An ex-con lives 50 feet from my front door.
He has been my neighbor for two years and I never spoke to him until last month.
Richard* (not his real name) has always seemed slightly odd. He keeps to himself and I rarely see him outside. Every now and then I watch him climb into his old, rusted-out truck and drive down our dirt road. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of him walking to the mail box. If I happen to be outside when he is pulling his trash cans to the curb, I always wave. But the truth is, I didn’t even know his name.
I could tell he was uncomfortable around people. I could say that the reason I never went over and introduced myself was because I wanted to respect his privacy, but really I was just too busy to be bothered.
Last month Richard wandered on to my property. He held an empty leash in one hand and seemed a bit confused. I thought it was strange he was roaming my property looking for his dog when one quick glance was all he needed to realize there was no dog to be found. I watched as he walked up my gravel driveway. I quickly called my kids to come inside.
That evening I was unloading groceries from the back of my van when I heard his voice directly behind me. Startled, I jumped and turned around.
“Have you seen my dog?” he asked.
“No.” I replied. “Your dog isn’t here.”
“Okay. Thanks.” Richard said. And he continued to stand there in the rain. He shuffled his feet and looked around. His eyes were a little glazed. He seemed unaware of the water dripping from his unwashed hair onto his dirty t-shirt. It was disconcerting. I grabbed my groceries and hurried inside.
Later that night my doorbell rang. It was Richard. I opened the door with a feeling of unease.
“I just saw you down at my house. What were you doing there?” he said.
“What?” I asked him. “I wasn’t just down at your house.”
“Yes you were. I saw you down there. I knew it was you right away. And you were wearing that same brown shirt.” I glanced down at my pink t-shirt.
“Richard, I wasn’t just at your house.” I said carefully. “I have been inside making dinner. Maybe you saw someone else.” I firmly closed my door and clicked the dead bolt into place.
The next morning we awoke to sirens and lights. Two police cars and an ambulance were outside of Richard’s house. My husband walked over to see what was happening. No one would give him any information besides the fact that Richard was being admitted to our local hospital.
Later that day, my husband called the hospital. He was connected to Richard’s room. Richard’s sister answered the phone. After explaining we were concerned neighbors, his sister told us what had happened.
It seems Richard has an ongoing medical condition and he had been attempting to self-medicate with a special home remedy. This home remedy had caused disorientation and hallucinations. He was being admitted to the hospital for a day or two while they cleaned out his system, and then he would be released to go home.
Then Richard got on the phone. He apologized to my husband for bothering us. He said he now realized he had been acting odd. He hoped he hadn’t scared us. And then he told my husband his story.
Richard was recently released from prison. He had been in prison for more than thirty years. He shared all of the dirty details from his past; his family, his history, the specifics of the crime he had committed. You don’t go to prison for thirty years for something minor. Richard’s conviction was for something major.
My husband pressed the phone to his ear and listened. He said all of the right things. He encouraged and he calmed and he told Richard that when he was released from the hospital, we would come over and check on him.
And when my husband hung up the phone, I did a google search for “houses for sale” in other parts of our city.
I am not proud of this, but it is the truth. I searched the MLS listings for new homes. If one of the search criteria could have been “not next door to Richard,” I would have entered those words. My gut reaction was that I did not want my kids to be living near an ex-con.
Richard came home from the hospital the next day. My husband went over and invited him to go out for lunch. These two men, from the opposite side of the tracks in every way possible, went to our local diner and talked. They had a cup of coffee. They got to know each other.
And I googled prices for “installing a fence around your property.” Yes, I really did. Complete with electronic gate.
The next night my husband loaded up our leftover dinner and carried it across the driveway to Richard’s house. He sat down and visited with Richard while he ate. And then he came home and told me that Richard said I made the very best chicken pot pie he had ever tasted.
I googled “when your neighbor is your BFF.”
Okay. Not really. But I was starting to soften.
You see, the more we learned about Richard, the more we realized that he was just another hurting person: scared, lonely, unsure of his place in the world. He sounds an awful lot like most of us, doesn’t he?
Richard is truly remorseful for the things he has done. More than anything, he wishes he could go back and un-do his past. He beats himself up for the mistakes he has made. This also sounds like a lot of us, doesn’t it?
After getting to know Richard, it was obvious we were more alike than I wanted to admit. We are both broken people, a little bit weird, making a lot of mistakes, and hoping others will still like us for who we really are.
The following weekend was Easter. You guessed it–my husband invited Richard to church. Richard eagerly accepted and showed up at our home ten minutes early. We loaded up the van–my husband, six kids, an ex-convict, and a woman with a heart condition–and we drove ourselves to Easter service.
We sat side by side in the second row, all nine of us desperately needing to hear the message our pastor preached that day. A message about God’s abounding grace for sinners.
Thank God for grace. God saw my google searches and my sinful heart and He loved me anyway.
Last night I pulled our dinner out of the oven. Three perfectly-browned, fragrant and delicious chicken pot pies. I wrapped one of them in foil and walked it across the driveway to Richard’s house. He saw me coming and stepped outside onto his porch. He smiled as he walked to meet me halfway.