did not, he asked? I in turn asked why didn’t he move on to another box with all the pieces? Someone not struggling with life was suspicious to him.
David was the smarter one. As a child he would read the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z for leisure. He scored the highest ACT score ever at his high school. He was a thinker. He thought about life a lot. And for him life did not fit nicely together. So the thinker often became the brooder.
He was the one member of a very religious and devout family for whom religion did not work. He was agnostic, maybe an atheist. This was not something he could ever say out loud in the deep-south in such a pious family. Occasionally he would go to church hoping to find what others saw. But he never saw the light that so many in the South professed to see.
He grew up in the Vietnam era and he saw pretty quickly Vietnam was not a good fit for our country. So the rebel in him protested. But our father was in the Vietnam jungles fighting for his life. So protesting seemed disloyal to our father. He did not agree with him on many things in those days. But he still loved him and protesting felt disloyal. To be a rebel or not was a question that was not clear to him.
His first marriage was to a cheerleader. It was what some call a shotgun wedding. Barely graduated from high school and now he had a family to support. So an ironic twist of fate came to the poor southern boy. The only way he could see forward was to join the Army and receive the GI Bill for education. He did this against the protest of our Marine father, fresh home from the War and disillusioned with it. But he saw no other choice. Luckily, because he scored so high on his aptitude test they made him a stateside attaché’ to a general grooming him for a grand military career. Although they recruited him for a second tour he thought one was enough.
Life after his tour of duty appeared to have possibilities. But David was a brooder, full of thoughts that he could not speak. I had become a fairly good speaker and had way too many ideas I wanted to share for such a young man. His thoughts would frighten and disappoint those he loved. So he remained quiet, thinking and drinking more.
He spent time as a runner. Forrest Gump ran to express his grief; David ran to clear his head. He was proud of completing a marathon or two. After running he seemed a little more relaxed. He came into the house after a dog had bit him on his run. He went to the bathroom to clean himself up. He came out with his mouth foaming with toothpaste declaring the dog had transmitted rabies to him. It was not that funny but noteworthy because he seldom pulled stunts. I on the other hand was full of them to an annoying degree.
The bathroom brought out the best in David. Once the bathroom door jammed and he could not get out. The door to the bathroom once led to the outside therefore the lock was on the outside of the added bathroom. He was convinced that my other brother or I had locked it somehow on him. So not wanting us to have the satisfaction of him pleading with us to open the door he was going to get out of the bathroom by himself. He cleared the bathroom window sill, took the screen off, stood on the toilet, lifted himself through the small window only to fall hard to the ground six feet. Now proud of himself with a banged head and bleeding scraped leg he pranced (with a limp) into the den and stood in between me and the television waiting for my astonished look at how he could have possibly gotten out of the bathroom. Much to his frustration I only told him to please move out of the way so I could see the TV. “Oh admit it you did it.” I looked at him and before I could say did what? My mom’s ever observant eye looked at him saw his bruised head, scraped knuckles, and limp asked him what happened. He proceeded with great pride to tell her how we had locked the door and how he had managed to escape. He was proud and he looked at me triumphantly. Mom always a straight shooter said “Oh I am so sorry honey. I meant to tell you that door has been sticking for a while and could one of you boys fix it.” Looking at my now deflated brother and understanding what had happened I laughed. He glared at me and said “You locked that door.”
Running was to clear his head but the thing that made him feel a part of the whole was nature. Nature did not care what he thought. It barely acknowledged his presence but it gave so much back. He only fit in the woods and it became his reprieve.
Despite the occasional antics life went on. He was now working downtown Birmingham for the Social Security Department. His life had taken on the daily grind of office work. He realized this when he knew exactly how many floor tiles he passed on his way to his desk. The time had come for probably the greatest adventure of his life. Yet, it was not planned to be as great an adventure as it became. He was with his second wife and they had decided to adopt. They had chosen relatively safe Honduras to adopt a little girl. David spoke a little Spanish and it was a quick process and not that far away. So they went to Honduras to sign the papers and bring home their bundle of joy. But to their horror there was a military coup while they were there. They already had the child in hand and were to sign a few papers and leave to go home. But the coup changed everything. The new government refused to act on anything the other government had done until they had reviewed the actions. An adoption of an infant was not high on the list of the review. They now were in a downtown with tanks rolling down the streets. The new government was anti-American. The baby was in their hands and the bond had been made. There was no turning back but they did not know what the future held. His wife returned to the States to return to work. David stayed getting an extended leave from his job. The streets were not safe and he had to maneuver with the baby whenever he left. Eventually, he stayed in their local lawyer’s compound and waited and waited for months until they were finally delivered from the crises. They were allowed to leave for America. The new baby brought happiness but the experience had reminded David of the capriciousness of the world. No one seemed in control.
