Thomas F. O'Neill
An Abundance In Life
There was a time when Robert Forner had it all, a good paying Job, a nice home, and a reliable car. But the news of the outsourcing of the industrial plant where he worked hit him hard. The company moved their plant to Ecuador for a higher profit margin and Robert found himself without a job. The unemployment checks barely kept him above water and it didn’t take long for all his savings to dry up.
In order to get by he cut corners, he let his homeowner insurance, and his auto insurance laps. He found himself without health insurance and he felt as if he was on a downward spiral to a place called ‘rock bottom.’
He only had one more biweekly check from his unemployment compensation which added up to six hundred and twenty three dollars. The night before the money was to be directly deposited into his bank account. He watched his entire world go up in flames. The fire fighters were unable to save his home or his car that was parked in his garage. The photographs of the life he once lived were consumed in the flames as well.
Now he was homeless.
He answered the fire marshals questions the next day but the cause of the fire was not yet known. It was learned in a matter of time though that it was caused by a faulty circuit breaker that Robert installed a month earlier. With no insurance to fall back on he found himself in dire straights. The road ahead of him looked bleak and he was constantly thinking about his uncertain future.
Embarrassed for being in the situation he found himself in, he also did not want to burden others with his misfortune. He did not turn to others in his community for help. He put the entire matter on his own shoulders. He also considered the fact that he was never married and he did not have a family to support. But at the same time he felt very much alone with nothing more then the clothes on his back.
There was nothing holding him to his hometown because everything he ever owned, all his material possessions, were now gone. With the little money he had left he boarded a Greyhound bus. He was now hitting the road. He had no particular destination in mind. His money unfortunately did not last long.
He tried finding employment with temporary agencies but not having a phone or a permanent address. He did not have much luck securing a job, a job he desperately needed to survive.
Eventually Robert found himself living with society’s unseen, the so called down trodden people, who live, day to day, on the street. He went from shelter to shelter and at times he waited in the back of restaurants in order to root through their garbage for scraps of food. The clothes on his back became worn and dirty. The hair on his head and face became knotted up from being unkempt. He took on the appearance of the shadow people, the street people, the so called bums. He was no longer recognizable from the man he once was.
He began to view his situation as some sort of punishment but in a way he was simply punishing himself. He at times went to various churches for help but they all seemed to have the same rhetoric. He continuously heard the same words, “we do no have the resources or the funding to assist you at this time.” In a way he felt he was being served right though for foolishly losing everything he once owned.
As his days on the street moved into weeks and months, he found himself more and more being part of society’s forgotten souls. He spent many nights under an overpass with others who were down and out. They used a large medal drum as a makeshift stove. They washed their clothes in a river which was also their toilet. Robert hung out with these colorful characters that were fending for themselves. He tried to pass some of his time away by keeping a daily journal of his day to day activities.
The police one night came through with flashlights and threatened to have them locked up for vagrancy. The vagrants moved on and Robert found himself sleeping alone behind dumpsters.
He was told by other homeless people about the dangers of sleeping inside the dumpsters. Some of the homeless in the past were accidentally killed by being crushed to death by the sanitation trucks. Robert on the other hand chose those locations because in the darkness of night, no one sees him, or bothers him while he sleeps. One dumpster in particular that he inhabited was behind a flower shop.
The flower shop is owned by Lillian Snodgrass a divorcee and mother of a two and a half year old girl named Megan. They also love and care for a six year old golden retriever named Lacy.
Lillian’s former husband left her shortly after she became pregnant with Megan. She is struggling now to make ends meet through her flower shop. She chose to start the business on her own because it gives her the freedom to spend her days with her daughter. She also enjoys making her customers happy and she gets great satisfaction in knowing that she is working for herself.
Her little daughter Megan is a curious child who loves placing the flowers into the jars and smelling them. She also enjoys the attention she receives from the various customers. She is her mother’s little helper and co owner at their very own flower shop.
Twice a week in the early morning Megan would watch the garbage truck lift their dumpster in the air and empty the contents into the back of a sanitation truck. Lacy their golden retriever protects little Megan by growling and barking at the sanitation workers.
