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Rick’s Birthday Party

Story by Kristine Barnes

April 2002 - Come with me to John’s Island, just south of lovely historic Charleston, SC. My brother Rick, an alcoholic, and a skilled carpenter was turning 40. Our Mom was here in NC visiting from Missouri, so we drove down for the weekend to give him a nice birthday celebration. Friday night he meets us at our hotel, late. Why? Because he’s very upset – just learned his friend Wayne was found dead that afternoon, slumped over his computer.

I went to Charleston, knowing I had a devotional due for my Community Bible Study group first thing Monday morning, but felt, considering where I was going and why, that there might be something to be learned on the trip. There was!! I learned I am a serious hypocrite, as in Matthew 23:27, a whitewashed tomb that looks like a Christian on the outside but inside is filled with corruption and sin.

Whole weekend filled with experiences that had me saying “yuck!” and feeling glad I was only visiting. Yet they were also making me rethink my attitudes. One Christian-ese word I have always disliked is “judgmental”. That word is something we should not be because we are supposed to accept everyone, remembering that in God’s eye’s we are all equal, all sinners. Ok, but does that mean I have to accept everything people do? No! But it does mean I should not judge their motives, their hearts, or their worth – because I have no idea what is really going on inside of them.

Perception: We followed Rick to his home, driving past a scruffy yard full of junk, old vehicles, cupboards and a sink, 2 dogs on chains, and an unpainted house furnished with stuff we’d normally put on the curb as trash. What an

awful place, what sort of people would live like this?? Rick pulled into the yard - his yard.

Reality: Rick and Doug (Rick’s roommate who had never met us) spent the previous day shampooing the carpet and cleaning so Mom and I would be comfortable. Rick was just as proud to show off his home to us as any of us would be to show ours. One of the two dogs we saw had been rescued by Rick, from a yard where it was tied up each day, in the sun with no water. He joined Rick’s family and now has his own house, in the shade, and plenty of food, water, and love.

On Saturday, Doug invested 3 hours to steam, shuck, bread, and fry in their HOT kitchen, oysters, mushrooms, and cheese sticks. He just wanted to provide us with a nice treat before we left for the restaurant he knew we were taking Rick to for his birthday that evening. Ask again, what sort of people would live like this?? Nice people, caring people, generous people. They have chosen this lifestyle based on other choices they have made (alcoholism) – I do not choose to live this way myself, but that does not make me a better person than them. Quite the opposite!

As the day lazed along, Mom and I are getting antsy. Rick had talked of an aquarium he wanted to show us in Charleston, but we just sat, ate and talked, drank (the guys), played cards (Rick and Mom), and worried about the schedule (me). We came to celebrate Rick’s birthday with him, so we’d better get on with the plan. As I observed the scene however, I realized how much Rick was enjoying just having us there, in his environment, playing cribbage with Mom as they used to do. I realized that we were celebrating his birthday, in this moment.

Eventually Rick noticed that it was time to move on, but by then it was waaay too late to do the aquarium. (tick, Tick, TICK!) It was just about too late to do anything if we were going to clean up (it was beastly hot that day, we were all very sweaty) and get to dinner at a reasonable hour. We’d chosen a nice place Rick had mentioned wanting to try, plus we had gifts for him to open, and the homemade chocolate cake I had hauled from Cary.

But there was a lighthouse Rick really wanted us to see first (tick, Tick, TICK!)) so we headed off in two vehicles as Rick preferred to drive his van so he could smoke. We are following Rick along a beach when suddenly he stops the van. He asked if we minded a little detour so he could help the guys with their truck stuck in the sand. (what guys? what truck??) Mom and I had been intent on our destination and had not even noticed the group of young men about my son’s age trying to free a pick-up buried to the axle. So we drove around the block (all one-way streets) to get back to the trouble (tick, Tick, TICK!)) where Rick and I figured a way to pull them out, using my “olde lady” car, a big Oldsmobile. It was fun! The guys were grateful but humiliated at the manner of rescue. Rick, of course, refused their offer of payment. He commented to me, “I had to stop and help. It’s what I hope someone would do for me.” Good point! It’s what I hope someone would do for my son West and his buddies in a similar situation. (tick, Tick, TICK!))

At the lighthouse it’s a pleasant hike, not too terribly long, and somewhat shady. We enjoyed the exercise, took some photos, then headed back to the vehicles. (tick, Tick, TICK!))