The last time I saw him his life was making a little sense. His divorce from his second wife had been nasty. His son (from his first marriage) like father brooded a lot and came and went according to his moods. His adopted daughter visited but was guided by a mother who wanted nothing good for him. He was on his third wife. Yet life began to hold meaning and he felt as though he might have control of the events that came. His new wife was a woman who had strong religious beliefs but had lived through enough pain to identify with someone who couldn’t believe or believed skeptically strongly. He had a simple but nice home that was abutted against a major state park. Twenty-five yards from his backdoor was a hiking trail. He had a job as a probation officer that he was known as being fair and tough. Legend had it that he stopped a would-be prisoner escape from a man younger and twice his size. The man attempted to escape and he and David struggled. David realizing he could not hold the man handcuffed himself to him. The man tried to drag David around the corner to an awaiting car but David held on. Officers eventually found David bruised and battered. Handcuffed to him was the notorious “escapee.” They laid exhausted on the ground twenty yards from the door of the probation office.
He still brooded but he talked a little more. We even got along now. I was more mature. Divorce, working with the homeless, Persons living with AIDS and chronic back pain had not made me a brooder but I had to force my puzzle pieces to fit these days. While I was there for a visit he showed me a bird’s nest in his backyard with baby chicks in it. We hiked in the woods. We had a contest to see who could do the most reps of bench presses. We were not young men anymore but we were on the verge of middle age and somehow we were finally able to connect and make our lives fit together.
So his death a week later did not make sense. When I was there he had complained of a back pain. He had been to a doctor who had found nothing wrong. Then one day at work he turned deathly pale. Great pain enveloped his body and he felt fatigued. He was rushed to the small town hospital. The family was called in. Something was horribly wrong. He was to undergo surgery. He was losing blood and the doctors were not sure why. I lived too far away to get there fast. But my parents, his wife, and our brother were there. He was in a wheelchair in the elevator and assured my mom everything would be okay so go to lunch. It was late afternoon; she had not eaten. They left; he went into surgery for six hours but the doctors bungled his operation. They could not find the source of his bleeding. They resuscitated him. He fought hard as only a man who still had life to live would. But he died on the table. Apparently, an ulcer on an aorta had burst causing the bleeding. The doctors did not find it until after he died. Some questioned his wife’s decision to stay in the small town hospital and not transfer him to a city hospital. His wife trusted her lifelong doctor. But ultimately it did not matter he was dead. A man too young to die had. There was no sense in the death. The chaos he had always seen in the world had finally overcome him just when life was beginning to make sense. And I am left with a puzzle piece that does not fit.
It all started at a young age. Every day before school his mother would pick him up, place him on the table, cup his face in her hands, and tell him he was the most beautiful boy in the world. He would accomplish big things. If he had any doubts in the beginning they had long left him by the time he went to college. He had charisma. He played in a band while in college.
He went to business school and impregnated his girlfriend and now had to think of what to do next. He decided to take up the career of his grandfather. He would become a minister. The combination of business minded, spiritual personage with a rock and roll mentality would work wonders for him.
He decided to incorporate the spiritual work of dealing with the least of these all the while keeping his rock and roll and later beach bum attitude. Most would, at first, be caught in what was the whirlwind of his life. He became the rebel rock star CEO of homelessness. He grew his agency from a small shelter to a big non-profit. People said it was good he worked with the poor because otherwise he would have been a self-indulgent CEO or politician. Working with the homeless allowed some of the rock star life to create good. He ran his non-profit agency as a business; he would later brag that he ran a multi-million dollar corporation. Which was sort of true. He prided himself in being the minister of big things.
