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I suppose it’s ironic that I’m having trouble finding the right words to describe someone who was so eloquent.
Bob seemed… wise. Some people just have that knack, even if they don’t feel that they have much wisdom, even if they actually don’t have that wisdom to give. He was in his 50s when I met him during my high school days, and he seemed to be a fellow who’d seen a lot of this world and had actually managed to figure a few things out. Not everything, mind you, but a few important things.
Bob had spent nearly all of his adult life working with abused and neglected children. “Parentless kids”, as he sometimes called them; kids who weren’t orphans but who’s parents had abandoned them in some form or another. Bob was great at this job because he knew the secret about fixing damaged kids:
This is true of nearly all people with nearly all things. You can’t heal anybody, you can’t save anybody, you can’t make anybody do anything. But if you’re lucky, you can help set the stage for that person to make the decisions necessary to heal themselves and to see those decisions through till the end. They’ve got to walk every hard step of the way, but you might be able to help them to find the path and endure the journey.
With regard to children who’d been betrayed by the first human relationships they’d ever know, this stage-setting meant one thing: sticking around. Standing by the kid through good times. Standing by through bad times. Standing by through worse times. Standing by when the kid tries to push you away to protect their “you can’t trust anyone” worldview. Standing by until that kid starts to believe that maybe they’re worth it.
That’s hard work, and it does not come without a price. I respected the hell out of Bob for that. It’s putting yourself on the line every day with no reward except the possibility that the kid might turn their life around.
Well, there can be some reward. Bob once told me a story about Tim, a kid he’d mentored from the time Tim was 14 and into his adult years. Tim and his wife had a child years later, and Tim invited Bob to town to celebrate the birth. As Bob came to the front door, Tim lifted up his newborn son and said, “Jeffrey, meet your grandaddy.”
While many folks seem to base their faith in “unconditional love” on new agey ideals or treacly self-help books, Bob’s was based on pragmatism. If these kids grow up believing that no one can be trusted, and that their futures will be no different from their painful pasts, they are almost certainly condemned to miserable lives. The only way to save them is to help them convince themselves that maybe they have some say in their destiny, and that it needn’t be so hellish. And the only way that that’s going to happen is for someone to make that supreme committment to support that kid as long as they need it.
But at his core, I think Bob was a letter-writer. He wrote to me, he wrote to other students, he wrote to the children he mentored, he wrote to his business partners. Not only that, but sometimes he’d include copies of letters he wrote to one person in his letter to another person, to spell out some point he was trying to make. That was the core of his letter-writing, anecdotes about his life that he hoped would drive home a message, and some of them were quite moving.
On a number of occasions, Bob spoke of “the gift of self.” He would say that committment, intimacy, vulnerablity, support, concern, all of these were a way for one person to say to another “I give you me because you are worth me giving you me.” That leap is really the core of love, and was the guiding light that helped Bob shepherd kids away from the darkness.
Sadly, I just found out that Bob died this October. I’m sure that an awful lot of former “parentless kids” are going to miss him like hell.