That long, tangly mess of gray hair billowed off his chin, matching his booming voice. It was impossible to miss his happy-as-a-lark presence. It was also impossible not to whiff the whiskey.
Despite the elongated speech, Bobby was a delight to be around, an adventurer at heart. He was the first man to attend our art classes last fall, not afraid to jump in when others were skeptical. Bobby always talked slow and told good stories.
Then one day last winter, he stopped coming around. After a few days of his not being in his normal spot, we inquired and got some harsh news: Bobby’s in the hospital with frostbite. And then: He lost his toes on one foot and half of his other foot. It was pretty frightful – frostbite and amputations – certainly something I never heard of happening to someone I actually knew personally.
At the time of his absence, I didn’t know it, but Bobby’s life consisted of twists and turns and homelessness unexpected. He used to work for the City of Dallas. One day, a migraine came on. The thing about this migraine was, it didn’t go away. It lasted four long years. Finally, the pain so debilitating, he had to leave his job. The job loss ultimately led to his staying at Austin Street Center for the first time, over ten years ago.
When the headache finally subsided – his doctors said stress could bring it on – he went to work again, this time for two and a half years. But then the dreaded headaches retuned, and he found himself in the same circumstance, homeless.
When Bobby and I talk today, he’s honest, “Drinking got me into the situation I was in.” I can read between the lines. He was intoxicated, staying outside, and unable to care for his needs when it got cold. That led to the frostbite and subsequent amputations.
Losing toes and foot was enough to wake him up. It seems like a harsh lesson, but that’s not how Bobby sees it …
The amputations kept him in the hospital a good long while. “They spoiled me,” he says of his time there. “Showed me how good it is on the inside. Also told me I couldn’t work again. I’m trying to figure out where I want to live now that I have my SSI.”
“Life on the inside,” as Bobby put it, reminded him what it’s like not to be homeless. He remembered what good care, a soft bed, and consistent food can do for a soul, and it has motivated him to move off of the streets. He admits that before his long hospital stint, he became comfortable with his life outside, and it took something extreme – losing toes and foot – to wake him up. He calls it an unexpected blessing.
Nowadays, Bobby is bright-eyed and clear-headed. I told him, “Something has changed about you since you got out of the hospital. You aren’t drinking as much, are you?”
He grinned wide, and spoke slowly, clearly, “Thanks for noticing.”
“It’s impossible not to. I feel like I can really get to know you now that you’re so clear headed.”
Again he replied, “Thanks for noticing.” And then continues,“I still tell people I’m blessed. They don’t understand it. They look at me with my walker and half a foot and they don’t understand it.
“But I tell ‘em, ‘the fact that I can still walk, that’s a blessin’.’” He grins that big ole grin of his. “People don’t understand, but that man,” he says as his eyes dart upward towards the sky, “that man, he look out for me.”
“I didn’t drink or smoke when I was on the inside. Now, I only have one beer a day. I used to be drinking vodka, whiskey, whatever people had on them. Now, I don’t do it.”
The cost of the old life was too high. It was high enough to wake him up. And for me, Bobby’s life is a witness to this: it doesn’t matter how far gone or deeply steeped a person may appear in a way of life or addiction. If you had asked me a year ago, “Who is least likely to stop drinking and get off of the streets?” Bobby would have made the top of the list.
And yet here he is, getting ready to move off of the streets. He had to go through it – frostbite, amputations – but what stands out the most is that this man, Bobby, is more fully himself because of what he went through. As I told him, “Bobby, it’s like I really get to know you now.” And as Bobby says, “It’s a blessin’.”
Story told with Bobby's approval and permission.