We had first planned to get together on Monday and he cancelled at the last minute. A part of me had expected a lack of follow through from him, so I wasn’t all that shocked when he said he couldn’t make it. But I was pleasantly surprised when the very next day, he texted and asked if we could meet that night instead.
He asked if I could pick him up, said he doesn’t drive. He gave me his address and as it turns out, he only lives a few miles from me. As soon as our plans were finalized, a feeling of uncertainty came over me. What was I doing? We didn’t really know each other and I suddenly wondered what we would say. Would we both feel uncomfortable and find ourselves at a loss for words? It didn’t really matter anyway. I had committed to picking him up and having coffee with him. He wasn’t backing down. There’s no way I could at this point either.
I found the house easily and Justin was waiting outside the side door when I pulled up. He sauntered over to the car and slid into the passenger seat casually. “Hi, thanks for coming to get me,” he said. And then he started talking and didn’t stop for the next two hours.
I went into this thinking that Justin needed family or a friend and I could be one or both. I knew he had somewhat of a dark side. But he’d been posting so many things on Faceb00k about turning things around that I hoped I could support him somehow, maybe help him turn his life in a better direction. When I first saw him walking to my car, I saw a tough young man who walked with a casual yet cocky attitude. He wore an oversized Minnesota Wild jersey that hung low over his jeans. He had a ball cap on with a foil sticker still fixed to the bill. Once he was in the car, I really looked at him. It was his eyes that struck me. They were big, brown puppy eyes, and as tough as he tried to appear, I still saw a lost little boy in his eyes.
As he told me his story throughout the evening, I began to understand how little things became bigger things that led to his making the wrong choices at ever turn. Over and over he told me how he doesn’t blame anyone for his circumstances. He takes full responsibility. He didn’t ask me for anything and truly only seemed to want someone to listen to him without shutting him off.
I had approached this meeting with what I now see as a sort of arrogant what-would-Jesus-do kind of attitude. I thought I was going to make some kind of an impact in his life. But his situation is worse than I could have imagined. Throughout the evening, I periodically thought how strange it was that I was sitting having coffee with a person whom, had he been a stranger to me, would have scared me to death. Had he not been my cousin, or my uncle’s step-son, I wouldn’t have stopped to consider how sad it is that his life could have turned out so differently if only one or two or ten events in his life had gone in another direction.
There is nothing I can do for Justin. There is no advice I can give him, no kind of support, nothing that can change the course of his life now. I said to him several times, “I don’t know what to say. There’s nothing I can offer you.”
“I’m not asking you for anything,” he said. “Even if there was something, I’m no good at asking for help.”
He told me he has to appear in court next week and again next month. If he’s convicted, he’s looking at prison time. When he told me that, his eyes welled up with tears and he swallowed hard several times. When he revealed that information, told me what he’d done to end up in this place, it occurred to me that I should be scared. But I wasn’t scared. Maybe it’s because he took care of my uncle during his dying days. Maybe it’s because he assured me he wasn’t violent. Maybe it’s because I’d just learned how much he had wanted his mom to protect him and to love him, but he didn’t know how to be the kind of son she could love and protect. And once he fell into the life he’s led, it became all he knew. I believe there is more to him than the things he’s done wrong. Unfortunately, my desire to help came much too late.
We’d finished our coffee long before Justin finally ran out of words. When at last he’d said all there was to say, he looked at me and shrugged. “I’m ready to go whenever you are,” he said. And so we walked back to the car as the sun was setting. Just before he opened the passenger door, he said, “I’m not a bad person inside.””
“I know you’re not,” I assured him.
As we drove back to his house, he said, “I just wish my mom would have been there for me, in spite of my failures.”
He’s a thirty-something young man, and the biggest thing I learned about him is that he still simply longs for his mother.
“I can’t change anything for you, Justin,” I told him. ” But I can be here for you whenever you need to talk. And you might think this sounds stupid, but I will pray for you”
“Thank you,” he said. We were pulling into his driveway by then and I put the car in park. He leaned over and hugged me. He thanked me for the coffee and for listening. He stepped out of the car and as I backed out into the street again, he took up a stance on the porch with his back to me. He stared off into the dusky sky through the trees and lit a cigarette.