Being two and a half years old it didn’t take Megan long to figure out how to unlash the screen door behind their flower shop. One morning Megan and Lacy went out back to the dumpster. Robert was then awakened by something warm and moist moving across his nose. He soon realized that it was a golden retriever licking his face as he slept.
He quickly took notice of the toddler looking at him as the sanitation truck began to back up in order to lift the dumpster. The golden retriever growled and barked away at the truck. She was simply protecting her territory and little Megan. Lillian distracted by a customer was completely unaware that Megan was outside behind the shop.
The sanitation workers continued backing their truck. They were unaware that little Megan was directly behind them. The sanitation workers ignored the barking dog so Robert quickly ran over and grabbed the little girl.
Lillian went out to see what the commotion was all about. She saw the sanitation truck back up over the homeless man who was cradling her daughter, Megan, in his arms.
Letting out a gut wrenching scream as she began pounding on the sanitation truck, Lillian yelled for the sanitation workers to stop. The truck slowly moved forward. Lacy also concerned for Megan ran underneath the truck and began licking the little girls face.
“Who the hell are you?” Lillian asked Robert looking past his disheveled appearance and bad odor.
“The little girl was about to be pinned between the dumpster and the truck,” he told Lillian, “and that is why I grabbed her the way I did.”
She immediately said to him almost without thought, “let me help you,” the thought of a homeless man saving her daughter was playing on her mind. Her daughter’s life, after all, was worth more to her then all her worldly possessions.
“I don’t want to burden you,” he said, “not with my problems.”
The sanitation workers saw nothing more then a bum in Robert.
”Look,” said one of the sanitation workers, “if we see you here again we will call the police.”
As Lillian looked upon Robert’s disheveled appearance. She saw something, deep within. What she saw was compassion and a deep caring warmth. It was something she hasn’t seen in a person in a very long time and her heart went out to him, “I can’t bear it,” she said, “seeing you sleeping on the street.”
She took him in, cut his hair, shaved him, and found some of her former husband’s clothes for him to ware. They were a few sizes to big but they were at least clean. She let him shower as she prepared something for him to eat. As the warm water cleansed Robert’s body, “I haven’t had a shower in eight months,” he thought to himself, “How could I ever repay her for her kindness.”
“Wow, what a big difference,” she said as she gazed at the cleaned up Robert. “You can sleep on our couch until you get back on your feet.”
As he ate he told her his life story.
“Couldn’t the churches help you?” she asked him.
“They told me that they didn’t have the resources to help,” he told her.
“What about social services?” she asked.
“Well not being a resident from this county. I was told there is a long waiting list,” he said.
“That’s nuts, so you are then forced to live on the street,” she said, “You have no family or friends that can help you?”
“I don’t want to burden them, just like I don’t want to burden you,” he told her, “not with my issues.”
“Families help one another,” she said, “when my husband left me I had no choice but to turn to my family, for help, and they helped me.”
“I got myself into this mess,” he said, “It’s not other people’s problem.”
“Well I can’t have you living on the street,” she said, “I wasn’t raised that way, especially, after you grabbed and pulled my Megan out of the way of that sanitation truck. If you weren’t there she would have been crushed to death.”
As she poured her daughter and Robert a glass of Ice tea, “she’s my entire life,” she said referring to her daughter with deep emotion, “she’s the reason I get out of bed in the morning. I couldn’t live without her. I will help you get back on your feet. This is the least I could do for what you did.”
Little Megan walked over to Robert and worked her way onto his lap as he drank his Ice tea, “well she doesn’t have a problem with you here,” Lillian said to Robert.
She was surprised to see her daughter take to Robert so quickly. Even Lacy who is very protective of them took an instant liking to him. She was far from being well off with her business. She was struggling to provide for her daughter and she had very little. She shared everything though everything she had with Robert.
It didn’t take her long to realize that Robert was truly a good person. He was bright and a caring person. He was not the bum that he appeared to be in his past. She was glade that he no longer had to fend for himself, day to day, on the street. As far as Lillian is concerned that life is behind him now.
