This spot was empty in July. I had a newsletter and blog ready to send. It only needed a push of the button on the 4th or 5th. Instead, I found myself on a plane on the 5th, headed for Connecticut. I didn’t want to go.
Let’s start at the beginning. 35 years ago, I said “yes” to corresponding with a pen pal in Sing Sing prison, New York State. It was a program set up by Prison Fellowship. Wally wrote to me faithfully. He called (collect) every week. I was less faithful at writing, but I at least chatted on the weekly calls. Really, he chatted. I mostly listened, until the timer cut us off.
Through releases, returning to different prisons, drug episodes, homelessness, a terrible marriage choice, and more jail sentences, Wally and I kept writing and kept finding each other. I also moved, four times, and before the internet, keeping tabs through that was harder than you think.
Wally was a faithful friend, and also a professional thief and drug addict. Humans are a little complex that way. Someone on twitter last month asked me why I would choose to help a man she considered less than worthy instead of people more deserving. I didn’t answer. The question didn’t merit response.
If a person can’t see the humanity of a man because he’s homeless and addicted, I refer them to Shakespeare. “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” Humans are all equally the image of God. Wally’s soup kitchen friends, whom I met in Connecticut, are not lesser images than those of us pontificating with our on keyboards how we would weigh human worth. God’s breath in our lungs gives us all enormous weight we’re too frail to carry on our own yet too glorious not to.
I got a call on Friday July 1st that Wally had chosen to enter hospice care for his stage 4 lung cancer. I didn’t blame him at all—it was the right and dignified choice of a man who has had little choice over the entirety of his life. I started checking flights.
Friday he was resigned but feeling OK. He could be in hospice for a few months. Monday they told me he was worse, but still, he could live for a few weeks. Tuesday, they called again and said he might not make it through the day. My plane was at 6pm. It got canceled, and the assistant got me on an earlier flight. Earlier, meaning I had to leave immediately.
A lot of us were praying I’d make it in time, but when the plane landed, I had a message to call the hospital. I did, and the information was what I’d feared. We’d lost Wally just an hour or two earlier, while I was in the sky between Chicago and Hartford. I guess I’m not the first person to cry in an airport.
Wally had named me his next of kin and medical power of attorney. Wading through Connecticut law looked daunting, and the gratitude I have for the hospital staff and everyone else who gave me both assistance and compassion is enormous. They did everything so well and so kindly. At some point, I’ll be the recipient of his ashes, the dust that we all return to the only thing left, except the beat up wallet and phone I carried home.
Friends, I’m still processing.
Processing the grief of a life that could have been so much better with a family who encouraged rather than abused (and a functional, redemptive prison system).
Processing the sadness over never hearing “God bless and you know I love you. You’re all in my thoughts and prayers,” on every single sign off to a phone call or letter. Every one, for 35 years.
Processing the trust that a man who had learned not to trust anyone put in me to make his life and death decisions.
Processing the love that the staff and clients of his favorite place, the soup kitchen, had for him that overflowed in a memorial service right there in the kitchen that I was blessed to conduct.
Processing how I witnessed, for two days, the reality of the dignity of every human life.
Most of all, I’m a witness to Wally’s life, the longest running one he had. So I’m telling his story, because he deserves that. We all do.