He stands before me, shirtless, sweat dripping off his back, words flowing out of his mouth with the same cadence he uses to shovel the garden bed before him. Half of his back is scarred from what looks like a bad burn many years ago. To be honest, I don’t like him. He yells. A lot. Mostly it’s directed toward his common law wife, the mother of my girlfriend. Sometimes the words aim for my girlfriend. Anger boils up within him in an instant. He belittles them. He cusses at them. He’s rough, as they say. But he means well.
Growing up, as I have, around a number of “rough” men, I’ve become accustomed to this line of thinking. It’s comical the number of times I’ve heard someone say, “He’s a great guy. He might be a little bit of a racist. And he can’t stand homosexuals. He also might be a bit of a drunk. But he’s a great guy. Really.”
I’ve given up on people like this, telling myself there’s nothing of redeeming value in someone who can’t treat everyone with kindness. God’s grace is enough, but not in this case. I turn my back.
And yet here’s this man in my back yard, doing hard work I should be doing. I’m thankful and as I watch him, I try to understand him.
I don’t know much about him, to be fair. I know he recently lost his job because he didn’t show up for two weeks. He was in bed, depressed his wife cheated on him after she left a hospital for treatment for bipolar. I know he quit drinking and took his wife back, excusing her actions with a swift swat of the hand, “She was sick.” He was a janitor and now he’s jobless. He doesn’t blame her. He presses on. He looked into welding school recently, I’m told, but money or some other practicality kept it from being a reality.
I don’t get a lot of pats on the back, he says, but I’ve gotten quite a few kicks in the ass. That’s just the way it is. That’s life.
I wonder if he’s happy with his life.
I look at his scars — physical and emotional. I wonder what it must be like loving the woman who broke you. Having no choice in the matter because this is it, this is the woman for you, flawed as she may be. I left that woman in my life. Didn’t even look back at the dust scattered up in the rear-view. Hardly had time for the tears to dry off my cheek before I said goodbye. I’d rather go it alone. I turn my back.
His back’s aching. He lights a cigarette, walks around the yard. His shorts are soaked from sweat. His size 12 boots hike up close to his knees and sometimes I think I feel the ground shake beneath them. His voice is rough, gravely, deep. My 14-month-old puppy cowers before him, hiding behind my legs or under the porch, feet away from the new garden, but safe from his booming voice.
Truth is, I was a little intimidated by him, too.
But then he starts, the words flowing with a rhythm like his shovel, digging, digging, digging to the truth. He’s spewing off aphorisms, short, succinct little sound bites about life. And it’s sounding profound coming from this man. I stop what I’m doing, feeling helpless for just standing there, but entranced nonetheless.
I had to take her back, he says, I love her. Why wouldn’t I take her back? She was sick, like someone with cancer. There’s no difference.
If I didn’t take her back, he says, I’d be letting my ego get in the way. That’s all that would be, pride.
In his aphorisms, I see my own pain and in his humble attempt to love his wife, to quit drinking and go to church, I see redemption and hope. I chose to give up, I turned my back. He breaks his.
Buddhism says enlightenment comes when we realize all are interconnected. At least for this day, I’m crediting this “rough” man for helping me see that I’m not alone. And I’m wanting to know him better.