To show his appreciation for her kindness he began to help her with her flower shop. She also goes out of her way for him. She purchases the little things that he needs, like razors, and shampoo. She also buys him clothes but most importantly. Her daughter, Megan, adores him and he adores both of them in return.
He enjoys taking Megan for walks at a nearby park with lacy. It was just one of his ways of being there for them, completely there; it was also a way of retuning the kindness.
Lillian’s former husband is always in the back of her mind. As far as she’s concerned he is truly the bum not Robert. The former husband has always been full of himself and he is never there for them. She felt pretty much abandoned but her and her daughter went on with their lives.
Robert on the other hand seemed down to earth. It was as if his experiences on the street humbled him in many ways. He has a much deeper understanding and a deeper appreciation for what he now has, which is a much better life.
As Robert was walking through the park with Lillian, Megan, and their golden retriever,
“Weren’t you scared at night living on the street?” Lillian asked him.
“Well it wasn’t so much fear that bothered me,” he said, “it was the memories of what I once had, my home, my car, the roof over my head. I was constantly reminded of what I lost. Not having a place of my own was worse then fear.”
“I can’t imagine having to live like that,” she said, “no one should have to live like that.”
“But through your kindness and through your generous caring soul,” he said, “I have gained much more then what I have lost.”
“You saying that makes me feel as if we are supposed to be together in someway,” she said, “almost as if I am supposed to help you.”
“Every human being enters the world like a tourist,” he said, “with mystical baggage,” he then threw a stick for Lacy to retrieve, “some simply come into this world with more luggage then others.”
“I never heard it put that way before,” she said laughing.
“In order to truly live,” he said, “we must discard our baggage.” Lacy quickly ran back with the stick, and as he threw the stick once again, he said, “the baggage inhibits us from truly finding joy in life. I am just beginning to understand that now.”
“Do I have a lot of baggage,” she asked him laughing showing off her girlish figure.
“No I think you have it all together,” he said with humor in his voice.
“So what do you mean by baggage?” she asked him.
“We are the sum total of all our experiences,” he said, “I don’t think we come into this world like a clean slate. I think there is residue from past lived experiences.”
“Past lived experiences,” she said, “you mean past lives?”
“It’s a possibility that makes sense to me,” he said, “we all come into the world with issues that must be resolved in order to grow and move on.”
“That makes sense,” she said, “so do you believe in soul mates,” she asked.
“Soul mates grow from one another,” he said, “and live in each others hearts.”
“I guess that is a ‘yes’ answer,” she said laughing, “I like how you put things together so that I could even understand.”
She enjoyed their daily walks together and their daily conversations. He made her think about the things she rarely thought about. But most importantly they were learning more about each other and the two life paths that are now merging into one.
He continued his daily journal writing as well of his day to day thoughts. The writing helped him gain a deeper grasp of his lived experience. As the day’s progressed he grew closer and closer to his new family.
The customers have grown to like Robert as well because he goes out of his way to please them. Lillian began to notice that many of her customers are going out of their way not just to buy flowers but to talk to Robert.
One day Lillian saw Robert placing a large picture of a Rose on one of the walls in the flower shop, with the quote, “Some see the world as a beautiful Rose, while others focus on its painful thorns.” Robert experienced many painful thorns in his life but now he is recognizing the beauty of the rose.
He was truly grateful for the fact that the pain from his past was healing with time. Through the healing process he has been given a much greater appreciation of the beauty that surrounds him.
It was out of compassion that Lillian rescued Robert from his life on the street. But that compassion soon turned to a deep love for Robert. He was different from the men in her past. He seemed to go out of his way to find ways to accentuate all that is positive in their relationship. But at the same time he was a human being working on ways to resolve his issues. Those issues are, “the residue from the past,” as he referred to put it.
He felt he should be contributing more to his new family life which was instantly provided to him. His kind gestures were also continually playing on and resonating with Lillian’s heart strings.
