A mate of mine died last Monday. He was killed in a hit and run outside of his home. He was possibly lying on or near the road when a car hit him, dragged him 80 metres, then drove away. The driver has since turned himself in to the police.
I first met Brian working out the back of my Father’s place in Oakford. An introverted guy (when sober) Brian was a worker. I can’t really remember our introduction, but I’m guessing it involved minimal eye contact and a cheeky smile.
My second introduction to Brian was a little more decisive. I was at Riverview Church on a Sunday night and got an SMS from my father. Brian had been thrown out of his house after abusing a bit more than his privileges and was on the road with no shoes and only the dirty clothes he was wearing. Something struck an immediate chord in me. I’d just read The Gutter and I knew, at the very least, I could give Brian some shoes. Several hours later Brian showed up at my place.
I could write a book on Brian Winmar. His life was rich with tragedy, with near-death experiences, with resurrected hope and, oddly enough, a whole lot of humour and gratitude. Brian was a tragic example of how a dysfunctional upbringing can lead to the streets, which can lead to drugs, crime and a whole lot of stuff I hope I never fully find out about. To allow this side of Brian to occupy the pages of a book would be grossly unfair. Because, quite simply, he was a cute bloke. Struggling hard with addiction, discipline and a lack of boundaries, Brian had still figured right from wrong a long time back. And while his interpretation of the two would bemuse a whole lot of people, if you could take a moment to look through Brian’s eyes, they made perfect sense.
Brian stayed out the back of my place that night. And for most nights over the 3-4 months that followed. In that time, he taught me a whole lot of stuff about people and about me that the previous 35 years had kept hidden.
For the first few weeks of him calling my place home, I was his carer and provider. I made sure he was up for work and showered. I cooked him breakfast, looked after his money and patted him on the back. He was struggling with a bunch of relationships that he’d screwed up so we talked about that and I encouraged him to write stuff down. He said he wasn’t much for writing. A couple of days later he let me read what he’d written. I cried my eyes out. There was such a raw, innocence about Brian. Despite the amount of times he let people down, there was always a desire to give him a second chance.
Perhaps the person who struggled most with giving Brian a second chance was Brian.
I remember the second or third day after he moved in. I was swimming at 5.30am the next morning and told him he was too (that’s kind of how things worked with Brian sometimes). After some cajoling, he agreed. You need to know a few things about Brian: he probably smoked a pack a day (when he could afford it) and he’d probably never been up at 5.30am in the morning unless he was still awake from the night before.
I got him in the pool and got him swimming. After two laps I saw him slinking out of the pool. He told me he was tired. He ended up swimming another 16 laps.
I look back at those first couple of weeks now and laugh. I was such an idiot. Doing my best to assimilate Brian into middle-class culture on the outside, I was actually trying harder to help Brian be more like the rest of us. He needed to figure out how to function in society, but not be like me. There’s one of me already.
I remember the first week when we sat down to figure a financial plan to get Brian out of the hole. I’d had a speeding ticket or two. Brian had a wad of them…and they were the ones he hadn’t thrown in the bin. He had debts with high interest lenders who were trying to sue him (if they could find out where he lived) and money he owed friends. He had letters from the Ministry of Justice instigating legal proceedings and payment plans. The idea of paying back debt didn’t really wash with Brian. There’s a feeling of freedom most of us have when we clear a debt – Brian never seemed to be bound by them in the first place. I loved the idea of helping Brian back onto his feet and being debt free. It was going to take about $2500. Brian couldn’t give a toss. And it’s strange. While it was a messed up logic, when Brian told you it was a waste of time, it kind of made sense.
Brian was bound by different things. Born in 1968, Brian’s mother was institutionalised in a mental facility. I don’t think he ever knew his Dad. He was indigenous to the core, but never really knew his ancestors. Brian was brought up by a matron in a home for children dislocated from their parents. He lived just down the road from Heathcote. He told me how, at the age of five or six, they came in one day and told him he had a mother (till then, he thought the matron was his mother) and they were going to take him to see her. They pulled out of Bridgeview, drove up the hill and into the asylum. They told him to walk up the corridor to where his mother would be. As he did, patients in the asylum screamed out and tried to grab or touch him. Before he really even saw his mother, he was petrified. He ran out of there – dazed and confused. I couldn’t believe stories like this are some people’s reality.
