I had a medical appointment this morning. It was scheduled for 9:30 AM. And, like most people who have medical appointments, I arrived early so that I could get "signed in." If you don’t get signed in or you arrive after the appointed time the doctor won’t see and you have to reschedule. After signing in, I sat down to wait for my name to be called.
While sitting there it dawned on me that my appointment had been scheduled for the half hour. After doing a quick review in my mind, I realized that every appointment I’ve had in the last number of months have all been on the half hour – never on the hour. On the sign in sheet that the receptionist had checked to confirm my name, I recall having seen a name in the 9:00 AM slot. It made me wonder why I’d never been given an "on the hour" appointment. But before I could start coming up with conspiracy theories I noticed a gentleman walk up to the desk and get signed in.
If it hadn’t been for the size of his backpack I might not have considered that he was homeless. His clothing, although well worn, appeared to be in rather good condition. He might have worn them for two or three days, but they weren’t dirty. Clean shaven, except for a neatly trimmed moustache. His hair was slightly windblown, but otherwise cleanly combed. In fact, everything about him gave him a look of a construction worker – except for the backpack.
After he had taken a seat, he pulled a paperback out of one of the backpack’s pockets. It was John Milton’s "Paradise Regained."
I don’t know why the book’s title caught me by surprise. It shouldn’t have but it did.
I’ve met many a homeless person who are always reading a book. Some of the titles that I’ve seen read by the homeless might surprise non-homeless people. Not exactly romance novels – those books. I’ve even met homeless people who read the Wall Street Journal.
Yet, I was intrigued with this gentleman’s choice of books. John Milton isn’t an easy read. Chock full of imagery and symbolism, Paradise Regained is one of those books that you really have to have a love of reading just to even begin thinking about trying to get through. Definitely not written in modern day English, its style can easy overwhelm a person who is just a casual reader. It can overwhelm a seasoned reader, for that matter.
Finally I couldn’t contain myself and I went over and introduced myself. Then after this gentleman told me his name we began to talk about the book he was reading. From there, the conversation turned to his being homeless. It was a story that was so similar to many that I’ve heard.
Honorably discharged Veteran. Married. Had children. Somewhere along the way became divorced. Lost his job and eventually found himself homeless.
He didn’t try to put the blame of his divorce on his former spouse. He took responsibility for his part in the failure of his marriage. Admitted that he had been a heavy drinker during the latter part of his marriage. He hadn’t been abusive, but his drinking had been too much for his wife to deal with. She had grown tired of his being out all night "drinking with the boys." Finally, she had given him an ultimatum: he had to leave the bottle or she would leave him. He couldn’t let go of the bottle.
I asked a few more questions of him that were more deeply probing and discovered that he had been a combat Veteran. Viet Nam era. Still haunted by the ghosts of combat. Recently diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He had been prescribed medications to help reduce the effects of his PTSD. He is also attending regular sessions with – as he calls them – "mind doctors" to help him deal with his PTSD.
He told me that he had been homeless for about four years. He works whenever he can, finding work through "temp agencies" or does "odd jobs" here and there. When I asked him about transitional housing he pointed out that there wasn’t a VA funded transitional housing program for Veterans in this area. He also reminded me that even if there were, he probably wouldn’t qualify because he no longer had a drinking problem and he didn’t use drugs.
He hadn’t stopped drinking until about two years after his marriage had failed. He had put himself into a rehabilitation center, where he had spent nearly six months "drying out." It was after that that he began to notice the effects of the PTSD. Because he hadn’t been able to get the PTSD under control it created enough friction where had been working that they finally let him go. Soon after, not being able to find another job, he found himself homeless.
I asked him where he was staying. He told me that whenever he could afford it he would check into a cheap motel. The rest of the time he just sleeps outside. He said that he tries to avoid homeless shelters because, due to his PTSD, it creates a sense of claustrophobia in him. The only time he stays at a homeless shelter is if he’s sick and cannot afford a motel room.
When I asked him about food he told me that he’s been living off of the "dollar menus" at fast food restaurants almost the entire time he’s been homeless. Even when he has the money he still spends as little as possible to feed himself because, as he said, "you never know when you might need a few bucks in your pocket."
I stood up as I heard my name called, then turning back toward this gentleman I realized that he too had stood up. I saw that he had extended his hand to shake mine. As I shook his hand, in that moment, I realized that I had found a new friend. It didn’t matter that we might never see one another again. It was a friendship just the same.
Sitting on the gurney with the over sized roll of butcher’s paper in the small examination room I thought about the friend I had just met. I wondered why he had had an appointment today. I hadn’t thought to ask.
What has started with a comment about the book he had been reading had taken me on a journey. It was his journey. He had shared it with me. He had allowed me a glimpse into his life; into his struggles. He hadn’t been looking for sympathy from me. He hadn’t been looking for someone to pat his shoulder and say that everything was going to be alright.
I think that he just needed someone willing to listen. I’m glad that someone was me. Despite the struggles that he has been through – and those yet to come – this was a person who was worthy to be accepted. A person who had given of himself to serve this nation.
Because he is homeless, I’m certain that he has been treated as unworthy on more than just one or two occasions. I have yet to meet a homeless person who hasn’t felt the pangs of prejudice because of their homelessness. Yet, this man – this new friend, a wounded warrior – wasn’t bitter. He was just a man who was doing the best with what he had to work with.
About 35 minutes later, the doctor finally arrived to see me. It was already 10:17 AM (I know because I checked my watch). I felt like saying to the doctor that since he was late for the appointment we would have to reschedule it for some time next when I had an opening. But, I know that it doesn’t work like that. So…
Now, as I write these words, I’m hoping with all my might that the title of his book will be prophetic for my new friend…
… Paradise Regained