When I was eight years old my parents invited three homeless people to live in my brother’s bedroom: a middle aged man, his subdued and timid wife, and their sick infant daughter. These people taught me more than my parents bargained for.
My family had gone on a camping trip. We slept in a tent under the stars in the middle of the Redwood Forest. This is where we met Gilbert.
Gilbert had been living at the campground for several months. He didn’t have a tent. He didn’t have a reserved site. He simply slept in the forest, used the public restrooms, and dug through the overflowing trash cans.
As we set up camp that first night, Gilbert shuffled by in his worn out shoes and threadbare jacket. My parents waved.
The second night they invited him to sit at our campfire. He disappeared into the woods and reappeared moments later with his wife and infant daughter in tow. The baby coughed and fussed while we visited. When the campfire burned low, Gilbert and his family moved away into the darkness.
The third night my parents invited them to eat dinner with us. We drove into town and bought some medicine for the baby girl. My parents gave them the medicine, a bottle of formula, and clean diapers. They told them Jesus loved them.
When we packed up our belongings on the fourth day, Gilbert and his little family came home with us.
My brother and sister and I were appalled. (AS MOST NORMAL PEOPLE WOULD BE, PARENTS. WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?) Where would they sleep? How would we fit in the car for the drive home? This was in the 80’s, before those pesky seat belt laws were passed, so my parents made a “bed” in the back of the station wagon between the camping gear and the wheel well. My brother was the child lucky enough to be chosen to ride home in style. My sister and I had to squeeze onto the bench seat next to our new friends. In close proximity like that, it was impossible to escape the stench of dry urine and unwashed body parts. I tried hard not to stare at Gilbert’s matted beard and bloodshot eyes. I also tried not to breathe too deeply through my nose.
Gilbert and his little family moved into my brother’s room. My brother moved into the room my sister and I shared. My parents began working on his hygiene, his health, and his heart. They gave him a bar of soap and pointed him towards the bathroom. They drove him downtown and found a barber willing to cut through the knots in his hair. They fed him three square meals a day. They took him to Salvation Army and bought him a few articles of clothing. They said they would help him find a job. They told him Jesus loved him.
Gilbert scoured the newspaper ads, circling one job opportunity after another. He asked to borrow our car for a day so he could look for work. Of course my parents said yes. (WHAT IN THE WORLD, PARENTS?) He loaded up his little family and waved as he drove away.
I know you are wondering if we ever saw our station wagon again. We were wondering the very same thing. I am happy to report Gilbert drove home late that evening. We watched from the living room window as he parked our car in the driveway where it belonged. Then he tumbled out of the car, tripped over the curb, and lurched his way to our front door, drunk as a skunk.
My parents asked him where he had been. (PARENTS…WASN’T IT OBVIOUS?)
Gilbert had a very reasonable explanation. A local church was advertising for a new gardener. Gilbert applied for the job. During the interview the pastor offered him a beer.
What his lie lacked in believability it made up for in originality. A church. A pastor. A beer. The only thing that could have made it more interesting was if the Virgin Mary herself carried the beer into the sanctuary on a platter made of gold.
My parents told him Jesus loved him. And they told him he was not allowed to borrow our car again.
Gilbert “looked for work” for many days. It is amazing how many interviewers handed out beer in those days.
Every night, after my brother and sister and I finished our homework and after Gilbert finished another unsuccessful day of job hunting, we would gather around the dinner table. My sister refused to sit next to Gilbert. Even though he had access to soap and hot water, he tended to revert back to his old ways. He reeked of body odor and stale beer. In between his slurred words and foul smell, my parents told him Jesus loved him.
After dinner we watched Knight Rider and played with Lite Brights, sprawled across the shag carpet in our living room, the heat from the wood stove magnifying Gilbert’s aroma.
Coincidentally, this is the same wood stove in which my mother burned our naked barbies while we stood by in horror, but that’s a story for another day.
This cycle of job interviews, drunken dinners, and uncomfortable evenings repeated itself again and again until one Tuesday night my parents issued an ultimatum. They told Gilbert he had until the end of the week to find a new place to stay. They had done all they could for him.
To show his gratitude for our hospitality Gilbert went outside, unzipped his pants, and peed in our driveway right next to the car he was no longer allowed to drive. Then he gathered up his little family and stormed out of the house, alcohol fumes trailing angrily from his body.
My parents calmly cleaned up the urine, washed the dirty bedding, moved my brother back into his own room, and told us Jesus loved Gilbert.
EXHIBIT A: The Unfortunate Haircut
It is important to realize this all happened in the 1980’s. Times were different back then. Please see Exhibit A above entitled The Unfortunate Haircut. My parents chose this hair style for me. It is a cross between the bowl cut and a mullet. Let’s call it The Bullet. The Bullet causes me to question my parent’s decision making abilities.
Other questionable decisions of the 80’s: Children were allowed to ride in the back of station wagons without seat belts. Mothers nursed while driving. People smoked cigarettes in school cafeterias. Al Gore had not yet invented the internet and so my parents were unable to google “dangers of inviting strange homeless men to live with you.” Even so…PARENTS, HAD YOU LOST YOUR MINDS?
I recently called and asked my mother that very question. She said, “We were young and idealistic. But now we are old and crotchety and we know better.”
Am I suggesting we all invite a strange homeless man to sleep in our children’s bedroom? Absolutely not. I am thankful I am still alive to tell the story of Gilbert. He is somewhat of a legend in our family. Even thirty-something years later, I remember the lessons he taught me.
1. Don’t drink at job interviews.
Every night Gilbert would regale us with tales of his job interviews, the problems with the employer, and the crazy reasons they would not hire him. His stories were always accompanied by the smell of alcohol on his breath. The only thing I could figure is that drinking at interviews is frowned upon by prospective employers.
2. Snakes live in the sewer and can slither up through toilets.
Gilbert taught me this on his second day in our home. He pointed at the toilet bowl and very somberly explained that I should always check before sitting down. He said if you take too long in the bathroom, snakes will rise up from the depths and bite your butt. It had happened to him before and he still had the scar to prove it. Thankfully, he did not show me his scar. I was scared to go to the bathroom for years, peeing as fast as humanly possible and then jumping up to look beneath me. (The truth is, sometimes when I stumble to the bathroom in the middle of the night I still check the toilet bowl before I sit down.)
If my parents had simply told Gilbert “Jesus loves you” and ignored his sick baby girl, his empty stomach, and his filthy body, their words would have seemed hollow and insincere. Maybe (OF COURSE) they didn’t have to invite him to live in my brother’s bedroom. This is up for debate (NO IT IS NOT). But in so doing they taught their children an important lesson: words without actions are meaningless. We can go around telling people we love them until we are blue in the face, but unless our behavior proves it to be true, they won’t hear us.
My parents showed me this over and over throughout my life. When they fed the schizophrenic man who wandered our neighborhood. When they gave their bed to a houseguest and chose to sleep on the couch. When they served at the soup kitchen.
This is what love looks like, they showed me. This is what love feels like. This is what love does.
Love is a verb.
I want my life to exemplify this kind of active love.
May we all love the Gilberts of the world a little bit harder, a little bit stronger, and a whole lot safer than my parents.