She was constantly being reminded as she cared for Megan about how her former husband was driven by ambition and money. Robert on the other hand was simply enjoying the moments with her and her daughter. She grew to rely on him and she simply enjoys his company. Those deep intimate conversations with him lacked in her marriage with her former husband. She also cherishes Robert’s sensitivity to her needs and his brightness. He brought out things through their conversations in ways that she never thought about. He wasn’t just caring, he had a spiritual side to him. She simply wanted him around because they both drew the best out of one another.
Robert for the first time in his life is simply enjoying his new and instant family life. He also finds enjoyment in pleasing the customers at the flower shop. He enjoys the daily conversations with the regulars that come there to just talk. The flower shop in a way has become therapeutic for him. Without realizing he is reaching out to the customers and in doing so he is accentuating all that is positive within him. He was no longer, unseen, undetected, a down trodden homeless person. On the other hand he never forgot where he once was, and how far he has come in life.
“You seem content, Robert,” a young female customer said to him.
“Well,” he said, “I am.”
“Can you purchase it here,” she asked with a smile.
“Well it’s kind of a secret,” he said teasingly.
“I won’t tell a soul,” she said.
“Well,” he said, he then teasingly leaned up close to her from across the counter. With a soft sincere voice, he said, “in order to find happiness, joy, and love, in this world. You must bring it to others. Then and only then will you be truly content.”
“That makes sense,” she said, “so what is the charge,” she said with a smile.
“You already paid me,” he said.
“That was for the flowers,” she said teasingly.
“You paid me with your presence,” he said, “when you enjoy the company of others, others enjoy your company.”
“Well,” she said, “I will stop by again to pick up your pearls of wisdom,” as she left the flower shop, little Megan worked her way up on a stool behind the counter.
He was now a surrogate father to Megan and he loved her very much. But he also began to think more and more about the friends he made from his life on the streets. He began to go out a few times a week and visit them in the evenings. Some of them returned to living under the highway overpass. He would bring Megan along with him and he would sit and talk with them about the issues of their daily lives.
He grew more and more determined due to his own past experience of having lived on the street. He wants people to know and understand that there is a deep segment of society that is being overlooked and virtually ignored. That segment of society is America’s homeless, a life that he once shared.
Every evening he copied down passages from his journal. He was compiling them for a book he began to write. It was through those written accounts of his experiences that motivated him to become an advocate for the homeless.
It was through the success of his book that drove him even further. He went out and organized with civic and local church groups to establish halfway programs. The programs are geared to help individuals who lost their homes due to lack of employment, to find temporary shelter, training, and jobs.
That inner drive and determination on his part not only made those programs a reality but it increased the sales of his book. He and Lillian continue selling flowers though and they continue sharing their life’s Journey.
He finally moved off of Lillian’s couch so that they could continue to share their lives together. With his now adopted daughter, Megan, and newborn baby girl. They are happily married. He may have lost everything he once owned in his previous life. But he now feels he gained the world in the process.
As Robert was signing his books in a bookstore, Lillian was sitting next to him, “You certainly have come a long way Mr. Forner,” a man said waiting for Robert to sign his book.
“I never would have come this far if it wasn’t for the kindness and generosity of this woman,” Robert said referring to Lillian.
“That kindness was returned in greater fold,” Lillian said, “besides if he wasn’t a good person I would have thrown him out long ago. But we decided to keep him,” she said with humor in her voice.
His published account of where he was in life is important to the readers. But where he is now and what he gained within is far more important to him. He may have lost everything he once owned. But through that experience he has come to a greater understanding that his present moment with those he loves is all he truly needs.
Robert has put his past behind him by embracing the here and now with all the important people in his life. For Robert losing all his material possessions, everything he ever owned, gave him a much greater appreciation of the important and significant matters of life. Because what he possesses within and what he gives to others can never be lost. But most importantly what he possesses within is far more precious then the fleeting images of his past.
Robert and Lillian are continuously learning from their shared lives. When you give of yourself abundantly you gain an abundance in life, which can never be lost. Because soul mates grow from one another and live in each others hearts.
Thomas F. O’Neill
Other articles, short stories, and commentaries by Thomas F. O'Neill can be found at the links below.
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