Vaetchanan: The Life of Charlie Barnes

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The morning that changed my life started like all the others. I left the small apartment I shared with six other immigrants and made my way to work. The elevator down to the bottom floor of the building creaked as it always did. And as the door to building opened, I was greeted by the smell of rain. But this wasn’t the refreshing of rain you might find in other places. Instead, the rain just brought out the worst in the city. The smell of rotting vegetables, of rotting streets and of rotting buildings was empowered by the wet that washed over the place on a regular basis. As I had many times before, I asked myself why I was still here.

I asked myself why I hadn’t moved on. I knew the answer, but I asked nonetheless.

I made my way through the empty market. The smells of the city were stronger here. Trash left over from the night before festered in the moist morning air. I kept walking, past boarded up buildings, pound shops, and charity stores selling a variety of worthless knickknacks.

Finally, I came to my destination. It stood out from its surroundings, at least externally. It was an old manor house, with elegant lines and beautifully fashioned features. It had been built during a better age, when the city had been a center for wool production. A wealthy family had lived there. But they had long since left. Now, the house was an old-age home for those who had no other options.

As I drew close to the door, a familiar smell greeted me. Not just the vague urine-smell of every old age home. No, this was something worse. I knew the cause. The patients weren’t properly cleaned, laundry wasn’t done, floors and bathrooms weren’t sanitized. The home was a disgusting place. Once grand rooms had been sub-divided by cheap walls and fine wooden floors had been covered by cheap and poorly applied linoleum. Old fluorescent bulbs provided what passed for illumination, which was probably better than revealing the filth that consumed the place. Only the desperate would find their way here. Only the hated would be assigned such a home.

Any decent family would find something better for their elders.

I’d started working here seven years earlier. I’d left Poland. I’d left behind my wife and my baby. And I’d come to England to work. I barely spoke any English, then. But I’d gone to the Job Centre and they’d placed me here, as a cleaner. Those first months I thought of it as a place of transition. I’d work here, in this place, until I could leave. Then I’d move up, my improving English granting me a way into something better. I’d earn more money, then. And I’d send more home. And, eventually, my family would come to me. Maybe we’d buy a little flat.

But it hadn’t worked out that way.

The patients suffered dementia of all sorts. The home ‘specialized’ in their care. But the patients weren’t just sweet old people with scrambled minds. Quite a few of them were aggressive, mean, paranoid and vindictive. They had been assigned to this place because nobody cared to find them something better. Sometimes this was their own fault. The staff hated them, often good reason. Most didn’t actively hurt patients, they just neglected them. But a few went further than that – allowing their anger and frustration to show in physical abuse. The staff were there for one reason only: to collect their pay and then move on to something better. Most came and went in only a few months. The management didn’t seem to mind. They kept their eyes shut, they kept costs low, and they kept the profits coming in.

That’s why I stayed. I didn’t like the patients. I didn’t like the staff. But the patients needed somebody who would do something for them. My wife hated what I was doing. I wasn’t moving up the pay scale. I wasn’t getting a flat. I wasn’t bringing her to England. I wasn’t helping her raise my son.

But I was doing something for people nobody else wanted to help. And although I couldn’t possibly keep up with the demands of the 200+ people who lived in the manor, I did my best. I worked hard, swimming against the stream of disgust produced by the elderly patients. I did it because somebody had to at least try. And I paid, every day, for my decision.

And every day had been the same. For seven years, there had been the same smells. The same dimly lit corridors. The same iffy maintenance. The same angry patients – some of whom would scream epithets at me – the Polak who had come to take their jobs. The staff had changed. But none of them would speak to me. I was beneath them. I meant nothing. And I couldn’t allow myself to escape.

And then, everything changed.

I was cleaning a hallway. I was surrounded by the strong smell of bleach and I was swishing my mop back and forth, pushing against the odors that defined the place. And then I looked up and I saw a patient. But unlike all the others, his face was glowing with some internal light.

He wasn’t looking at me. He was looking beyond me.

But his eyes were filled with joy.

I watched him as he approached. And I watched him as he passed, silently, down the hall. He was following some vision of paradise. I kept moping that day, like any other. But the vision of him filled my mind. In seven years of labor, I had never seen anybody like him.

