A Better Place for a Friend

There were months where I refused to talk to him. Yet still he could be inspiring. He never stopped failing...but he also never stopped trying.

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I'm usually very picky about my airline seat. I like the aisle; I'd rather have people climb over me than climb over them.

And a middle seat on most airlines? I think if we really want to get terrorists to talk, we should ditch waterboarding and just fly them cross-country in a middle seat. But on this current trip out to the West Coast yesterday I asked the person sitting by the window if he would mind switching seats with me for a little while.

It was shortly after we crossed the Mississippi, according to the in-flight map, and I wanted to look down on the spot there in the middle of the middle of the country where an old friend of mine was found dead last week in the little apartment he'd been able to finally move to after years of fighting for disability.

He died alone and I try to comfort myself that Rusty's heart just gave out after all the years of hard living. Someone once said to me, "Rusty likes to party." But drinking yourself in and out of hospitals and men's shelters is not partying, and frankly I deplore the term.

It is a dreadful and tragic existence that no one would choose for themselves, a doomed struggle all too many Americans endure with too little support and help and too much indifference to their plight. Not that Rusty wasn't able to screw up in unbelievable and even very creative ways. There were many months where I refused to talk to him.

Yet still he could be inspiring. He never stopped failing...but he also never stopped trying and behind the lies and desperation and terror there was always a scintilla of honesty and hope that kept Rusty going and people loving him. He was charming and smart and better read than almost anyone I've ever known. He made librarians fall in love with him so he could hole up in the library. And something about the state of his own appalling depravation made him capable of heroic acts of kindness, and I have no doubt whatsoever that at some point Rusty actually did give someone the only shirt off his back, probably on a cold and bitter Midwestern day. And never gave it a second thought.

But he was possessed of a self-destructiveness, an inability to free himself of the coils of his self-hatred, that ultimately brought his end, alone in that apartment in the middle of the middle of the country. I have no idea why some people make it and others don't. I believe Rusty loved God and I know God loved him.

Rusty was, beneath it all, good. Yet in the end his life was not. I tell in my own book, The Promise of Hope, how close I came to that same nihilistic fate, and I have wondered many times why I was saved and how I don't deserve the life I have any more than Rusty deserved the life he had. But he did not die alone, because there were still people who loved him and that love was with him and I think he knew it. We all want to die loved.

I stared down from 35,000 feet and thought, No, not everyone makes it, not even the good ones. But I deeply and profoundly believe that Rusty did make it to a better place.

Join me in Garden Grove, California, where I will be appearing this Sunday at the Crystal Cathedral.

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