As part of his rebelliousness he prided himself on being a redneck. He chewed tobacco, loved football, and listened to and played of course rock and roll. His was the lifestyle to have even if he had to use and run over people to have it. The combination of charisma, spiritual leader, and redneck (badboy) was intoxicating. His organizations flourished until he could no longer hold people’s confidence. His way or the highway grew old. His glory first tinged with the humble nod of “I am only serving the homeless” would eventually be viewed with jaundiced eyes.
But he could tell poignant stories, with seemingly deep meanings, about different poor folks he met along the way. And his sermons were always shocking as he purposefully had one cuss word strategically placed in them. This would often cause people to renew their allegiance to him. But a review of his stories would reveal he was always the hero, with the homeless being noble too. Nine biographical books and not once did he make a mistake.
In his first job he created quite a sensation, grabbing the Southern Baptists by the tail and creating ministries for the poor and homeless seemingly out of nothing. He became the youngest keynote speaker ever at the Southern Baptist Convention. He was moving on up to bigger and better things. He had young seminary groupies. I once was impressed with his charisma. When in a room full of his groupies, we were having a lively debate. I had him on the run and shrewdly mentioned Dorothy Day and her teachings to buttress my point. She was someone whose teachings were revered by everyone in the room. He paused and then said that may be true but she is dead. Everyone oohed and ahhed at his wisdom and how he had won the argument. It was then that I knew what true charisma was like.
He lived as a rock star and beach bum. His wife, and the mother of two of his children, caught him running naked around a couch with a married member of his flock. But he excused himself with the reasoning “I am passionate and working with the homeless had been very stressful.” His followers as cultists surrounded him. Yet the people he had deliberately antagonized at his job now had the goods to let him go, so he resigned.
At first I thought this was a tragedy. But I worked at the church where he was minister. I took over the homeless ministry of which he had been in charge and found that the twenty-odd churches he had worked with, had not seen him in months, maybe a year. They were struggling to keep the homeless fed and clothed as he had inspired them to do, and needed or desired guidance. Then I found the letters. While cleaning up his office there were other women expressing desire to be with him again. Being a friend, I disposed of the letters. Many years later I asked him about those letters and why he would leave them laying around the office. He declared, in his typical cavalier style, that he did not care if anyone saw them. Another staff member found a secret bank account with several thousand dollars in it. It was his slush fund for when the Southern Baptists did not supply enough money, he stated.
He landed another job and his marriage had somehow survived the ordeal. He was building a new empire fast. I was in a commune, fleeing Southern Baptist life, when a mutual friend suggested me for the job. I loved Savannah and the offered job. He and another seminary student friend hired me to work with a new AIDS ministry they had started. The duties were far enough removed from his orbit that our interactions would be minimal. He and the organization were forever growing and creating national interest.
Then she came and she was the cat’s meow. And he lusted. This was the first ‘lust’ I had seen at the new job. I only noticed because they played touch football in the lobby. Employees began to talk. He called a meeting and self-righteously declared that they did not have the right to talk about what they saw him openly do. He called me in for counsel and said he was madly in love. Did I know that his wife, whom I knew and liked, had never read any of his books? Which sounded horrible until I recalled that the first book came out about the same time his wife caught him chasing someone around a couch. She probably lost her literary interest at that time. He asked if he should act on his feelings of the groin. I strongly advised him that would not be wise for many reasons. Valuing my good counsel, he had the affair and then left his wife. The new marriage lasted. Maybe he was in love. He continued to grow a homeless empire toppling, other morally inefficient organizations along the way. But in the end his organization would run only a hair better than the other vilified agencies.
The main reason his agencies stagnated was constant growth and chasing after the money to grow ran its course. He was warned to slow down, programs needed nurturing, but he took the high road and declared there was too much to do and God was on his side. He was becoming a national sweetheart and building an ever expanding organization. But many in the local community viewed him as a bully. He was the big kid on the block who thought his way was the best and only way.
The drinking and affection for the women staff members continued because after all he was full of life. He did not need to worry about what others thought. He began speaking tours nationwide. He was gone often. Everyone loved him and those who did not were prudes and stood in the way of progress.
