Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?
I think of this verse when I see the fortunate members of society judge those struggling. It is easy to point out other people’s weaknesses while being blind to your own. My vision is imperfect, but I have learned not to judge my brothers and sisters, for I have not stood where they stand or seen what they’ve seen. I have witnessed good in the most unexpected places and unconditional love so powerful that I believe angels walk amongst us.
Joe Lyons prided himself on never putting the cap back on a bottle of whisky. To say he drank implied he sometimes stopped, and I can say that was not the case. I never saw him without a fifth in his pocket or a glass in his hand. He also smoked. I don’t know how many packs a day, but after his daughter Linda died, I would find him passed out in front of his little thirty-foot Kenskill camper with a cigarette burned down to the filter between his fingers. I genuinely believed he had a death wish until one morning, he knocked on my door at 6:30, shaking like a dog shitting peach pits.
A man who consistently drinks liquor has a smell soap won’t wash away. It’s a sweet odor that comes out in the sweat, and Joe reeked of it. He knew I got up early to do the crossword puzzle and didn’t stand on formality.
“Are you alright, Joe?” His red eyes were glassy, and he hadn’t shaved in a few days. “It’s early for visiting, isn’t it?”
His lips trembled. “I saw your light and hoped you’d have the coffee on.”
“I just made it. Come in. You’re up early.” Joe and I were sixty-five, but the drink had taken its toll. His gaunt frame and protruding liver made his faded plaid shirt and gray Dickies pants hang from him like a scarecrow. He was a far cry from the star right fielder in high school.
“I got a letter, Frank.”
He handed me a crumpled envelope.
“You read it, okay? My daughter, Linda, had a son. His name is Larry. They want to put him in foster care. He’s my grandson, Frank. I screwed up with his mother, and I can’t see doing the same with her son.”
“Sure, I’ll read it,” I filled two cups before the coffee maker was done dripping and handed him one. He had to hold the mug with both hands to sip it.
“You remember Linda’s mother, Gracie, don’t ya?”
“Of course I do. You two were like oil and water. I don’t know how you ever got together.”
Joe nodded. “She was beautiful, and I wasn’t thinking straight. I wasn’t ready to be a father. We had nothing in common. Linda was an innocent spectator to the hate-filled breakup of our rotten marriage. My drinking didn’t make it any better.”
“You drink your coffee and let me read.”
It was as he said. I looked up at his bloodshot eyes. “Joe, maybe this is for the best. I’ve known you for a long time. Your grandson has special needs, and let’s face it, you have a drinking problem. There is no way in hell they’ll give you custody of him.”
“I’m going to quit!” His hands started shaking so badly that he slopped his coffee all over the table.” Joe looked embarrassed and set the cup down. “You’ll see I’ll sober up and even quit smoking.” He took half a fifth of bottom-shelf whiskey and a pack of generic cigarettes from his pockets and placed them on the table.
I thought he was trying to get up. Instead, he pushed the chair back, knelt, and extended his trembling hands. “Kneel and pray with me, Frank. Pray with me to Saint Jude. He’s the patron saint of lost causes, isn’t he? And if anyone is a lost cause, it’s me. Come down, Frank. He won’t listen to me. I’m a sinner. But he’ll listen to you. You’re a good man.”
His tears were nicotine-yellow, and I felt out of place praying, but I did it. I got on my knees and prayed to Saint Jude that he’d help Joe, and he’d help me.
I got up from my knees, a different man. I felt a spark when Joe was praying, maybe because his words were humble and from the heart. Or perhaps I imagined it, but I was changed and knew it.
“Joe,” I said. “There is an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at nine o’clock. I’ll throw on some clothes and go with you. What do you say?”
All he did was nod yes, but I’d been waiting for that nod for years. I started blubbering like a baby when he stood, rocked back and forth, and said, “Hello, my name is Joe, and I haven’t had a drink for six hours and forty-five minutes.”
Everyone at that meeting had stood where he stood and knew how he felt. It didn’t matter if you were a bank president or a sanitation worker. Six hours and forty-five minutes didn’t sound like much, but Joe had never counted that high.
Joe suffered from D.T.’s Delirium Tremens – acute alcohol withdrawal. He needed to be hospitalized a few times, and sometimes, I didn’t get any sleep trying to keep him from dismantling the drain lines in the Kenskill because he was sure a little man was calling to him. We prayed together, too. Good Saint Jude was probably sick of hearing from us, but I think he listened. I wanted to give up on Joe every other day and him on the days between. There wasn’t one day that went by that one of us didn’t want to give up, but Saint Jude wouldn’t let us.
I prayed between lapses of resolve, and we attended A.A. as often as possible. He and I got that trailer cleaned up inside and out. Hell, we even polished the old aluminum siding. It took two years of sobriety, visits from social workers, and parenting classes, but Joe eventually got custody of Larry.
Lao Tzu, a mystic philosopher from ancient China, said, “The flame that burns Twice as bright burns half as long.” That’s the way it was with Joe Lyons. But by God, he finished strong. A man who prided himself on his drinking changed his life and took pride in his grandson. Larry came over one morning when he was thirteen and told me Grandpa Joe wouldn’t wake up. I went over, and sure enough, he’d passed in the night. As had become my habit, I talked to Saint Jude and told him about Joe. I got the impression that he already knew.
Larry stayed with me after that and grew into a good man. Book learning never came to him, but he could sure whittle. He whittled birds out of shipping pallets and whatever else he could find. The people in the local galleries called it folk art, and he used the money he made to give carving classes for the Parks and Recreation Department.
That boy, his grandpa, and Saint Jude made my remaining years meaningful. His birds were beautiful, and they brought my thoughts full circle.
Lord, my vision is imperfect, but I have learned not to judge my brothers and sisters, for I have not stood where they stand or seen what they’ve seen. I have witnessed good in the most unexpected places and unconditional love so powerful that I believe angels walk amongst us. Amen