I looked around and was touched to see so many people. My husband and I were at a church we’d never been to, attending a friend’s funeral. We knew Sal for three years. In that short period of time, he made a deep impact on our lives.
He was generous, kind, funny, curious, and spiritual. Years ago, he’d been a carpenter. He was an artist and an American Indian, proud of his heritage. He drew intricate pictures of Indians and feather headdresses, similar to the one shown above. He was an avid reader. He loved the beach and going to church.
Sal spent most of his days at our business. He’d sit on a chair outside our store, reading or drawing in his sketch pad. We thought of him as the greeter. My husband and I enjoyed our conversations with him, usually ending in joking and laughter.
But he didn’t always feel like laughing. He endured hardships that we couldn’t imagine.
Sal was homeless. He struggled with alcoholism. He slept in a tent, hidden in a park. He had a poor relationship with his family and rarely spoke to them. He hadn’t seen his son in four years. He broke his leg six months ago and had surgery. He was in constant pain and got around with a cane or a walker. He had trouble with his feet and legs swelling. He had to stuff his feet into the only shoes he had, a pair of second-hand work boots. A few weeks before he died, he was robbed and beaten so badly he was taken to the hospital.
Despite all that, he had hope that his life would get better. He prayed and believed in God.
A couple of months ago, Sal asked a friend something that took her by surprise.
“If I died, do you think anyone would come to my funeral?”
“Of course,” Cathy said. “A lot of people would!”
His question and her answer proved to be prophetic. Sal passed away at the end of March, found dead in a van in a church parking lot. He was 55. The coroner said he died of natural causes.
There were close to one hundred people at his funeral service, including a dozen family members who sat in the front row. Most of them hadn’t seen or talked to Sal in years. His death brought them together. At least for that hour, for that day.
The people gathered in the church came into Sal’s life for different reasons. Or should I say, he came into ours.
The common thread was that all of us were touched by this man who had so little, yet gave so much. Our lives are better because we knew him. Sal’s body was broken and wasting away. But inside, his spirit thrived. The pastor said, “His inner man was being renewed day by day.”
Mourners were invited up to the microphone to share.
I took a deep breath and stood up. I was nervous, but felt a need, a desire, to tell the others how Sal had a positive effect on my life and my husband’s. I didn’t have anything planned to say, but once I started, the words flowed.
Like many of the others, Sal was the first homeless person I really got to know. He was a fixture at our business over the past few years. He may have been labeled as homeless. But homelessness did not define him. He had a life before a string of unfortunate circumstances led him to the streets.
Sal often looked me in the eye and said, “Thank you so much for letting me be here.” His large, dark brown eyes were kind. But I could see the pain. I’d tell him, “Of course. I’m glad you’re here.” It made me feel good that this was one place he felt welcomed and at home.
My husband loved to joke with Sal, who was sarcastic and funny. He laughed easily, even if he was having a rough time. We tried to brighten Sal’s day. I hope he knew he brought joy to ours.
Other tributes were heart-wrenching and beautiful.
One woman told us she met Sal two years ago, the first week she became homeless. She was on the streets and an alcoholic. The two would sit and have long conversations. Sal “talked me out of doing some really foolish things.” She described him as a father figure. She attributes Sal for helping her turn her life around. On the day of his funeral, she was fifty-three days sober. She’s had a job for ten months and lives with her mother. She choked back tears as she read a poem she wrote for Sal.
A parishioner shared how she witnessed Sal’s generosity. One evening she saw him in our place of business, with a bag of food — his food. He walked around and handed it out to customers. She was shocked and asked him why he was giving it away. He told her that others needed it more than he did.
A Hispanic mother and her daughter went up to the microphone. The little girl is in sixth grade. She spoke, interpreting for her mom. They met Sal at our business. She said that last New Year’s Eve, they gave him five dollars. The girl said, “He was so happy!” A few weeks later, her mom was at our business by herself. Sal gave her two pizzas that someone had given him. He said, “Yummy, yummy!” Words he knew she’d understand, even with her minimal grasp of English.
He had so little, yet gave so much.
As the service came to a close, I wondered what Sal’s family was thinking. They had no idea how he lived his last days, months, or years.
I hoped they felt comfort in knowing that Sal was cherished and loved. And maybe even proud that he left a rich impression on so many.
First image courtesy of here