The sun is setting, and we still needed to clean up, change clothes and get to the restaurant. My true instinct was to just postpone the dinner till tomorrow since everyone, in my opinion, would have been happier with a shower and a nap. But we planned to take Rick to dinner, dammit, and that’s what we’re going to do! (tick, damn it, tick!)

Back at our hotel, Mom and I cleaned up in record time! As agreed, we called Rick to say we were ready to leave. His response was, “What? I thought I had time to sit down and have a rest before I cleaned up. How did you get ready so quickly? I’ve been on the phone ever since I got home.”

I had warned Mom that Rick would probably get home, crack open another beer, and be late. Unfortunately I was correct. We told Rick we’d go on to the restaurant and have the table ready when he arrived. About 15 minutes into our wait at the restaurant, I am paged by the hostess. What?? Rick is on the phone saying the son of Wayne (the guy who just died) needed some help and had called Rick as no one else was available. So naturally, Rick agreed to help, although he was torn because he knew we were waiting and he couldn’t be in two places at once. I reassured him that the friend was most important right now, that he needed to be with him, that Mom and I would be fine. I apologized to the hostess and cancelled our table.

In our room, Mom and I got into our jammies, and had a wonderful meal of stuff I had brought along; including homemade birthday cake. We couldn’t ignore the siren song of the chocolate any longer. It was a lovely restful evening.

Meanwhile, Rick helped his friend, got much less sleep than we, and was up at six Sunday morning to volunteer at the local Veterans’ club, cooking, as he does every Sunday. He had to be there early to prepare all the ingredients for the omelets of which he was in charge. He had invited us to join him there, which we did.

Some old acquaintances from previous visits were there, all “red-necks”, all smoking, and drinking alcoholic beverages for breakfast. Not a place I would normally be hanging out on a Sunday morning (or any morning!) We enjoyed catching up with everyone all the while counting our blessings for not being stuck in this lifestyle. The food was wonderful! When the plates for Mom and me came from the kitchen, each was graced by two lovely fresh carnations. Rick had stopped that morning (before 6 am!!) and picked them up. We were to have had three flowers each, but upon arriving at the hall, he learned that a fellow volunteer was celebrating her 70th birthday. Of course, he immediately offered her a pair of flowers along with his “Happy Birthday” wish!

Rick wanted us to meet his friend, Bruce, whom everyone talked about as a great guy, kind of big they said, at 400 lbs. My first thought as he waddled over to our table with a dirty T-shirt stretched over several rolls of his huge belly – a fat slob, probably lazy, not too bright (can you say judgmental?!) I looked into Bruce’s eyes as I shook his sticky, sweaty hand and saw intelligence, heard his articulate speech, understood that he too volunteered his time every Sunday to cook for the crowds, and realized that once again, I had screwed up. Rick and Bruce are people to whom I should look up to, people who have something to teach me.

After the crowds left, we got Rick out of the kitchen, lit the candles on the well-traveled cake and over Rick protests (his friends said, too bad), we sang the birthday song. The first piece of cake went to the 70-year-old birthday girl, then to all Rick’s friends. It was much more fun for all to share the cake and gifts here, than a tailgate party for three in the restaurant parking lot would have been. Mom and I hugged Rick, said goodbye to everyone and hit the road back to North Carolina.

The lessons I took away from this trip were many. I am so proud of my beautiful brother. I am so humbled at my recognition of all the harsh, incorrect judgments I made based on my own prejudices and/or lack of knowledge. I will try to look at my world with new eyes – the eyes of Christ – as my impoverished, alcoholic, younger brother does. He has been a wonderful example for me. He was the one who gave the gifts as we celebrated his birthday, his way.

Post Script: All the stories from Our High Places are true. Most have happy endings. No one died so the stories are first person narratives. Except this one. Our brother Rick eventually moved to Hawaii and lived on Oahu with several roommates. One afternoon in 2013 someone brought home a new drug that no one knew anything about. Tragically, Rick died of a massive stroke that day. Hospital – life support – unplugged. He was Fifty-one. Our niece Emilee was stationed at Hickam Air Force base and although she had only met him years earlier, she went to the hospital and held his hand as he flatlined. My sister Kristine flew in from NC. just in time to kiss his ice-cold forehead and say goodbye as they wheeled him out of the morgue.

Rick never wavered in his loyalty and commitment to others around him no matter where he lived. He befriended some of the most down and out people you’d ever want to meet. But to him they were just another person needing a hand up. His life ended tragically but if there had been a funeral I know the room would have been packed to overflowing.

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