Wednesday, December 09, 2009
MY FRIEND ROBERT HIGGINS
My friend, Robert Higgins, is dieing of bone cancer.
I met him just over a year ago when Pete, the manager at the California Studio Inn in Santa Ana called me on my cell phone - something he never does unless it's an emergency.
Pete told me about Robert, a 77 year old man who was living on the streets. It was cold outside, mid-December, and icy rain was falling outside. "If I send him out in this," Pete told me, "I'm afraid he'll die on a park bench somewhere. He's really sick."
Pete would hardly describe himself as a follower of Jesus. In fact, when I first came to him to ask about serving at the motel he told me to hit the road and that I was wasting my time. Now, he's one of our partners in this ministry to the people of this motel. Without him we couldn't do anything there, and often he actually initiates our relationships with people in need.
Our house church family donated the $250 to buy Robert a week at the motel to give him a place to stay until his own Social Security checks came in. Eventually, with a lot of help from Pete, Robert ended up taking a regular room in the motel as a resident.
Initially I would drop by to check up on Robert now and again. Sometimes I'd run groceries up to his room on one of the Saturdays our house church was passing out food. Over the months, I can't really explain how, Robert and I became friends.
As I've gotten to know Robert I've learned that one of the things he hates the most is being helped. Sometimes people bring him gifts to show their love for him, but he's told me how it actually makes him angry. "If I were living on the streets and I had no income, that would be different," he says. "But I've got money, I've got a room of my own. I don't need anyone to take care of me."
I've tried explaining to him that when people from the church bring him gifts that it's their way of saying, "I love you," and I know he knows that, but it doesn't make it any easier for him to receive gifts.
"The help you give me," Robert says, "like when you pick up my mail for me or something like that. At least that's the kind of help I need, not the help people want to give me."
I've come to the conclusion that hell for Robert would be an army of people waiting on him and doing things for him and bringing him things he didn't ask for. He really, really hates when anyone does that - including me.
Over the last few months I've learned not to do anything without asking him. Only once have I done something that he explicitly told me not to do. I brought him a slice of homemade pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving day while he was staying at Fountain Care down the street from me.
He'd refused to come over to share Thanksgiving with my family. "That's a family thing," he said. So when I told him I was going to bring him a piece of Wendy's pumpkin pie after dinner he said, loudly, "No!"
"Yes, I am," I said.
"No, no, no."
"I'm just as stubborn as you are, Robert. I'm bringing you that pie with a big old layer of whip cream on top."
"Whip cream on top?" He paused. "Ok, then."
That was pretty much the only battle I've ever won with him.
Well, almost. On Monday of this week I shared lunch with Robert at his room in the Studio Inn. As we ate our KFC dinners he and I talked about his family, which he hasn't spoken to in several years.
"Have you thought about contacting your son again?"
"No, it's too late," he said.
"No, it's not too late. You've got months and months to live."
"It's the worst possible time for me to call them," he said."I think they think I'm already dead anyway. How would it be for them to get a call from me saying 'it's me' when all this time they've thought I was dead?"
"Wouldn't they be thrilled to know that you're still alive? And that they can still talk to you before you die of bone cancer?"
Robert shook his head. "No. It's too late for that now."
"I just know that if my Dad were dying of bone cancer I'd at least want the opportunity to say goodbye to him," I said, hoping for one last chance to change his mind. He was unmoved.
But, today I got a call from him on my cell phone. He even left a message which he's never even attempted to do before. I called him back and he said, "You got any plans for lunch today?"
I pulled my warmed up soup out of the microwave and snapped the plastic lid back over it. "Nope. You want me to bring you something?"
"How about some chicken from Pollo Loco?" he suggested. His meals usually flutter between KFC, Taco Bell and El Pollo Loco.
"Ok, I said."
After he gave me his order he added, "I'm buying this time. It's my turn." Then he said, "I was thinking about calling my son again. Maybe you could help me punch in the numbers?"
I stood there for a moment next to the microwave and smiled. "Sure, Robert. I can do that. I'll be right there."
Sadly, when Robert and I tried to track down his son and his ex-wife Rosa we discovered that they no longer lived in the same house in La Mirada. They had moved.
He hung his head and started to cry. "Just when I was ready to try and get back in touch with them," he said.
"It's ok, Robert. We've still got time to find them."
Robert kept his head down for a while. Then he said, "I sat here last night thinking about it. I'm not ready to go. I know I don't have much here in this life," he said. "But I'm not ready."
I sat across from my friend and I considered how to respond. As his pastor I knew I could rattle off a few Bible verses, or try to lead him in a prayer of salvation. But as his friend, I knew that what he needed in that moment was someone to understand his fear.
"You don't know how much time you have left, Robert. The Doctor's are only guessing at a number. You could have two or three years to live. Heck," I said. "I could die before I get back to work in a car accident. No one knows how long they have."
Robert nodded. "I know."
We talked for a while after that about his son, and his daughters. He shared the good memories of his ex-wife Rosa and wondered if she'd join him at the motel someday - if he could find her again.
"I think she might," I said.
"I'd like to talk to her again," he said. "I would tell her I miss her a lot. I think of her often and I still love her," he said.
I prayed that Robert would be able to reconnect with his wife and family again before he dies. I left him alone in his room with this fragile hope and shut the door behind me after saying goodbye.
As I walked down the set of steps down to the parking lot and back to my car I wondered about my response to Robert. I'm sure a better man than me would have whipped out the scriptures and sealed the deal with the four spiritual laws. I'm sure that's what I should have done as a pastor, and I didn't. I didn't because it didn't feel like a genuine response. It felt like what I was expected to do, but not what Robert needed in that moment.
Time after time I have walked this line with Robert between being his friend and being his pastor. I'm doing my best to love him because love isn't something Robert is used to. He's always accepted help and love from others with suspicion because everyone in his life has always made sure there were strings attached. Even his family. Especially his family.
There have been other moments where Robert and I have talked about God. Once, when he was recovering from surgery at Fountain Care, he took my hand in his own bony, withered hand and squeezed it. With tears in his eyes he told me, "Keith, I know I can make it as long as I've got you and the Lord with me."
I squeezed back. "God really is with you, Robert," I said.
"I never understood about God much when I was younger. It never made sense to me before what the pastor was saying up there, but I think I can talk to Him and I think he hears me," he said.
"I think sometimes we make it more complicated that it is," I said. "As long as we're willing to admit that we can't do it on our own and that we need God's help I think we're on the right track," I said.
Sometimes when I talk to people about Robert people ask me if Robert knows the Lord. It's difficult to answer that question right now. I think he's in process. I think God is speaking to Robert in his pain and through these circumstances. I think God is showing Robert how much he really loves him. I know that Robert has begun to see that God is very good to him, even in his suffering, and I know that Robert knows that he can talk to God anytime he needs to.
Right now my prayers for Robert are that he can regain contact with his son, Richard and his ex-wife Rosa before he dies of bone cancer. I also pray that one day the Lord will allow me to lead Robert into His presence and surrender his life to Jesus.
I already know that I will be with Robert until the very end. I will stand at his bedside when he is on morphine. I will be holding his hand when he passes from this life into the next one. I pray with all my heart that I can faithfully hand him off to the One who loves him more than he will ever know - on this side of eternity - when that day comes.
My friend, Robert Higgins, has bone cancer. He's 77 years old. And I'm the only family he has right now.