Friday, May 02, 2008

In celebration of a heartfelt man.

Her cheeks are caved in where once her teeth held the shape of her face in place. Her dark eyes dart around the room as if constantly searching for an exit or perhaps she's just making sure she's ready to make a quick exit in case someone comes to tell her she has to leave, this isn't where she belongs. The pinkish white flesh of her scalp shows through between the strands of her salt and pepper hair which flies about her face like feathery whiskers on a cat. She's tall. Thin. Almost emaciated. She never wears shoes, her stockinged feet shuffle as she walks.

She isn't comfortable sitting amidst the black suits and dresses. And yet, she's come. She's here. She must pay respects to the man who gave her a gift no one else ever had.

She cannot get up to speak at the podium, "Talking in front of people makes me nervous," she tells the MC. She sits in her seat and holds a conversation with him as if there's no one else there. We strain to listen, to hear her. What she has to say is important.

"I came in one day, stoned, like I always was," she says, her eyes never leaving the MC's. "I'm an addict," she says by way of explanation.

Her entire body is in motion where she sits on the edge of her chair, leaning into the conversation. She nods, her arm lifts up, she straightens her pointer finger and jabs the air. "He saw me stumbling and came out from behind the glass window towards me. I could barely stand. I was crying. He came over, put his arm around me, held me up and said, 'It's okay. It's okay. You've got a good heart."

She stops and swallows. "He said that to me. 'You've got a good heart.'" She shakes her head. "Nobody's ever said that to me before. He did. And I'll never forget it. You've got a good heart."

She sits back in her chair, her thin lips pulled back from her reddened gums in a smile as innocent as a baby's. She nods her head, mutters to herself and rocks her body. "I have a good heart," she whispers.

He died last Wednesday. This man who could see the good heart within each of us. His care giver had turned away to make a cup of tea and in those brief moments, he slipped from his earthly form to another plane.

It is how he lived his life. On his terms.

It is how we are celebrating his passing. Nothing fancy. No formal service. Just a roomful of people gathered to celebrate the life of a man whose past is a blur, but whose impact in the ten years many had known him was profound.

I'd only known him two years. Since coming to work at the Drop-In. I knew him as a security guard. Committed to giving his best. To ensuring the rules were followed. Procedures maintained so that everyone was as safe as possible in an environment where chaos is the order of the day. He always had a kind word. A gentle smile. An outreached arm lengthened by his pointer finger jabbing the air to get your attention or to bring your attention to a point that he believed must be made.

He'd once been a client. A man, like so many others, struggling to let go of a past that haunted his waking moments as he slipped into a bottle that gave him courage to face the day. It was a past that slithered through his nights on velvety whispers that would not let him forget where he'd been and what he'd done.

But he wanted to. Forget that is. Forget what he'd done. Forget where he'd been. Forget the past so he could be free to live today for all he was worth.

And he did. Let go. But he couldn't forget. He didn't really want to. It was his legacy, and his way out. He couldn't forget it, but he could at least forgive himself and the past that had caused such trouble in his life.

At the shelter he found the road out of the past to living each day with dignity. He found the path away from the darkness of the addiction that gave him false courage into the sobriety that gave his life meaning.

I remember him making his rounds of the building. He was a tall man. Thin. Handsome in a Clint Eastwood kind of way. He wore his black vest with the gold lettering with pride. His footsteps were measured. Sure. As he walked and tested doors, he held his clipboard in one arm, carefully checking off that locks were secured and everything was as it should be.

The routine gave him meaning. It made me feel safe where ever I was in the building.

If it was after hours and no one else was around he'd sit for a moment in the blue chair across from my desk and chat. Sometimes, he'd tell me a story of another time. He wanted to share what he'd learned through living life on the wrong side of the street he told me. He wanted to use his story to give hope and strength to others who were lost on the road of life like he once was.

"I gotta give back to give meaning to my life today," he said.

He was a man of few words, but when he spoke, I listened.

"I once tried to go back," he told me. "I thought it was time I reconnected to my past. I went east. Checked out some of my family. It didn't work out. Too much water under the bridge. So I came back. Here. Where I belong." He paused, lifted his right arm up, extended the pointer finger, nodded his head and said. "There's never any going back. You've always got to find where you belong right where you are."

Yesterday, dozens of people gathered together to celebrate the life of Augie. A gentle spirit. A wise soul. A heartfelt man.

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