It was almost dark when I heard a van rumble up in front of our house. Visible through the passenger-side window were the silhouettes of two dark figures scanning the front of the house. I eased out of my chair and slipped to a vantage point behind a set of closed mini-blinds. Eventually two men emerged from the van and started walking up the driveway. Instinctively, I stepped out onto the porch and, closing the door behind me, met their advance before they got close to the house. As we faced off, my pulse quickened and my adrenaline surged. I did not recognize these strangers and their countenance did not exude friendliness. But before I could ask what they wanted, the older of the two broke into a broad smile and exclaimed, "Hey Bob!" The face I did not know, but the voice - I had heard that greeting a thousand times before in an earlier life! It was GeGe, one of the first kids referred to me by the juvenile court 22 years ago, a wild unharnessable teenager then, churning with energy and craving discipline. For years I had wondered what ever became of him after he drifted away from our program. And now here he stood, scarred and gaunt, a very old and tired 35 year old.
The flood of emotion was immediate and spontaneous. We embraced shamelessly as men seldom do openly on the street. 22 years of memories and stories and history poured forth as we stood in the glow of the street light. We reminisced about our camping trips and laughed about the time I constrained him in a hammer lock for an entire 75 mile bus ride. He spoke with pride of his days as a successful bounty hunter tracking down bail-jumpers. Talk turned sober when he mentioned his shadow-world entanglements that had led to a life punctuated by imprisonment.
I detected bitterness in his tone when he told me that he had just been released the week before from a federal prison having served several years on weapon and drug convictions. His family was now scattered, the woman with whom he had several children was living with another man. GeGe's life as it had been was gone. And he blamed one person for it.
He had spent years nursing a deep resentment toward David, a one-time friend with whom he had been arrested. David had offered GeGe a ride one evening as he walked through the old neighborhood. Unbeknown to GeGe, there was a large quantity of drugs hidden in David's car, a cache that the police had their eyes on. The bust took place shortly after GeGe jumped into the car. This was the last time he would see family or freedom for several years. He purposed to kill David at the first opportunity.
For a week now, GeGe had been stalking David who had received an early release from prison. Using the skills he had developed during his bounty hunting days, GeGe found where his former friend was living and laid in wait for the right moment to settle the score. A life for a life, He reasoned.
Vengeance was now within his grasp, yet GeGe was discovering that its sweetness was turning sour. Silent hours of lurking and savoring the payoff produced only unexpected anxiety and sadness. During these long hours of waiting Gege began to think back over his adolescence and remembered happier times when his life seemed to have a direction. It was an unexplained call from the past that prompted GeGe to track me through three address changes until he found our current home.
"I can't do it," GeGe finally declared after confessing to me the details of his plot. "It ain't worth it. I need to let it go," he concluded. The words seemed to seal his decision. There would be no violent pay-back. He must get on with his life.
I was greatly relieved by his decision though I still felt the heaviness of the enormous difficulties he faced in putting his life back together. Family disintegrated, no marketable skills, support systems gone. The obstacles were overwhelming. I could feel the despair.
"I wish I could do it all over again, GeGe," I confessed. Camping and mini-bike riding and small group counseling all seemed so trivial in light of the desperate realities of adult survival. I should have spent a lot more time developing training and jobs, building businesses and homes - in short, laying foundations upon which my young friends could build stable futures. We had great times together. But I was so excited about the new growth that I forgot to clear away the weeds that lay in wait to choke out tender plants. I fear that we built memories rather than futures.
"We'd all do different if we could do it over," GeGe responded with a wisdom seasoned by years of hard surviving. "You're the best thing that ever happened to me." Startling words these were to my disbelieving ears. Was this a setup for a handout? "You taught me so much that helped me," he insisted. Helped him? Helped him accomplish what? Homeless, unemployed, a convict a dozen times over. Here stood anything but a success model of a well-guided youth. "You're still here," GeGe offered as supporting evidence to refute my reluctance. With that I could not disagree.
GeGe calls to check in every week or so. He doesn't talk long, usually asks about our boys, reports on his own progress and sometimes asks if I've heard of any decent job openings. Each time I hang up the phone I wonder why he called. I am neither his emergency bailout nor his source of aid. Is there so much value in mere conversation? Maybe I should listen more closely. Perhaps these are messages sent through an unlikely medium that love is not always measured in the multitude of successes that one can lay claim to. Perhaps love is best seen in the intangible personal investments that disappear into the soil of the human spirit as nutrients for some future seeds of life.