Today is the 35th birthday of a young man who has been close to my heart since he was 12. He first knocked on my front door when I lived in Grass Valley, CA. It was during a time of grieving by my daughter and me and I didn’t want to be bothered but something about him connected us almost from the start. Was it his intensely blue eyes and friendliness or something I couldn’t see but already felt from his heart? He had just moved in across the street and soon became a daily visitor who liked my cat and sometimes watched television, sometimes slept over on the couch. His family life was rough and I asked permission for him to be over as often as he was. His teeth were bad and I quickly figured out that he had known a lot of neglect and rejection in his young life, with much more to come over the years.
There were tragedies but he often hung out with my son and me as we went on driving trips out to the coast or up into the foothills. We often hiked along the South Yuba River. In the summers we hiked back almost a mile to swim in a favored swimming hole. He was fearless around the water and we always laughed and enjoyed ourselves. When driving, with or without my son along, we would often exclaim, “What’s that?” when we saw some animal crossing our path or alongside the road. Usually we were going too fast to stop and look closer before the animal hid. It became a kind of code phrase between us, all these mysterious sightings. Once, in a county park in Sonoma County, a very large and long rattlesnake slithered across the roadway in front of my car. It was at least the length of one car lane and then some extending over the center line. I was fascinated at how big it was, how slowly it crossed the road, and I wanted to get close enough to look at it from my open window. The boys, on the other hand, were totally freaked out in the back seat and I asked them if they thought the snake was going to climb into the car?! Years later, this young man would live among people in a rattlesnake infested area where he learned to gently collect them from the house and move them elsewhere.
On another Sonoma trip I showed him how to follow a killdeer who was doing her best to distract us away from her nest. I searched carefully and soon found four small speckled eggs close together in the rocky terrain. I hoped he learned something about paying attention and not disturbing what he found; I hoped he felt it was a blessing. In my life, I count him as a blessing, too.
Today I celebrate him in my heart even though I cannot be with him and haven’t seen him in more than four years. His life has continued to be very hard and very sad at times yet we often found ways to visit whenever we both lived in California. I always remembered his birthday and Christmas. It was hard keeping track of him as he was often homeless and still is. He has learning disabilities that have impaired his ability to work and at times been treated unkindly. He has been his worst enemy and one of my best friends. I call him a child of my heart, for he is not a child from my body, but he has firmly rooted himself in my heart through all the years and tears. He’s been incredibly helpful to me in many instances of needing a strong person to help me move. He saved my life from a man who may very well have meant me murderous harm but somehow this young man intuited it and stayed close to help me, calling police and watching out for me.
He’s made me laugh and I’ve cried over him. I’ve worried about him and prayed for him. I still do and long to see him. He lives farther than I can afford to travel now but I keep trying to find a way to him. He lost his parents and has no close family. He lost what little he had in a huge California fire a few years ago but escaped with his life and only the clothes he wore. He’s probably the loneliest person I know and it hurts to know this because I have experienced such love and kindness from him over the years but a lot of people shun or avoid people like him. He’s been homeless long enough to become feral in many ways and doesn’t do well at jumping through the hoops to get whatever limited aid may be available. He has been a deep teacher for my soul, an unwanted source of pain and sorrow and anger at times, but always and foremost, my friend and someone I value very much in this life and promised to keep a hold of forever.
I could write and write about him and what he has endured and think I will at some point because there are so many stories, so many struggles we went through together and many more he endured alone. He is a survivor, as am I, and yet I always wonder how it came to be that we bonded. It was something in him that I felt yearning, reaching, just as I had as a lonely child. And, it was the gentleness with which he revealed his creative soul to me, what others seldom saw or appreciated. Early on in that first year of our friendship, in early spring, he brought me sunflowers because he somehow guessed I would like them. (He was right.) And then, one day, he brought me half an emu eggshell he’d found. It was dark, kind of green-black and stippled with blue/turquoise dots. It was one of the most beautiful, delicate things I’d seen and he knew it would delight me. To this day we still talk “in sunflowers” whenever we can.
I miss him and wish I could have seen or even talked to him today. But, I now know that he is in a community willing to befriend him if he accepts their outreach. He is making public art out of discarded flowers and whatever else he finds, sharing his heart to bring joy to other hearts. Below is a heart made from found flowers and plants and a wire man reading a book on a bench, all made by Justin Olson, November 2017, Healdsburg CA:
There is no happy ending in sight but I keep hoping for him especially when the rainy season begins, as it has now, and he lives in his tent. I wish I had a home he could come to and we would somehow find a way to redeem all the pain, loss, grief, and broken-heartedness we’ve known separately, nurturing ourselves again with the love and joy we always had when together. “What’s that” going to look like if it ever happens?
Today I celebrated him in my heart with memories of all the joyful times we’ve shared and the sense of wonder he found in those sunflowers and emu eggs.