The Worth of a Man

I met Michael Navin when I was assigned as his “coach” at the Redwood Gospel Mission in Santa Rosa, California. That meant meeting with him weekly to talk about his progress in the drug and alcohol rehabilitation program called New Life. Michael was older than most, already in his sixties. He was short, slight and graying, and extremely quiet. Most of the time we met in the copy room, squeezed in next to boxes and office machines.

It was hard to get much information from Michael. He was depressed, and he had reasons to be. He had already been in New Life for over a year, in what is meant to be a 10-month program. To graduate, you have to jump through some hoops, including reciting several memorized passages from the Bible. Every time I raised the question of graduation, Michael said, without elaboration, that he wasn’t ready. That seemed to mean that he couldn’t memorize anything. His brain was fuzzy, and nothing would stick.

Occasionally somebody on staff would ask me about Michael. There was a sense that he was taking up space that somebody else could use to gain sobriety. Nobody pushed Michael, however, and he wasn’t easy to push. He had that gift of silent stubbornness you may remember from Melville’s story “Bartleby the Scrivener.” He didn’t explain or elaborate. He just said, repeatedly, that he wasn’t ready.

Eventually I came to the conclusion that he was terrified. And why not? What can a man do in his sixties, who has no obvious skills, who is extremely reticent, who has no money, and whose resume for the past year shows that he has been in an alcohol and drug rehab run by a gospel mission? So long as he could stay at the mission, he was safe. If he graduated, his prospects were dire. Michael saw no chance of employment. He did not want to sleep on the sidewalk.

As I got to know him better, I learned that Michael had gone to UCLA on a golf scholarship and played for several years on the PGA tour. Later he worked as a manager overseeing several liquor stores. He had previously been through a long residential program with the Salvation Army, and afterwards had been sober for years. He came from a very strong Christian family, and he was very loyal to and appreciative of his church. Not only did he attend every Sunday, he went to a men’s Bible study. People there knew him well.

Michael had a lot going for him: family, church, education. He was a steady worker. He just couldn’t stay sober.

Then a close friend of mine, Jim Bankson, offered Michael work scanning documents. It paid minimum wage, and most of the men at the mission wouldn’t have lasted a day at it. The tedium would kill them. But I had watched Michael doing the laundry every day. Sheets and towels for thirty guests, plus the regular laundry of the men in New Life–that meant a lot of tedium, but Michael didn’t seem to mind. He kept at it, day after day, and I knew if he could do that, he could feed documents into a scanner.

That job changed Michael’s life. He managed to graduate and after an initial period of adjustment settled down into eight hours a day of scanning. He could listen to his beloved San Francisco Giants on the radio while he worked. He walked a mile to work from the halfway house he moved into. The exercise did him good. His paycheck wasn’t much, but he didn’t have many expenses, either. He was visibly more confident, more communicative and more hopeful.

That went on for a couple of years. After Michael’s mother died in Florida he got a small inheritance that enabled him to buy a used car. We had lunch every week or two, and he wanted to treat me. He became a volunteer driver for a gospel mission program that took homeless people to eat and sleep in local churches. It meant being on the road before 6:00 every morning, but Michael was happy doing it. He was very appreciative of what people had done for him, and he wanted to return the favor.

Then, without warning, he stopped returning my calls. He canceled our lunch plans several times. The halfway house he’d been living in was closing, and Michael wasn’t sure where he could live. He was out of sorts. Jim called me; he was worried.

Michael called me from the hospital. He’d taken a fall and broken his hip. In the fall his phone was damaged; for some reason, my phone number was the only one that survived in the phone’s memory. He sounded quite disoriented. I later found out that he’d been living in a cheap motel that rented rooms by the week. He’d been going to bars because he was lonely and he wanted to meet women. Eventually he fell down drunk outside his motel room, crawled inside, and lay on the floor for three days before he was discovered and taken by ambulance to the hospital. He’d been drinking the whole time, on the floor, to numb the pain.

Fortunately, because of his job, he had health insurance. The doctors operated and he was transferred to a rehab facility. I visited him several times and we talked about what had gone wrong. He regained his cheerfulness and seemed hopeful that he could recover, though he was worried about where he would live. A cousin was working on finding a place. Jim let Michael know that he could come back to work whenever he was physically able. Michael was working at getting out of his wheelchair and learning to navigate life with a walker. His situation seemed hopeful.

Next thing I knew he was dead. His body was discovered in another motel, where he’d evidently drunk himself to death. He’s moved in after leaving another halfway house. He wasn’t in the motel too many days before a clerk tried to rouse him and then called 911.

Michael’s death shook me. It seemed like a terrible waste and a complete failure, and from a certain perspective it was. It didn’t have to end that way. He was given a good chance. People were cheering for him. But somehow he couldn’t manage it. Alcohol and loneliness apparently had too tight a grip on his soul.

As time has passed–six months now–I’ve found my view changing. People have highs and lows, victories and defeats. Michael ended on a very low note, but maybe that’s just an accident of when the music stopped. His death certainly shadows the rest of his life, but it isn’t the final summation.

When I think of him, I remember his little wistful smile, as though he knew a secret joke. I remember his unassuming manner, how humbly he let people into his life. There was good reason why people liked Michael, and why such a surprising number appeared at his memorial service. In all his struggles, he wanted to do right, and your heart went out to him.

Michael’s faith was genuine, if faltering, and I have no doubt that I will see him in the renewal. He was my friend; and so he will be.

 

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4 Responses to “The Worth of a Man”

  1. Carrie Bare Says:

    Great story. I’m glad you wrote about this

  2. Karen Kalinski Says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful and supportive obituary. I’m glad you considered him a friend. I’m sure he felt your support. Altho he wasn’t a friend on equal terms and wasn’t close to God. My godmother is a similar friend to a man who has been in and out of rehab, jail, the hospital all his life and just tried to commit suicide. I’m wondering how much not having a true support community makes a difference, altho we all have our inner demons, a solid relationship with God, hope. God bless!

  3. Linda Fong-Elbaggari Says:

    Thank you

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  4. Dustin Ellington Says:

    Thank you for this. The sharing of his story helps me to see the the man’s dignity.

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