The next day, scrubbing away at stains in another hall, I saw him again. He had that same beatific face. That same joy. Only this time he was speaking. He had stopped, right next to me, and he was talking into the air. He was describing a scene. Something involving a woman named Rebecca. I stopped to listen. The story was cogent and clear. It seemed Rebecca was a scientist of some sort. She had adapted farming practices somewhere, yielding regular and sustainable crops where none had been possible before. The way the man spoke, it seemed like she was changing lives. It seemed like she was working miracles for people who had been kept low for hundreds of years. I didn’t have any idea what it meant. When he finished, he shuffled off, as he had the day before.

And then the next day, I saw him again. And he stopped again. And he narrated a story about a man named Jason. The day after that, the story was about a man named Hugh.

They were stories of hope and of impact and of change.

I figured the stories must reflect some kind of Alzheimer’s. I figured he must be living in the past. So, I asked the secretary for the man’s name. It was Charlie Barnes. On my way home that third night, I stopped by the library. I looked him up. And I found him. He had been born 78 years earlier. He had worked in a wool mill until it closed in the 1990s. The local newspaper had chosen to interview him when he’d been laid off. He had had no siblings, wife or children. His parents had died years earlier. No Hughs or Rebeccas or Jasons were mentioned in the piece. He was an unconnected man, cut adrift by the loss of his wool mill job. There was no mention of sparkling eyes.

I went back to work the next day. And Charlie shared another story. He was still talking to no-one and looking at nothing. But he was describing something beautiful. I stopped and listened. And then, when he was done, we both moved on. He continued to shuffle through the halls and I carried on with my cleaning.

For the first time, I started to look forward to my work. I thought others might feel the same. I asked others on the staff what they thought of him. But nobody else seemed to notice him, and they didn’t want to talk to me. He brought light to the entire place, but nobody else saw it. To them, he was just another worthless patient.

His was a light only I could see.

And then one day, when I replacing a broken fluorescent tube, he came towards me. I glanced down at him, waiting for him to stop and narrate a story. And he did stop. But he didn’t share a story; his eyes weren’t looking into the distance. Instead, he focused on me. His eyes focused on me. They were ablaze with joy and appreciation. And then he said one word, “Jaroslaw.”

It was my name. He said my name.

And then he turned and shuffled down the hall, like he had every other day.

I knew then that he saw something in me. Even my wife had never looked at me in that way. I went home, navigating through the market and heading towards my flat where I lived with six other immigrants. But I saw the market differently. I didn’t notice the grime and the smells and the rot. Instead, I saw the few hopeful kids and the stall operators trying desperately to share the flavors of their homelands. I saw their hopes, and not their horrors.

And for the first time in my life, I knew I was important. All because a demented old man had looked at me and said my name.

I came back the next day, hoping to hear another story. And I cleaned the halls. But I did not see the man. But for the first time in weeks, I did not see the man. The entire day I worked, eagerly waiting an encounter with the man with the face of light. But he was not there.

And then I asked the secretary about him.

And she told me, in a flat and uncaring voice, “Charlie Barnes is dead.” The state was paying for his funeral.

Charlie Barnes would be buried the next day.

I went home that night. The city weighed on me again. I had had a moment of joy and of hope. But now it was gone. I felt the weight of my reality more heavily than ever before. And, for the first time in years, I considered leaving my job. After all, I did not owe these old people my life. Hadn’t they earned their sentence? Was it my fault they had no families who cared? Did my wife have to stay, far from me, because of them?

I came to my flat. I shared one bathroom and one kitchen with six other men. We never spoke. They passed through, spending a few months there and then moving on to something better. But I never left. I stayed there, punishing myself to help people who would never even thank me.

And now Charlie was gone, and there was no reason to keep sacrificing.

But something pulled at me. A sense of obligation. Charlie had seen something. He had brought light to my life. I owed him something in return. And so, I spent some of my savings and I rented a local church. It was a huge space, long since abandoned with the changing mores of the city. I would hold a wake there. A celebration of a man nobody else seemed to know.

I placed an obituary in the local paper. I used his name. I filled out a brief outline of his career. And I mentioned, ever so briefly, that he spread stories of hope. I mentioned, in the last line, that there would be wake for the man with the shining face.