His second wife left him. Never really knew why. But I had noticed his affections seem to be more ardent than usual with some of the younger women. He was now middle aged. But lived as if he was twenty.
One day almost three million dollars came up missing from the account. He who knew how much the coke machine made suddenly pled innocent to any knowledge of what was going on. He blamed the chief finance officer for the downfall. She was one of the people who had warned him that he was growing his empire faster than the money was growing. He would, at these times, put on his ministerial hat and tell this very devout lady that Jesus would find the money. She would be made to feel less holy and figure something out. After preaching to her about Jesus, he would switch to his CEO hat and say it was her job to make it happen, and with a smile on his face, imply that she better damn well do it. Finally, she ran out of tricks and she failed to pay the organization’s taxes on the wages of the nearly one-hundred employees. It was a bad move. He told everyone he could that his heart was broken by the trust she had betrayed. He assured everyone he did not know a thing about her bad decision. I scratched my head that people believed him and that he would let her take all the blame. She, being the good Christian, went to her cross as Jesus did, without saying a word.
But he was now on the downward slope. It may have been someone else’s fault but he was the CEO. A board made up of primarily white men let the black woman take the hit but watched him very carefully. The voices of inferior agencies began to be heard by the board, as well as women who were not sure if his affections were entirely appropriate; his work was beginning to look more like smoke than substance. He was asked to leave and he did. He was burned out he proclaimed. The board would never know how hard it was to live with such passion for the poor for so long. His national duties kept him busy for a year but they too began to notice his hard living. He was an easy-going and even a sexy figure from afar, but up close he resembled a train wreck.
He wrested away a good severance from his agency and had always made sure he was paid appropriately for his services so his nest egg was substantial. He turned his efforts to living the life of the beach bum. After all that is where all the truly passionate people were found. He tried various business endeavors, one using the acronym called MEE. He married a former employee. His life continued; filled with toga parties, blogging, traveling to his favorite Caribbean islands, and other zestful things. Life is good and for those who worry about his drinking and overly social behaviors, well they just do not know the right way to live.
As he grows older he now pastors a church in a bar and chaplains a nursing home all the while trumpeting his beach bum status. The rock star and CEO days are only glory days today. He has become the minister of small things. His new wife is pregnant. He is going to be a father at sixty. Maybe slowly the heritage of his grandfather can become his or who knows maybe the rock star CEO will have a reunion tour. Or maybe he finds the beauty in small things.
“You know I am a really good looking guy,” he said to my wife with nary a smile on his face. He was in his fifties with short, thinning hair and a belly that had taken him a lifetime to cultivate. This was his life story: always looking for affirmation while acting as cocksure as he could. He never noticed the glance and raised eyebrow of my wife to me asking, “Is he for real?” He grew up in an old, established South Carolina family. He was raised with a “black nanny” on a huge plantation whom he was sure loved her job of tending him. He was part of a privileged class who were convinced they were hard-working people. His father belonged to the right social clubs where deals were made and fortunes grew. Everyone knew and respected his family. But Matthew was a soul trying to find something that was missing in his upbringing.
He could be confident as hell: the eternal frat boy chasing tail or the adolescent who used bravado to hide his insecurities. He loved to hunt and fish and even developed symptoms of an environmentalist. He prided himself of being a man of the people who could relate to anybody, no matter race or ethnicity, yet insisted on flying a Confederate flag. His only black friends worked for him in some capacity. He was proud of his southern heritage. But it was a heritage that saw the antebellum\slave period as the renaissance of the South. His spirituality rejected the fundamentalism of the region, in favor of Native American beliefs and Alcoholics Anonymous—religions he could preach and believe as only a true evangelist could.
He attended college and roomed with an Arab, which of course made him an expert on Middle Eastern affairs. They became friends and Matthew would take him home where his parents treated him as family. His roommate would never forget their kindness and generosity to him while he was miles from home. He belonged to a very rich family in Yemen and would become Matthew’s benefactor whenever he was experiencing hard financial times. His roommate believed that charity was a necessary part of his Islamic faith.
