by David McElroy
I never talked to Johnny, but I watched him cry. I also know more of his story than he might have ever expected a stranger to know. I also watched his tears turn from pain to joy when an angel showed up to rescue him.
Johnny is the bald man in the blue coat at the right. He came in and sat down while I was sitting in a fast food joint Tuesday afternoon. I’d been there in my corner booth for awhile, because it’s a good place to write. I didn’t pay much attention to him at first. I just noticed someone who seemed weak and tired. He walked with the help of a cane.
He didn’t order anything, but he sat in a booth right next to mine. He tried making several phone calls, but just kept leaving messages for people, telling them that he had an emergency. When someone finally called him back, I got the first pieces of information about him. Here’s what I eventually pieced together.
Johnny was salesman, but I’m not sure what he sold. He lives in Tallahassee, Fla., and he was here in Birmingham on a sales trip when he had a medical problem that required him to go to a hospital. I’m not clear exactly what sent him to the hospital to start with, but his real problems started after he learned what was really going on.
“I just got out of the hospital,” I heard him tell someone on the phone. “They found a tumor the size of a golf ball in my colon, and it burst and spread to my liver. It’s Stage 3 colon cancer.”
Johnny was sitting alone in a booth at a fast food restaurant — instead of on the way back to Tallahassee — because he was broke. The company he worked for filed for bankruptcy while he was in the hospital. His last check from the company bounced and it left his checking account almost $2,000 overdrawn. He isn’t married and doesn’t seem to have any family.
He was basically begging whoever he could find on the phone to wire him enough money to buy gasoline to get home. With each of the people I heard him talk with, the pattern was basically the same. He explained his predicament. Then there was silence.
“I understand if you can’t,” he would say. He sounded like a man who had lost all hope. His voice was flat and lifeless.
After about the third of these calls, he hung up the phone and started crying softly. He looked out the window and tried to cover his face from the shame, but it was obvious.
About halfway through this whole incident, two men sat down at a booth on the other side of Johnny from where I was sitting. I could tell that they were talking about ministry and pastors and mission trips. At least one of them works with Gideons International, the group that distributes free Bibles. (That’s them in the corner of the picture of Johnny above.) Eventually, one of the men — who I later found out is named Terry Baggett — got up and came over to talk with Johnny.
“I couldn’t help but notice that something’s wrong,” the man said gently. “Is there anything we can do to help you?”
Baggett sat down with Johnny and I heard the story all over again. His tone was both pleading and humiliated. He didn’t sound like a man who had much experience asking for help. He told Baggett that he needed gas money to drive home. He said that two tanks of gas would do it, but he hadn’t been able to find anyone back home to send help.
After they had talked for awhile, Baggett told Johnny that he would take him to the BP station across the street and fill his tank with gas and then give him the cash for another tank of gas on the way.
That’s when Johnny really started crying. He tried to say, “Thank you,” but he had trouble talking through the tears for a minute. The other man who had been with Baggett — whose name I never got — had joined them by this time. The three of them then joined hands sitting in the booth. They bowed their heads and Baggett prayed, asking God to watch over Johnny on his way home and to bless his medical recovery.
Johnny asked Baggett for his address so he could send the money back to him when he could. Baggett told him that wasn’t necessary.
“You can just pray for me,” Baggett told Johnny. “I would appreciate that.”
Johnny has already had six rounds of chemotherapy while he was in the hospital here. I’m not sure how long he was in the hospital, but his release was delayed because he got a staph infection while he was there. He has an appointment with a colon cancer specialist in Tallahassee on Thursday. Based on what I saw when I looked up Stage 3 colon cancer, he has about a 64 percent chance of being alive in five years. If it’s really gotten to his liver, it might be considerably less, though.
The three men got up from the table and went to the gas station across the street. Johnny got the gas he needed plus a bit of money. I assume he’s back in Tallahassee by now.
There are some things in my life that I’m really unhappy with right now. Before Johnny came in, I’d been thinking about them and pondering what I needed to do about them. After listening to Johnny, my problems didn’t seem as big. Still big to me, but solvable.
Most of all, though, it reminded me that when everything is falling apart, angels really can show up to lighten our loads just a little bit. This angel didn’t fix all of Johnny’s problems, but at least he helped him get back home.