Here’s another portion of my book that didn’t make it into the final version. Remember, it’s rough and unedited, but it is a story that’s dear to my heart.
I’m a volunteer police chaplain, and when my pager starts buzzing, most likely, I’ll be gone for the next several hours.
Last December, the tell-tale vibration happened at about 9:30 p.m., just two days before Christmas. I called into the police dispatcher, and she told me, “We’ve got a DOA.”
“What more can you tell me?” I asked, after she gave me the address.
“Well, he was big. Really big. They couldn’t get him out to the ambulance.”
“Oh. Okay. Which officers are there?” I asked.
I arrived around 10 p.m., just as the paramedics were leaving the scene. Several cops were still there, and they ushered me into the house. Jerry, the deceased, was in his mid-fifties, and he was, indeed, large. So large, in fact, that he hadn’t been able to get out of bed for two years.
I walked into his bedroom. The first thing I noticed, of course, was Jerry’s corpse on the floor. As I looked around, I took in other details: the muted television flickering on the far wall, newspapers and magazines strewn everywhere, and medical devices (syringes, prescription bottles, bed pans) scattered about. But most noteworthy were the shelves. Floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall were homemade shelves, and they were all holding food. Dinty Moore Beef Stew. Hormel Chili. Fritos. Food was everywhere.
So was the smell. The smell was overwhelming. It wasn’t just the smell of death—this odor had preceded the event of that evening.
In the middle of the room was a bed, the center of Jerry’s life for the last two years. “He hit the floor hard,” one of the officers told me. They had to get Jerry on a hard surface to administer chest compressions, so a couple of the cops had gotten on the bed and pushed him to the floor. A trail of shit on the top sheet marked Jerry’s path from bed to floor.
“He was dead when we got here,” one officer said, “But we tried to bring him back. I remember him from years ago,” he continued, “We used to break up huge parties that he had here in the 80s.”
“He’s got five roommates,” another cop told me, “And a wife. But she doesn’t speak much English.
“Oh yeah, she’s got two kids, too. They don’t speak any English.”
This was getting stranger by the moment.
I walked downstairs and introduced myself to a couple of Jerry’s roommates. Men in their 50s, they were both dressed in sweatpants and sweatshirts. The other three roommates walked in. They, too, were in sweats. I asked if they’d introduce me to Jerry’s wife, and they took me down another flight of stairs. Jana was sitting on a couch, crying. She might have been 30. Her two sons, aged 5 and 3, were running around and climbing on her lap, seemingly oblivious to her grief. All three of them were from Thailand.
For the next two hours, I sat with Jana and the guys and listened to stories of Jerry. He’d been married twice before; his first wife divorced him, and his second wife died of breast cancer. His mother and father had both died within a year of his wife. He was a traveling salesman, accumulating over three million miles on Northwest Airlines. “You know those snack boxes you see in some offices?” one roommate asked me, “You know, the ones where you drop money in the box on the honor system?”
“Well, Jerry was the leading salesman of those in the country. One year, he won so many sales awards that he flew to Hawaii twelve times in twelve months.”
“Back when Jerry could travel,” another one of the guys told me, “He’d only be around for a couple of days a month. He’d be on the road almost all the time.”
Jerry had met Jana a couple years ago, back when he could still travel, on a trip to Bangkok. They’d been married just a year ago—a justice of the peace came to the house, and they got married in Jerry’s bed.
Jerry was a non-observant Jew. “I never talk with Jerry religion,” Jana said.
The middle-aged roommates were all divorced. They had various odd jobs and a couple of them had lived with Jerry for twenty-plus years. Jerry’s place had become a flop house of sorts for these guys who were down on their luck. But the funny thing was, they didn’t see much of Jerry. In fact, I got the impression that a couple of them hadn’t been in Jerry’s room to see him in a long, long time.
I asked how Jerry had gotten so big that he couldn’t walk. They told me that he’d always been big, but then he fell and broke his kneecap three or four years ago. “The doctor wouldn’t operate, due to Jerry’s size,” one roommate told me, “It was really unfair. I mean, how’s he supposed to get better if they won’t operate? Then his knee got infected, and he was in the hospital and rehab for almost a year. When he finally came home, he just never got out of bed again.”
At the scene, I experienced a range of emotions, from morbid curiosity (I’ve seen guys like this on Jerry Springer!) to deep sorrow. This was, quite bluntly, the most pathetic scene I’ve encountered in a decade as a police chaplain. And I mean pathetic in the sense that the scene dripped with human pathos: a 500-pound man had eaten himself to death, surrounded by five ne’er-do-well roommates, a Thai wife and her two sons. The lot of them lived in near squalor, surrounded by a stench that was causing veteran cops to dry-heave.
And if that’s not enough, just a block away sits the biggest church in our town. Every Sunday morning and Sunday evening, good Christian folk park in front of Jerry’s house, since there was no room for them in the parking lots. Jerry was dying within arm’s reach of the most powerful church in the community.
Oh, and there was one more element. From 11 p.m. until midnight, the TV in Jerry’s room, which no one had thought to turn off, was showing a familiar face. Larry King was hosting a perfunctory pre-Christmas show, and his guest was Joel Osteen. Over Jerry’s dead body and his shit-smeared sheets, I kept seeing Joel’s unremitting smile and reading captions at the bottom of the screen: “Osteen Has the Biggest Church in America.” “Pastor Osteen Says You Can Have It All.” “Joel Preaches Before 30,000 Every Week.”
Like I said, both irony and pathos were palpable.
Back downstairs, I sat with Jana and the guys, helping them to make decisions regarding Jerry’s burial. Then, out of the blue, Jana started crying again, and, through her tears, sobbed, “Jerry no too fat for me. Jerry no too fat for me.”
Suddenly, in the midst of pathos, a glimmer of light dawned for me. Jana hadn’t come over from Thailand to be Jerry’s concubine—I can’t imagine that their marriage was ever consummated. No, instead, he worked like crazy to help her emigrate to the U.S. And then, according to the guys, he had to work even harder to get her sons over. In return, she got to scrub out his bed pans, to care for his bedsores, to wipe him. Did she do it for the citizenship? That wasn’t the tale of her tears. What they said was that Jana loved Jerry. Albeit, not in a way that I understand, but there’s lots of love in the world that I don’t understand. Jerry was not too fat for Jana.
And the same went for the guys. They all expressed real affection for Jerry. It’s as if Jerry collected people who were at the margins of society, the orphans and the widows of the 21st century, and gave them a place to live. Even as he was slowly committing suicide.
We often look for the best that God has to offer in the sparkliest places. Like in the 1,000 seat sanctuary down the road from Jerry’s house. Or in the uncommonly bright smile of Joel Osteen.
But instead, the real beauty often resides with the marginalized, the ostracized, the outcast. That’s where Jesus dwells: in Jana’s love for Jerry; in Jerry’s hospitality for the his misfit roommates.