Coming down the hill about to make my final turn as I walk back to my house, there is a man standing on the street corner. The sun is making its final descent below the horizon as my eyes adjust to the rapid decrease of natural light. The street light turns on with a soft pop followed by a low tone buzz. A warm swirl of wind wraps around my head causing me to look up toward the sky. Black storm clouds are moving in. I’m 50 yards away.
As I get closer, my dog pulls harder on her leash. Her curiosity is peaked and so is mine. I don’t know his name but I see him all the time. The situation is always the same. Me, just getting back from walking my dog and he just heading out to walk his. Each time we pass I say hello, as does he. He looks as though he is ready to stop and chat, but I just keep going. Typically I am preoccupied, usually with trivial things. Scrolling through Instagram photos, checking Facebook and Twitter updates. Occasionally, it’s a podcast teaching me how to be a better pastor who leads his congregation to reach out to their neighbors, as I ironically blow past mine. I’m 20 yards away.
Tonight, I’m thinking about getting home before the watershed of heaven descends to earth. I’m also thinking that if I stop and talk to this guy there is a good chance my dog and his dog will have a mini-canine royal rumble in the middle of the street making conversation impossible anyway. Plus, judging by his appearance of work boots, shorts, tattered t-shirt and trucker hat, I assume there will be nothing of interest to learn about this guy. I’m 10 yards away.
And even though I convince myself that I have every reason to keep going, tonight something happens. I actually stop. No longer am I yards away, I am now feet away. I slide out the last bite of my green apple ice-pop from its plastic sleeve. I pluck out my earbuds from the side of my head. And while my momentum is moving me past my neighbor, I awkwardly shift my body towards him and thrust out my hand.
“Hi. My name is Bryan Marvel, what’s yours?”
He looks at my hand and then at my eyes. Without receiving his hand I draw mine back. Not because he is rude or because he rejects my greeting, but because his hand is shaking. It always shakes. He has Parkinson’s disease.
Slowly, but steadily he responds, “My name… is Alexander… Hope.”
Tonight, our dogs don’t wrestle, they dance. They move about on their soft feet tangling their leashes and become fast friends.
Another gust of warm wind sweeps through the street rustling the leaves above and I feel a drop of rain on my bald head. I wait for the next drop to fall, but it doesn’t come. God holds back water for just a few minutes to allow me the privilege of meeting my neighbor. And a privilege it is.
After asking a few initial questions I am ashamed that I could be so quick to assume and judge, especially based on his appearance. He tells me that he is new to the area. I ask him where he’s from, “California” is his reply. I ask why he moved, “Cancer” is his response. Apparently one of the best doctors in the country for his type of cancer is here in Atlanta. And before any pity can arise in my heart, he is sure to let me know that he will have none of it. I ask him why? He replies, “I have lived one of the very good lives.”
The sun is completely out of sight. The wind has pushed the black clouds completely overhead. The dogs at our feet are so quiet that we forget they are even there. The heavenly buildup of rain spills over just a little, but the hand of God holds it back a few minutes longer.
I ask what has made his life so good. Then he begins to roll the highlight reel of his life and I am shocked. He begins to tell stories of singing and traveling with Lawrence Welk, acting on television and in commercials, authoring a handful of books, starting businesses and losing businesses, making lots of money and losing lots of money. All of this with not even a high school education. Now, a little down on his luck fighting a disease that could very well take his life, gratitude overflows from his heart.
God, now pulling his fingers out of the celestial dam lets the rain begin to fall. The ever-increasing flow of rain causes our conversation to come to a close, but I am intrigued, to say the least. We part ways, yet I look forward to when we will meet again. And as I round out my walk and approach the front stoop of our house, joy begins to bubble up in my heart. It’s the joy of being reminded that things (and people for that matter, as well as neighborhoods) aren’t always as they appear.
I walk inside and the rain comes down in full force. As I take off my dog's leash she scurries away to cozy up on our bed. I turn just for a second to watch the rain through our front picture window and my new found joy is accompanied by gratitude. I am grateful for the things that our quirky little neighborhood is teaching me. May the lessons never stop.