A Sweet Time
“Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder.
Help someone's soul heal.
Walk out of your house like a shepherd.”
Help someone's soul heal.
Walk out of your house like a shepherd.”
As my friend, Gary Seelig would say, a sweet time.
Yesterday, Christmas Day, was a magical day for Karen and me, filled with spirit and joy.
We went to the OYA youth prison, and visited with the young men I’ve been mentoring and visiting. They were filled with the experience of receiving gifts and a communal Christmas dinner served to them in the half basketball court that also serves so many other functions in their young lives.
We’d given a T shirt to several of the guys I’d been talking with over the last few months, and they wore them proudly, big smiles on their faces. One guy hasn’t had a family visit for three years. I make it a point to say hi and give him a hug.
“D”, who is becoming my chess partner, had never had a visit here from a sober person. I’m the first guy he’s had a conversation with, except for OYA staff, for the last five years. He liked my book on wolves and the poetry book. He writes some great poetry, and is a leader at their monthly sweat lodge and in treatment classes.
His essay on Measure 11, the mandatory sentencing scheme he’s enduring, is so well written and compelling, that I plan on sending it off to the Governor, the Oregonian, and the sentencing reform commission. He’s taking four college classes on line and plans on earning his associates degree before he gets out in 2013. Then, he wants to go to OSU and become a CPA.
We watched another young man, a guy who hasn’t heard from family for four or five years, the guy I had bought a soda and candy bar for about eight months ago, on Family Day, and watched him burst into tears at the thought. He was sitting with his new mentor and a local youth minister, laughing and telling them a story, a big grin across his face.
And, then there’s “T”, the guy I’ve been mentoring every week. It’s our one year anniversary of sitting down and having coffee, talking, and learning about each other. I’ve learned more than he has, but he’s also grown three inches in height and about five years in soul wisdom this last year. He’s not quite sure how to deal with the new guitar that Santa brought him, or his new self. He’s never had anything new for Christmas or family to celebrate Christmas with, without breaking out into a fight or a drug induced haze. He struggles with sorting out the new emotions in his life this year.
“D” comes over to sing us “Silent Night” and “Noel”, and we tear up at his beautiful voice and his tender rendition of the carols. We soon join in and families at other tables in the basketball court, now family room, join us, our voices echoing off the cement walls festooned with a few garlands of glitter.
On the way home, my brother called, from the cardiac care unit in a Seattle hospital. He’s been there nearly two weeks, and survived a five artery bypass on Wednesday. The afibrial rhythm irregularities of his heart were also addressed during his five hours of open heart surgery. He sounds weak, but determined. I could hear his smile as he told me he’s coming home Monday (today). He’s got some serious exercise and conditioning work ahead of him, but now his damaged heart is working with every artery at full capacity. I’m on that road, too, a few miles ahead of him, and I am hoping the power of spirit and the challenges and opportunities of post-heart surgery depression will guide him to peace and health.
Yet, the best of Christmas was ahead of us. The day before, a guy I’d been meeting with at OYA, and then the county jail, and had picked up at jail on his release date, had called. Everyone else at the transitional housing he’s at was gone for Christmas and he was all alone. I knew that the Salvation Army box of food we’d picked up that first day was long gone, and his food stamps were probably running out. The loneliness in his voice echoed deep into my soul.
At the end of that sad phone call, I’d invited him over to share Christmas dinner with Karen and me. We hadn’t planned anything very extravagant, just a simple dinner with some Christmas music playing on the stereo. With a guest coming, we ramped it up a few notches, and decided to put on the dog a bit. What the heck, it’s Christmas.
The young man didn’t quite know what to expect when I pulled up at his house, my Santa hat on my head, and drove back home. He had on his best shirt and pants, but I could tell he was pretty nervous. He’d never met Karen or been to my house, and he didn’t know what to expect, his first Christmas out of prison in four years.
I knew he loved to play the guitar, so I sat him down and put a guitar in his hand, as we finished the last minute preparations for dinner. But, soon he was hanging around in the kitchen, a crystal goblet filled with soda in his hand, chatting up a storm.
I steered him to the Christmas tree and put his Christmas present in his hand. A boyish grin shined across his face, his eyes glistening as he unwrapped the little helicopter that could fly.
We feasted at the dining room table, complete with table cloth, real napkins, and china. I had him light the candles and we put him at the head of the table, and watched him fill his plate.
He told us many stories of his childhood, and the chaos that he’s just taken for granted. As the stories continued, we learned this was the first Christmas dinner sitting around a table he’d had since he was 12. Other stories came flying out, my wife exchanging glances of disbelief and astonishment at the hellfire he’s endured, and the strength he must have to endure his life. His big heart filled with love and sweetness lit up the room.
When asked if he wanted seconds, our Oliver Twist said yes, and cleaned up his plate again.
At dessert time, he’d lost the rest of his shyness and asked for two desserts, the huckleberry pie and the ice cream with strawberries.
We moved into the living room, at the tail end of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir concert that had regaled us in the background during dinner, and picked up our guitars. The three of us stumbled through a number of carols, Karen and I singing, and our guest silent, but soaking up every tune.
He grinned his thanks to us, eagerly grabbing onto the plates of more food and more dessert Karen had wrapped for him to take home, and we headed back to his room in town. For once, he was quiet, and we didn’t talk much, yet I heard his humming, of all the Christmas carols we had sang.
Just before we got to his house, he asked me about marriage and family, and how that all worked for me. He wanted that for himself, someday, and someday soon, he thought. And, he wanted it to work for him.
I left him there, his first stop in life after prison and jail, his arms filled with tomorrow’s dinner, and another big hug from me. But the biggest hug was from him, the young man we’d asked to come for dinner.
Arriving home, I walked through the door, my heart still overflowing with the emotion I had experienced that day. My wife was at the sink, finishing the mound of dishes we had created for the young man who’d come for Christmas dinner. I asked her how she was feeling.
“Joyful,” she whispered, a tear running down her cheek.
--Neal Lemery 12/2011