Admittedly, when I tried to call Timothy last week and got an automated message that the number I had reached was no longer in service, my heart sank to the floor as i suspected that something terribly wrong had happened. My first thought was that he was in trouble with the law. Why would I jump to that conclusion so quickly? Now that I know why his number wasn’t in service, I feel the deepest shame. Why would I quickly think that Timothy had been arrested?
I was bothered by Timothy’s odd absence. Truly bothered. This was a man whose life had been one struggle after another; an uphill climb if ever there was one. But after too many years of living on the street, too many years of trying to sustain a crack habit and after too many years of not knowing where he’d lay his head for the night, Timothy made it his business to clean himself up. And clean himself up, he did. We had been invited to a graduation ceremony this past December after Timothy had told us on a midnight run that he was part of a program for homeless people who were finally housed. He told us that he had been chosen for this program sponsored by the Interfaith Assembly on Housing and Homelessness as a means to help him adjust to life off of the streets. And Timothy, who had seriously committed himself to being the best he could be, was so proud when we attended the ceremony to witness his accomplishments. Throughout his involvement in this program , he was in touch with me weekly, often twice weekly, to share with me the progress he was making. He had every right to be as proud as he was. At the age of 53, Timothy had never known what it was like to live in his own place. He had never had his own home and now he was on the road to getting one. He had a plan: upon graduation, he’d wait for his Section 8 to be approved and with some assistance, he’d find an SRO which he could actually call home. And once he was settled in housing, he was going to go back to college to finish his Bachelor’s degree in journalism. We were all so proud of him and like the crowd cheering on their team, we supported our friend Timothy and applauded each step forward that he made.
The weekly and twice-weekly phone calls abruptly stopped sometime after the New Year. I knew Timothy was in a men’s shelter awaiting his assignment to an SRO. I knew he could no longer meet us on our monthly homeless outreach runs because he had a curfew, but I also knew he was a loyal friend who made the effort to stay in touch. And so, when I couldn’t connect with him last week, when I received that automated message that his phone number I was calling was no longer in service, I knew something was terribly wrong. I dreaded what it could possibly be.
This afternoon, sometime before the sun began its journey downward to meet the tops of the Palisades cliffs in the West, the phone rang. I didn’t recognize the New York City number that appeared as the Caller ID, and I nearly didn’t answer it. But, after the third ring, I did. The voice on the other end was Timothy’s, his familiar cadence and greeting: “Mrs. Newman? Hello, Mrs. Newman. It’s Timothy, Mrs. Newman. I have missed you……” Even as I type this, I continue to weep the silent tears I had a difficult time holding back when he told where he had been.
“An ambulance took me to Harlem Hospital, Mrs. Newman, and I’m so sorry, but my phone fell out of my pocket and I couldn’t get it.” His voice, always so polite and apologetic, oddly calmed me, until I learned where he had been. “An ambulance? Are you alright, Timothy?” I asked, feeling the panic within me consume the conversation. I wasn’t making it easy for him which was the last thing I wanted to do. Timothy, it seems, got frostbite from his ankles down to his toes. His feet were always a problem for him as he had compromised circulation, despite the insulated Timberland boots we gave him as a graduation gift. He told me, in a soft and deliberate voice, that he had all of his toes amputated and had been in the hospital since February 17th. He had five surgeries since, all efforts to help his skin heal, a task that was so hard for his body to do. I was no help whatsoever. All I could do was weep.
We’ll visit Timothy tomorrow and bring him what he asked for: fried chicken and a ginger ale. He does not feel sorry for himself and blames no one for his fate. He continues to have his plan and feels that once he’s out of the hospital and completes some time doing rehab, he will seek shelter and a home once again. And, he’ll re-enroll to finish his degree.
I wrote this out because over the last twenty five years or so that I have known Timothy, he has taught me more lessons than I can recount in one sitting. His patience and tolerance and utter politeness is beyond admirable; Timothy, who has nothing material in this world, is one of the richest individuals I know. The wealth of experience he has gleaned is immeasurable because he has a depth of love for those around him very few of my homed friends have ever had.
He is my friend and as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “a Masterpiece of Nature.” May I only learn to be the very same to him.