Friday, December 5, 2008

We Might Have Been Friends

I was at the children’s playground the other day with my grandson. Another man arrived with a one year-old baby. The guy was big, and looked pretty intimidating to be on a children’s playground, even with a child in his arms. He looked pretty intimidating to be anywhere really. He was in his late-thirties, had a shaved head, tattoos all over his arms, and up and all around his neck. Serious tattoos, not the kind you’d expect to see in the sandbox. He wore his pants below his butt-cheeks and was hardly able to walk with them hanging so low around his thighs. He looked very hard, he looked very humorless, and he looked very much like someone you don’t ever want to mess with. You’ve seen the look, and like me, you’ve probably been intimidated by it before. Of course, my first thought was “the baby doesn’t have much of a chance growing up in the environment that this guy must be providing.” But then, after a few minutes of heartwarming observation of the guy, my second thought was “there is something very kind, and very loving, about this man. There’s someone inside of him that I like, someone I’d like to get to know.” My reasoned prejudice gave way to informed recognition of his humanity, of his value, and of his soft and malleable heart.

We were the only ones on the playground at the time. We quietly acknowledged each other while continuing to engage with the kids. My grandson, as is his manner, began asking the man about his baby, what was his name, could he play with him, etc.

The guy put the baby in the beginner swing and pushed him like a daddy does, enjoying every little laugh and squeal, almost as much as the child was enjoying the swing. The guy began talking to me about his other children; he has four all together, between the ages of one and fourteen. He went on to tell me about his life, how he screwed up his first marriage with his addiction to pot; how he’d spent most of his adult life in and out of different prisons around the state for various, and quite serious, offenses. He told me of spending nine months in the hole at Corcoran State Prison, an experience he would give anything to forget. Then he told me about his new life, his new wife, and his commitment to family. He said he stopped using drugs about two years ago, and that nothing would make him return to the unconsciousness with which he lived through most of his teens, 20’s and 30’s. He said he realized it was time to grow up, that family is what he has in this life, that it is all that matters to him now, and that his intent is to be the best husband, father, son, and uncle that he can possibly be. I took a deep breath. Wow. Like a cool breeze in the desert. Like a warm cup of coffee on a cold winter morning.

He told me how proud he is of all of his children, and recognizing the hardship they faced with his absence, they were still doing well in their development. He told me they are not angry any more, the older ones do well in school, and that they are growing up to be motivated and respectful little individuals. It was apparent by his magnanimity that this man had transformed himself, because of his family, and for the sake of his family.

We’d been at the playground for about an hour when my grandson began wandering away. I followed to catch up, and as I did, the guy I’d been talking to headed off in the other direction with his precious little son. About fifty yards apart now, I heard him call back to me, “hey, wait up”, he said, “What’s your name? “I’m Denes”, I said, as he hurried back to where my grandson and I were now standing. He stood up straight, strong, and obviously very proud, and said, “My name is John Paul McCartney. Everybody calls me ‘Beatle’.” He reached out to shake my hand and said, “I really hope you and me see each other again.” I said, “I’d like that very much, my friend.” He turned and walked away, pushing his baby out front of him in an old rickety stroller, holding his pants up with his one free hand.

All You Need Is Love, Brother.