The next day, and the day after that, I continued working at the home – just as before. I trudged through the filth and I imagined Charlie Barnes coming down the hall, bringing joy to my darkness.

But now, seven days have passed. Now, I am coming to the wake. Now, I will try to repay the gifts Charlie Barnes had given to me.

I walk up the rundown street, heading towards the worn-looking church at what had once been a prominent corner. The lights are on in the building, shining through the dust-covered stained-glass windows. It is a beautiful building, but its purpose has been lost. It has always stood empty, every time I had passed it. I push open the heavy door, expecting an empty room. But the room is full. There are hundreds of people there. I looked behind me and I see more are coming. They are abuzz with conversation. The room is aglow with energy.

Hundreds of people have come to the wake of a man who had no family.

I begin to walk through the sanctuary. I introduce myself and others introduce themselves to me. I meet a Jason and I meet a Hugh. For every story I have heard, I meet a person who matches the tale.

I ask them why they are there. They all have the same answer: Charlie Barnes had seen them. With his eyes of light, he had seen them and they had known they had a future and a purpose. And they had known they weren’t worthless and meaningless. Charlie Barnes’ belief had changed their lives.

They tell me they had been drawn to the paper that day. They had seen the obituary. And they had known that they had to come.

I ask them for their stories, then. And they tell me about their lives. Their eyes all sparkle with the light of potential. But none have lived the stories Charlie had told to me. I couldn’t understand what he had shared with me. Where did his stories come from? What did they speak to?

As I circulate through the room, I meet only one Rebecca. She is a child, no older than 6. I ask if she had met Charlie and she says ‘no.’

But her parents had. Charlie had brought them together.

I smile, confused.

And then, out of the blue, the little girl tells me that she loves plants.

And, then, I understand.

Charlie hadn’t been sharing stories of the past. He had been sharing stories of the future. In his old age, in his dementia, he was seeing the impact his life would have.

He had been blessed with a sort of prophecy.

And I know, now, that I have inherited his vision. I know what awaits Rebecca and Hugh and Jason and all the others. I feel the spark of Charlie’s eyes entering my own. I know these people’s stories. But I also know that I, like Charlie, will be able to see others and recognize the potential in their lives.

Men and women and children step up then, to the podium. They speak about their time with Charlie. They speak of the time when he saw them and changed their lives. One by one they rise up and share what they experienced. And then, eventually there are no speakers left. None but me.

The crowd looks to me, expectant and waiting. They know I placed the obituary.

But I cannot share their futures with them. Instead, when I rise to the podium, I speak not of my individual experience, but of our experience. I speak of the possibilities that may be unleashed by all of us together. I speak of what Charlie saw in us, not just each one of us.

And, just like that I establish a community. Charlie’s community.

A man comes up to me then. He introduces himself. He is a solicitor, the man responsible for Charlie’s estate. Charlie, who had had no family, has left behind a substantial amount of money.

And Charlie had named me as his inheritor.

I am confused. When could he have named me? Can a demented old man write out a will?

Without prompting, the lawyer shows me the document. My full name is there, written in clear script. At the bottom, there is a date. The will had been signed seven years earlier. It had been signed the same day I had come to England.

I wish, suddenly, that Charlie had told me my story. I wish suddenly, that he had defined my path. But even as the thought crosses my mind, I know what I must do.

I will buy the old age home. I will replace the staff. I will refurbish the building. I will bring my family over. I will care for those who have no one to care for them.

But I will do more than that. I will follow in the footsteps of Charlie Barnes, finding hope where others see nothing of value.

With these people, with his people, we will transform this rotting city.

Together, we will cultivate the seeds of life.

 

At the beginning of the Torah reading of Ve’etchanan, Moshe remembers that he had critiqued G-d’s choice to exclude him from the land. G-d had responded by offering Moshe the chance to go up to the peak of Pisgah and look down from that place. While he is there, G-d tells him to look in all four directions, not just towards the land.

The question is, why?

Pisgah first comes up in the song Az Yashir Yisrael. Az Yashir Moshe, sung upon the people’s crossing of the sea, shows the people walking on dry land through a break in the sea. But Az Yashir Yisrael describes the people as the water. They flow through the desert and references are given to the giving of the Torah, the death of the spies and the worship of Baal Peor. At the end of the song, the waters flow up to and over Rosh haPisgah – the top of Pisgah. This seems impossible, water does not flow upwards. But, of course, these waters are not literal but spiritual.

