Gentle John

My story is not about answering the phone when I was three months pregnant with my third daughter. Or hearing the ominous words, “You need to come right in.” Somewhere in there I heard the word “cancer”.

I was on my way to dance class with my oldest daughter, Jacki, then only four years old. My other daughter, Katie, was a year and a half old. I pulled over to the side of the road, sucked in my breath and struggled to get air in my lungs, the words in my head, to even begin to accept them in my heart.

“I can’t have cancer. I am having a baby. I have a life to live!”

You see, my precious mother had died six months earlier of Mad Cow Disease and I was still dealing with life without my best friend. Grieving by myself as my eleven brothers and sisters clung to each other in Minnesota.

My new reality. Numerous visits to specialists after specialists and miraculously, six months later my Miracle Baby popped her red head into this world. Surgery, prayers, miracles and life went on as if nothing had ever disrupted my life.

I raised three daughters, eventually as a single mother, and then another blow. A yearly visit to the doctor, a small spot on my face.

“Fungus”… the doctor said. “Fungus? What a gross word. I didn’t tell anyone because that is…well, gross.

Ellen, my doctor referred me to a dermatologist and the next day I walked into the doctor’s office. “You’re here, why?” she asked. “Fffffungus” I whispered. How embarrassing! She took a closer look and said, “Cancer”… and called another doctor into the room to confirm her initial diagnosis. A biopsy confirmed their suspicions.

I wanted it to be ‘fungus’. Now I was loving that word! I ‘wanted’ fungus on my face!

One surgery… an inch and a half cut off of my face, and I was back into the ballgame of life.

Fast forward to five years ago when I was eating at some friends house on Mother’s Day. My friend drew me to the side after the meal. “Sandy, I have to move out of friend mode… and move into doctor mode. You have cancer on your face. I could see it when the overhead light was shining on your face.”

That “C” word again.

An emergency visit to the dermatologist the next day. That darn “C” word…again!

My story is NOT about those trials. Those were the things I had to go through to do the work that I was put on this earth for.

Let me start by introducing you to Gentle John. John Perry was a gentle man with a raspy voice. John had a slight build, missing teeth and long gray hair. But mostly, John had eyes that sparkled. Eyes that screamed to the world that he housed a heart of love. I met John when he arrived in Nashville after many years paying back for the mistakes he made. In his 50’s, this man loved Jesus with a passion that I had never seen before.

John was homeless, and I was called to love on those who the world sneered at, spit on and called LOSERS. The poor, needy and homeless who were told, “Get a job!” “Go back to school!”… “You are worthless!”

Act One: I was working, going through the motions of life. Collecting people and things. And life felt empty.

After my third survivorship the Lord shook me up and said, “I created you. I allowed you to go through trials so you could relate to others. You are wasting the lessons learned.”

I became a motivational speaker, a life coach.

Then a trip to Haiti… and I was… ME. Comfortable in my it-doesn’t-make-sense life. At peace with the plans He had for me. Papa’s plan for my life was to be uncomfortable. So that others could find a semblance of comfort. So others could experience a dose of love. Unconditional love. When it doesn’t make any earthly sense.

I was meant to love on the discards of life…

The discards? Those whose lives are a mess. The ones who made mistakes. Men and women and children who took off their masks, didn’t wear their Facebook faces, and said, “Life is tough…and I am not.”

People like you, Me, the person standing next to you.

That “C” word? It was merely a stepping stone to the work that hopefully – when I shed my earth suit – will award me the words, “Well done. Good and faithful servant!”

John. Gentle John. Loved people, loved life, and loved Jesus.

I spent many hours with this sweet man. He became to me the brother that I craved and prayed for. You see, I have seven brothers (and four sisters), but they live so far away and have such busy lives. I understand that, but I also knew that I wanted brothers so bad. That cared about my daily life. What I did. Who I am. Brothers who felt the need to protect me.

When I traveled Gentle John stayed at my house with my dog. Sweet Beau.

Three years ago John called me on a Wednesday. ”Sandy, my tent and my sleeping bag got so wet last night. Can I hang out at your house for a while today?” You see, John slept in a cemetery. He felt safe there.

John arrived by 8:00 that morning and stayed for the next year and a half.

Two of my daughters live in California and Lauren, my Miracle Baby, followed me to Nashville. John became ‘Uncle John’ to her. He helped her with her Pinterest projects. Changed her oil and her brakes. Washed her car when she left her car at our house to go on a trip.

