Jack came home from school when he was 15 to find his mother, already gone. She committed suicide. His older sister was five years older and lived too far away to, nor cared to, help. His divorced father was an alcoholic, who lived several hours away. Jack’s new mission in life was to avoid foster care. He lied when the school called to talk to his Dad. Jack said he was at the Moose Lodge, or traveling on business. Jack succeeded in fooling the school system for several years, until he was no longer underage, and by then, nothing could be done.
Jack’s social security checks were $400 a month, but they were in his Dad’s name. When the water was shut off, Jack made a desperate attempt to forge his dad’s signature – but he got caught and never saw a cent of that money. The money Jack did have came from his paper route – $100 a week. Still, he often went to the quarry to catch a fish to cook for dinner. Then he’d stop at the grocery store to steal a couple of potatoes and a can of green beans. “I just remember feeling so grateful that the food was there… I was so hungry, and I was just so happy to be able to sit down and eat that meal.”
He dropped out of high school, and the local politicians, lawyers and the high-classed people of his town hooked him into selling drugs to them. They knew he was struggling and wanted to help him out. “They took me under their wing, and I felt like they were watching out for me.” He did well as a dealer, until “all that money” went to his head, and then he started using the drugs he was selling. Suddenly, he had no money left to pay his suppliers. He landed in jail; which probably saved his life from the suppliers who were out for his blood. In jail, he realized this wasn’t the kind of life he wanted to lead, and once out of jail, he still struggled to find a way to feed himself.
Several days had passed since his last meal, and he was so hungry. Jack found it almost impossible to overcome his pride and ask for help. Finally, he mustered up the courage to call his sister. This was his only chance; his own flesh and blood, and probably his only hope left in the world. “Will you please just send me $20 so that I can get some groceries?” She said no, saying, “he would probably just use the money to get more drugs and not groceries.”
He had been sitting at his mother’s vanity when he called his sister. Whenever he missed her, he would often go there and open her billfold, look at the pictures inside, remember a happier life when he was younger and his parents were still married, and inhale the smell of juicy fruit that permeated the inside. As he hung up the phone, he realized then that every door was closed. He reached for the familiar billfold, and out dropped a $10 bill. A $10 bill that had never been there in each of the other times he opened that billfold for comfort. “People say they find Jesus in jail,” he says. “I found Jesus the night that $10 bill fell. I took that as a sign that there was a God, and someone was looking out for me all this time.” He was amazed at how long he was able to eat off that $10 bill.
Before she died, his mom always took him to gymnastics classes. This explains why he’s able to climb trees so well, and why he’s the only person for miles who can reach those dangerous limbs that surround so many of these lake house cottages. That is why I know this story. While climbing trees and cutting limbs for us, he started to talk. At the end, tears glistened in his eyes.
I was almost relieved when I heard Jack say that he now has two sons; one who is finishing college, and another just ready to start. Jack is still thin — skinny is a better word. He has muscles, but the skin is stretched tight over his jaw and his neck, revealing muscles and veins. “To this day, I only eat unless I’m really hungry.” After he left, I cried when I imagined what Christmas Morning was like for this 15-year-old boy, who woke up to an empty house full of echoes.
On this July 4th weekend, this post is to all the unsung heroes that live among us. To those who have survived while carrying stories that are buried deep within their hearts. Stories that are sometimes too harrowing to tell. My gratitude is for God’s remarkable ability to make all things new.