Not long after his age hit double-figures, Brian took to the streets. Escaping from the home, he thought it would be more fun on the streets. So began an adolescence in and out of correctional facilities. Brian had been to most of them. There was security for him in prison. It helped me understand the challenges of the juvenile justice system. If your only mates are in prison, the best way to be with your mates is to re-offend. Combine that with lots of drugs, alcohol, crime and fighting, and you pretty much have the next 20 or so years of Brian’s life.
I’ll never forget a coffee I had with Brian one afternoon at 130s. We were talking about the future, the past and grace. Brian thought there was no way God could ever love him, let alone forgive him. ‘I’ve done some bad things, Simon’, he said. I could only imagine the depths of that comment. I realised as I spoke to Brian about the grace of God towards him that I was speaking to myself. We all find it difficult to accept Jesus’ sacrifice and God’s grace. Brian was no different. It was one of many conversations we’d have about God’s love for him.
Brian wanted to change so badly it hurt. It hurt others around him and it hurt him.
I look back at my journals around the time and I remember the pattern all over again.
…About 4-5 weeks ago Brian moved in. This has challenged my notions of love, grace, patience and forgiveness in a fresh new way. There seems to be a 7-8 day cycle of destruction and recovery that Brian has been on and, for me, this has been a source of frustration, concern, pleasure and grief. I want him to be well and strong and full of joy, yet it seems sometimes an uneventful week would do just fine.
…Brian hit rock-bottom about 3 weeks ago. Since then he’s been doing a little better. It’s a long, long road and I have to believe it’s a road God wants me on. I don’t know who else can help right now. For now, I think I’m the hands and feet. This is frustrating and hopeful. The uncertainty is that I could go home today and find that he’s AWOL, he’s in prison or he’s hocked my stuff!
The cycle with Brian seemed to be around 8 days. It went from remorse to hope and resolution, to optimism, to a cataclysmic event (usually an alcohol or drug-related event that was often near-death), to silence, to shame, to re-connection to remorse…and so on.
One time, on a Saturday afternoon, I went with Brian to Burswood Casino. In a moment of optimistic resolution that followed a near-death bender, I convinced him to instigate a self-imposed ban from the casino (where he typically went to get broke and drunk – in various orders). There was something both wrenching and pathetic about approaching the information desk and saying, ‘I’m here with my mate – we’d like to get him barred from your casino’. I was holding back the tears. We then went in to another room where we filled out pages of details and had photos of him taken for security. He was already quite famous there.
Brian disappeared from my life not long after that. He stole some stuff from me and hocked it at Cash Converters. I’d found the paperwork out the back of my place and when I asked him about it I think the shame was too great. In some ways I wish I’d never said anything. But with Brian you were always having those kind of internal conversations.
Amidst the brokenness in Brian was the sweetest guy. I know he would have gone into bat for me if he needed to (maybe even if he didn’t). His gratitude for the smallest thing always came with just a hint of surprise (‘why would you do that for me?’) and there were few that didn’t find his puppy-dog dependence more than a little endearing.
One thing I know for sure. Brian would never expect to have seen his name and ‘you’re tops’ in the same sentence. He would have given a self-conscious shake of the head and said ‘awwww nahhh….really?…awww naaahhh…think-you’. There was something about the way Brian said thank you that reminded you what it meant to be grateful. I’d ask him to say grace sometimes – it was always a treat.
I sometimes tried to imagine Brian as an old man. It was hard. He had flirted with death many times before and, in some ways, it was astonishing to me that he was still alive. He had the reckless abandon of someone who hasn’t been told they’re not invincible. What surprises me most is the nature of death.
I’m not sure anyone has taught me as much about grace. And I don’t think one person has helped me see our need as humans for love, community, forgiveness and compassion.
I sure will miss him.