Matthew would take on the “not proud yet boasting” facade of inheriting a million dollars and drinking and spending it all in a short period. He even had his moment of fame when he started an international expo in Charleston, South Carolina that became the biggest wildlife festival in the southeast. But his money ran out and his alcoholism kept on. He would have five wives and three beautiful children. His marriages did not work because he was always looking for the next best thing and often that was a new woman. He loved to hunt and had his own hunting club for a while. He was a good ole boy who, as long as he had money, people were proud to be his friends. He was a grand charismatic storyteller who could tell tales and make friends who were fascinated by these stories.
But the money ran out and his health paid a price for the heavy drinking. He needed healthcare and he had no insurance. He couldn’t hold a job because he was the only boss he could ever take orders from. I met him in a short-term health center for the homeless. He was on oxygen and penniless. He was attracted to me because I taught meditation classes for the homeless. This intrigued him and I was intrigued by this homeless man who claimed to have been a millionaire. The homeless usually were from the poorer classes, having spent a lifetime of work living from paycheck to paycheck until addiction, health, divorce, loss of a job, or some other tragedy had pushed them down the next rung of the economic ladder.
He was not like the other homeless, he repeatedly told me. He was the greatest marketing genius I would ever meet. He was confident, even arrogant, and he did have a magic. He convinced people that he would have another million any day now. He was working hard on it.
But he surely had doubts inside of himself while living at a homeless shelter. He had been sober for over twenty years but he was a sober drunk for most of that time. He still had the same mentality that had led him to drink. He wanted to be free of all the things that kept him as a drunk. But every shiny object led him on another dead-end journey.
It was only after his body stopped, his heart begin to be cultivated. He slowly learned the difference between living large and living. He had always thought he led the grand life but life had been misleading him. Now for the first time the quiet claimed and calmed his soul. In the calmness reality set in. His children were alienated from him, his friends were few, and he was sick. He had lived as though his life was full of meaning and import but now he discovered his life was one of loss after loss and not grand meanings.
He wanted a relationship with his daughters. He wanted someone to hold him when he wasn’t feeling well. And he wanted most of all to be able to impart some of the wisdom he had learned. He wanted to have meaning and purpose. So he slowly contacted his daughters on Facebook. One was receptive, one was indifferent, and one hated him. He tried to be involved in their lives but their lives were filled with other things and people. When they visited, it was to see their mother, who had been there all along for them, and a short side trip to see their wayward father was tacked on. Occasionally the receptive one came just to see him. The others, after the original fascination of who might be this man who claimed to be their father, seldom contacted him. He came to realize there were no magic words or deeds that could help him reclaim his lost daughters.
He charmed the women he met. Even moved in with one but they all presented more problems than solutions. He also had to come to the realization that he was not a good mate. He had spent a lifetime absorbed with himself and though he tried his self-absorption was not disappearing. He knew now he would never be in a permanent relationship.
He became the guru of the Facebook page. He offered advice and platitudes and developed a following. But somewhere inside he realized he was a sham guru. He had explored all sorts of spiritualties but had not spent enough time in any one of them to have any depth of understanding. He could look good spiritually but living it was hard.
It took him a while but he had to come to grips with the fact he would never be rich again. His luck, youth and health were gone. He could attract clients but he could not hold them anymore. He lived his life on a small fixed income with yearly gifts of money from his old roommate. He no longer could play all day; one event a day exhausted him. His life was becoming small and contained.
But slowly he began to change inside. He understood what he had not before. He no longer was chasing the next best thing but stayed with the things he had. He was happier although he would be the first to say poverty sucks. Being sick sucks. Being alienated from a daughter sucks. But he took what life gave him and learned to appreciate that.
He found a small cheap houseboat and lived there. It gave him the sense of adventure and uniqueness he craved to present to the world. His receptive daughter came to visit with his grandchild and he slowly learned to be a grandfather, although space and time made it difficult.
Today, he can be found on his houseboat. He writes his Facebook offerings. He drives his blind friend to appointments. He meets with some of his friends for dinner. Life is no longer grand, it just is. And he is learning to be content with that. And maybe one day the wisdom he wishes to impart to others will be his and he will not have to say, “I am a good-looking man.” It will be obvious.