Every time Lauren visited and was leaving John said, “I love you. Be careful. There’s crazy people out there.”

A year ago last Christmas my girls and I were together in California. John was taking care of Beau, and nursing the flu. Two days into the trip my phone rang, while Katie, my middle daughter and I were at lunch. Enjoying our Mother-daughter time alone.

“Sandy, this is Dr. ‘Somebody’. The title “Doctor” stopped me mid-bite. “We have John here at the hospital. He has very severe pneumonia. We are going to ventilate him to help him breathe and he wanted me to call you before we do. He will not be able to talk for at least a week while he has the apparatus on his face.”

I felt like someone punched me in the stomach. “Wait Doctor, will you ask him about Beau (my dog)?” “Yes, he said Jeffery is at the house staying with him. Jeffery, another sweet homeless man who had spent many night, sometimes weeks, in one of the beds in my house.

I heard him say “Jeffery” and that is the last word I ever heard from that sweet man’s mouth. Two hours later I got the call.

John did not make it.

I ran out of the cottage we were renting by the water in Santa Cruz. And I ran and I ran and I ran. And then I cried. LORD, I screamed into the air, “Why? He was my brother. He taught me more about your love than anyone else.”

“Yes, My Child, he did. Now pass it on.”

My First Act of life was a very selfish place.

Welcome to My Second Act. Living for the Lord. Living the life that I was created to live. It just took me awhile to get there.

Yesterday I got a call from Timothy. After many, many years on the streets he got his own place. “Sandy, I got my place!” his loud voice boomed into the phone. I did the happy dance and then he said, “But I have nothing. I mean, nothing. Just the clothes that were in my backpack.”

I walked out to the garage, the place that had become a makeshift warehouse. “Timothy, I have a bed, table and chairs, easy chair and end tables. Toaster, mixer and coffee pot. Dishes, silverware, glassware and towels.” It was silent but for the sobs.

I packed up my SUV as full as I could get it. I hoisted an easy chair into the back, put in a microwave, kitchen stuff, towels and wastebaskets. When I arrived at the sketchy part of town – Timothy was sitting on the front steps. As I exited the vehicle I heard another voice, “You never stop, do you?” This beautiful familiar face had helped me carry a microwave to another guy who got a place there, just a couple of weeks ago.

I popped the back hatch and Timothy said. How much is mine?’

“All of it!” The tears slid down his cheeks. Then I saw them glistening on the other man who stood nearby.

We carried it in the small house, and Timothy oohed and aahed! And cried. We hung up a shower curtain with matching shower hooks.

“Miss Sandy, why do I get all of this? I don’t deserve it.”

“No Timothy. None of us do. That’s called grace. Amazing grace. How sweet the sound. That is still saving wretches like you and me, Timothy.”

He raised his hands to the heavens, unaware that tears were dripping onto the floor. Or maybe not caring.

Once upon a time I had a big house. I collected things that needed to be dusted and took up space. And cost lots of money. I had a storage unit so I could store more treasures.

Today I collect memories. Memories of times spent with the poor, needy and homeless.  The bible says to feed, clothe and love our brothers and sisters.

I am still a mess. I make lots of mistakes and poor choices.

My prayer is that the Lord looks only at my heart, at my intentions. I hope He sees Rocky, the homeless man who stayed at my house for six months while he had chemo every Monday. Or Marty who stays at my house now while he catches up on child support so he doesn’t have to go to jail.

Act Two: a garage filled with shelves of clothes that are donated. Kitchen utensils on shelves, and furniture in the middle. Shelves with food, and clothes hanging from the rafters.

Step outside and furniture under tarps. It is not unusual for me to turn the corner when I come home and see another couch and love seat that joined the family. Ready to be loved.

My new stage: Anywhere there is a genuine need. A homeless man needing a ride to his new job, a clean pair of pants, new socks, a second pair of underwear. A shoulder at the funeral of a 42-year-old sister-in-law. Someone that cares.

One Sunday I walked into the shelter to love on the homeless, and one man ran over to me for his hug. “I was hoping you’d come today, Sandy. This is the only hug I get all week!”

I ‘needed’ the first act of my life to clean out the selfishness and to learn some painful lessons.

I am savoring all that I have yet to do in Act Two.

Act One taught me the lessons.

Act two taught me to love…

…Unconditionally.