Joe, the very likeable guy who often stands silently right by our office doors without knocking, sat a few feet away from me with a stash of wrinkled documents. He had come in to fill out forms and clear up a mistake on a money order. Big-boned and broad-shouldered, this is the kind of guy that disarms you with a soft-spoken tone and the type of wide-eyed glare reminiscent of some Japanese cartoon character from the 90’s. To me, Joe stands out. He has something of a magical mismatch quality to him. Like the large hands and burly features fitted into a five-foot two frame. Or the weathered sturdiness and resilient attitude that weigh on a pronounced limp.
As a child Joe was diagnosed with a rare disease that stunted his growth and left him bedridden for several years. And yet he has never applied for disability benefits and doesn’t intend to. Not a gray hair and yet arthritis has already begun distorting his bones, and because he’s a proud man he still holds that he can labor. We both know Joe is competing with men half his age for employment, but then we also are keenly aware of just how pointless further discussion of the issue is.
There’s a certain beauty to the incongruence Joe embodies.
Our conversation picked up soon after we began filling out applications. Our case management meeting felt like an excuse for connection. He talked about his life before it unraveled, lighting up like a match when describing his mother and making sure that I clearly understood how much he depended on her for care and education before he was capable of walking to school. He also gave me a beautiful portrait of his former wife, a woman who loved him when others would look away. Childhood sweethearts, she would come to his defense when classmates would make fun of him. She and his mother were also close, and so his youthful years seemed to rotate between a sun and a moon, and the tragedies of sickness were somehow eclipsed by the beauty of their love.
Later on as a young adult, Joe met a surgeon who offered to operate on him for free. Not only did he straighten bones, spine, and increase the quality of Joe’s life, the procedure also left him with scars that he showed me on more than one occasion, like the time right before pouting,
“Everything was going fine until my drinking got in the way.”
I recall that my knee-jerk reaction to his admission was to assume I knew what he meant by everything being ‘fine,’ but then it became clear as words like jail, divorce, unemployment, homeless, visitation rights and alcohol use rolled off his tongue. So I guess what he was trying to say is that alcohol abuse is so toxic even a difficult childhood and disability pale in comparison to its effects.
Guys just like Joe come to the Lamb Center often, but not everyone is willing to tell their story. People like Joe are part of our community, but not many shed tears like he did. “I’ll be moving to Maryland for a while to take care of legal stuff, but if the Food Stamps application gets approved please call my ex so she can use it for our children. You have her name and number,” he said coarsely wiping the wet from his face with his big hands.
He thanked Jeannie and me over and over apologizing for the inconvenience he had caused us. I reminded him that he was a blessing, which is a deeply moving truth that I learned from watching Dave convey it to others. So Joe looked at me a tad bit incredulous, gently closing the door behind him and dragging a large black garbage bag with his characteristic gait. He walked out to the scorching heat. Yes, trying to make amends. Taking care of business. He was undeterred. In his weakness God was strong. In his scarred body and soul there was healing. And then the world suddenly made sense to me.