When Moshe climbs this hill, and looks in all four directions, he is seeing the impact of his own life. He is seeing the future of the people he has rescued. He is seeing where they will flow, having climbed the great heights. Moshe will not cross the Jordan, but he does see what comes after he has left our physical reality.

Moshe does not simply rest then, his vision in hand. He still continues to act and to shape the people. In a way, he fights against the limits of his vision – or any vision whatsoever. In the following chapter (chapter 4), we are reminded no fewer than five times of the limits of images. The act of creating images leads to the worship of the sun and the moon and then, eventually, to the worship of the work of man. The process is one in which imagination in consumed. Images, forms, limit our imagination. When we create them, when we see them, we can’t appreciate the formless reality of G-d or the formless potential of our own people.

Despite Moshe’s vision – despite him seeing our future – we are to be a people open to imagination. It is a statement of Moshe’s greatness that he can see the future and push back against the limits that vision might impose.

Moshe breaks his speech here, just once, to act. He designates the cities of refuge. He doesn’t establish them (karitem). He only designates (yavdeel) them. Moshe is a protector, a shepherd. The cities of refuge are what he chooses as his personal legacy.

What comes next is the Ten Declarations. But they have been changed. Gone is the panic of the first version (Ex. 20:14-15). It has been replaced with deliberation (Dev 5:19-23). This parallels the American experience with the Constitution. In our modern understanding, it was produced with deliberation. At the time, the process was far more chaotic and far from certain. This change speaks to a shift in the commandments themselves. This second set of commandments no longer speak to individuals, they speak to the nation as a whole. Alternations are made, alterations which reflect this change. We are all a part of the Ten Declarations just as Americans are all a part of the Constitution. We are signatories to a document signed long before we were born. We are parties to a covenant established thousands of years ago. This reality can only be true when we come together as a people.

Moshe is not just pushing against a vision, he is trying to fashion the people as a people.

Then we are reminded once again to listen. Only if we listen, and pass on the words which we have heard, can we realize the blessings that await us. It is this chain of memory, not of artifacts, that links our people together.

The reading ends with an explanation of sorts. Moshe says G-d will reward those who love him and keep his commandments for a thousand generations. And he says that those who hate him, will be repaid face to face. In a way, it is an answer to the question at the beginning of the reading.

Moshe is being prevented from entering the land. G-d is repaying his act of rebellion – face to face. But a thousand generations of kindness still remain as Moshe’s reward. A thousand generations of hope, visible from the peaks of Pisgah, remain as his reward.

The story of Charlie Barnes parallels this reading. Just as Moshe looks down from Pisgah, Charlie sees the impact of his life. He continues, even then, to push against reality. He continues to try to better what has already been established. Just as Moshe designates cities, Charlie chooses a man who can pass on his belief in others. And just a Moshe wills a collective reality into reality, Charlie’s wake serves as the formation of a new community – a community that will transform a world of rot. It is not a community built on artifact. It is a community built on memory and on words.

We all falter. We all die.

It should be our hope to realize the sort of life Moshe realized. It should be our hope to be repaid for our hatred, face-to-face. This should be our hope – so that we may be rewarded for our love with a thousand generations of kindness.

May our legacies be strengthened by those we have blessed.

 

If you enjoyed this post, please share it and comment when you do. It is much appreciated! If you really liked it, buy my book: the City on the Heights (www.cityontheheights.com)!

 

Many of my stories are about the impact individuals can have on our world. A few times, I’ve tried to capture the essence of those who have passed away. The idea is simple – through the stories, I can spread a person’s impact in a new and different way.

If you know somebody you’d like to memorialize in this way, please reach out to me. I can’t promise anything, but their ‘character’ might just feature in an upcoming Torah Short.

h/t Eli for his insights into nursing home workers and for modeling the character of Jaroslaw.

 

Image: ANDY RAMMY / Hooley Bridge Mill / CC BY-SA 2.0

Joseph Cox Author

Joseph Cox is the author of City on the Heights (www.CityontheHeights.com), a thriller about creating hope from war.

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