There are moments in my days, not altogether common or often recurring, wherein I take myself a wee bit too seriously. Episodes where I am convinced that my demons, my baggage, my issues, my challenges are larger than any other has to bear. Bigger than even I can manage. These moments tend to dissipate quickly as I have established before that I am a glass-half-full kind of person. And generally, I chase them away of my own accord, reminding my sad, sorry self that I am just really not all that special. My stuff is just stuff after all. Everybody’s got stuff.
Every once in a while, I am blessed to be reminded that in reality my stuff is easy.
A few weeks ago, I met a man who has lived here in St. Louis for most of his life. Upon first glance, my assumption was that he was among the indigent here in the city. He was dressed casually in a track suit and his longish hair and gray beard were slightly unkempt. He walked with a strange gait and pulled along a small cart filled with papers and a backpack. He sat down near me in the fellowship hall after services at church (I’ve been skulking in and out of congregations since we moved here but that’s a story for a different day) and we began to talk over coffee and cake. Well, I talked. He gestured and spoke very little, grunting out small words in repeating phrases. We communicated though, because really what is the definition of such a word if it’s not mutual understanding of a message?
He was shy to start and I felt slightly awkward, but when he opened his backpack and offered me his “scrapbook” of letters, photographs, and newspaper clippings, I lost track of myself in the attempt to track his story and hear him fully. His name is Jim. My best estimate puts him at 20 years my senior which makes him around 63 years old. As his story unfolded for me piece by piece I discovered that he once was a budding, bright light in his field of study. He holds 2 advanced degrees in the sciences and was clearly a rising star in the field. Then, one terrible day, as he was cycling home from university classes, he was struck by a car and thrown from his bicycle straight into severe brain damage, months of coma, and years of recovery. Clearly, I wouldn’t have been having this conversation with him at all if he hadn’t been one of those defeat-the-odds-miracle-man stories. And so his story goes. After 4 years of helplessness, Jim taught himself to walk again. And then to talk. And he regained his independence. His binder is filled with his memories, even the ones he can’t hold onto anymore. He carries copies of newspaper articles written about him through the accident and beyond. Tucked alongside are photographs of he and his wife and the family of his youth. “Dead. All dead now” he narrated as I turned the loose pages. There was his draft notice to the war in Vietnam. “Long time ago, long time ago” he repeated as I read. There were the graduation notices for his “Cum Laude” degrees. “Me. Me. That’s me.” he shared over and again. There were the newsletter mentions of his life now as the best volunteer the local hospital has ever had in its ranks. The mention of how he spends his time giving to a community, even though at first glance I didn’t assume he had anything to give, was altogether overwhelming to me and I had to wipe tears. Repeatedly. I sat with Jim for an hour, maybe more, drinking in the richness of a man whose stuff is oh-so-much-bigger-than mine. And whose glass appears not to be just half full, but overflowing. Point of personal reflection to be sure.
As I drove away I couldn’t help but sing the refrain from a song I had only recently discovered because the sentiment is true. Everybody’s got a story. Heartbreaking or inspiring just might depend on perspective. But, everybody’s got a story.
I am so glad I got to hear his.