Living Under the Sword
I picked him up at airport around 4 a.m. A Hispanic man, middle height, barrel-chested, could have been either side of 50. A big duffel for luggage. He was an itinerant construction worker—cement was his field—headed for a job up in Everett. It was just him and me, so there would be at least 40 minutes to talk.
He told me about working on a high building early in his career, and how it terrified him, so he went to the library and got a book about fear, and studied it.
“Did that cure it?”
“No, I was still afraid.”
I forget how it came up—but it turned out he’d had a stroke once, and had fully recovered, except for one thing: there was a small blood clot in his neck, a vein too delicate to operate on. The surgeon told him that when it broke loose, it would enter his brain and kill him.
“He told me it could be tomorrow, it could be 20 years from now—no way to tell.”
“Do you think about it often?”
“Every day when I wake up, I wonder, will this be the day?”
The doctor told him he was okay to work, but also let him know (wink wink, nudge nudge) that he was willing write him a recommendation for disability, because he’d gotten such a lousy break. But when the man learned how much money he would get each month, “and the kind of flophouses I’d have to live in,” he decided to take his chances and keep working. It had been about 10 years so far.
I asked if the news had a spiritual effect on him. It did, but not in the way I expected:
“I used to be a Pentecostal, but when I was recovering from the stroke, I started reading about biology to learn what was happening to me. Then I started reading about evolution, and I ended up leaving the church.”
I once heard about a study that showed even highly educated people often cling to their beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence. I loved and respected his intellectual curiosity and honesty—and his courage—how he would seek answers, and live by the best ones he could find. He was one of my all-time favorite people on the van. The conversation was pretty wide-ranging, but I still remember the last thing he said:
“People are out there trying to build financial empires, but that’s not what it’s about. That’s not what it’s about at all.”