I felt like I was on a roller coaster and the man before me was at the controls. I wanted this happy, fairly tale reunion. But the tears of joy and elation at finding him soon turned into tears of pain. After the initial shock that he thought I was a social worker passed, the deeper grief set in when I saw his hopeless condition. His nose had been running and was caked all over his unruly beard, and it was evident that the eye infection had not yet cleared up. He could barely string words together through the slur of his drunkenness, and he would intermittently pass out mid sentence. But I learned a great lesson that day; there is a community of peers that stick closer than brothers, and I was clearly an outsider, and a potential threat. Person after person came out of the pub, or out of the shadows to check and make sure Bert was ok and that he was ok with my presence. They were all kind, but leery. So I struck up conversations with this unsavory bunch and learned many interesting things about them. They shared freely and questioned unabashedly. They wanted to know why I was there, who I was, and what I was all about. Armed with a Kaleo poster in my pocket, I answered their questions. I was sharing with one man about my first Kaleo event and I mentioned that we had one lady named Jen come. Bert came to at this point and said “I know Jen.” The chances of this were slim to none. I put no stock in him knowing this lady that I had met once, did not know the last name of, and virtually knew nothing about except that we were praying for a miracle for her. About that time, two young men came to ask Bert for a cigarette. One of them said,“Hey you remember me, I’m Vinnie’s nephew. He used to do concrete work for you.” Bert said yes he remembered him but no he didn’t have a cigarette for them and so the young men left. Relatively coherent at this point, Bert asked me why I had come to find him? I explained that God had placed him on my heart and that I couldn’t stop thinking about him, and praying for him. He looked up at me with eyes as blue as the ocean and filled with turmoil and pain that you could see, and be began to cry. In between sobs he repeated, “Why? Why would you care about me? My life is worthless. I am worthless.” And a whole new kind of tears filled my eyes and spilled down my cheeks. I hugged him and told him he was not worthless to me and he was certainly not worthless to God, who had given me an unrelenting love for him.
As I drove away, the smell upon my clothes was so strong I had to drive with the windows open. My heart threatened to burst with both gratitude that I had found him, and sadness for the plight of this man and his community. He was an enigma; a burly man of 6’2 who you could tell could take a beating and not flinch , yet he could be reduced to tears by a small 5’2 blonde girl showing up to say she cared. I knew our story was far from finished.
Later that day I received a message from Jen letting me know that our prayer for her at Kaleo was being answered! I was so excited to hear this great news and to ask her if she knew a man named Bert. As I had expected, she didn’t. I told her I hadn’t figured so as he was quite intoxicated at the time, but he had been so adamant I needed to ask. As if a light bulb went off she asked if he was by chance a concrete worker because a man named Bert had done all her father’s concrete work, but she had heard that man was now homeless. The ‘chance’ encounter with Vinnie’s nephew told me these two did know each other from a time long past. A time when Bert was a very successful businessman, who had a wife and children and was an active part of our community. And this would be the first of many situations where I was left to put pieces together to a very large and complex puzzle surrounding who Bert said he was and who he actually was.
I would swing by Bert’s haunt often that month and occasionally I would actually see him. Soon he would recognize my van and would come immediately over when he saw me approach. It wasn’t long until his friends stop popping by to make sure he was ok, and instead they stayed to visit, eat my homemade cookies and even ask about Kaleo.
I asked Bert if he would like to come to Kaleo with me. I promised him a hot meal, a prayer and a nice evening at the casino. Having no better offers, he agreed, although I had no hope it would come to fruition. As I drove to the appointed place at the appointed time, I felt nervous. Extremely nervous. I don’t know if I was more anxious thinking I would have my hopes dashed because he wouldn’t be there or if I was more anxious about what I would do if he was. My mom and I drove up to the bench and there he sat. Eating a small tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream someone at bought him. Dinner. He was ready to go; but somehow I was not. All of a sudden the reality hit me – this is a homeless man I know nothing about, who is at least somewhat drunk, and I’m about to take him in my personal vehicle, with only my mother and me. Was I mad? If he decided he wanted to hurt us or rob us, we were no match for his size and power. I prayed for peace and assurance that I was doing the right thing and for protection, and with that, I helped him into the vehicle.
The next hurdle was getting him into the casino and tucked away from all the glowering eyes. I prayed security would not immediately escort him out and we made a slow (because he was a bit wobbly on his feet) but steady beeline for the room reserved for Kaleo. And we had an amazing night. Jen came and Bert was there and a few others and somehow it felt like a near perfect evening. This was exactly what Kaleo was all about; bringing God’s love to those who may not otherwise experience it. And you can be sure they experienced it that night.
I wrapped up sandwiches to go and I dropped him off more sober than when I picked him up, at the same bench. It felt so wrong to just leave him there. I promised to be back. “Thank you for a really nice evening, I want to come again. You are an angel Leanne. Goodnight”.
As I drove off into the blackness of the night, I was again overcome with many emotions. I have come to learn that these emotional highs and lows will always be a part of this friendship; loving someone with mental illness and addictions is complicated. Wonderful but complex. On one hand I was radiating pure joy; excited that I was able to give him hope and love that night, but deep sadness that he needed so much more than I could possibly give; and an overwhelming feeling of how wrong it was that he was alone with nothing and no one and I was going home to a house full of people that loved me, filled with nice things. But one thing was for sure, I was excited to know more about the journey God was taking me on this with the illustrious Bert.
His name is Bert
To be continued…