This, as far as I can tell, is a true story. I did not have a tape recorder for Jack Burnham’s story, and my own memory is increasingly unreliable. This took place two weeks before Thanksgiving and strikes me as credible enough. It should also provide critics of this column with gleeful ammunition for disdain and contempt.
Burnham is 48 years old. He has a son living in Vista, though Burnham himself lives in North Park. It had been more than two months since he had seen his son. It was time. He enlisted a willing friend to drive him north. A GPS on the dash pinpointed the address, and within 45 minutes they had arrived at the Addis Inn, apartment #42. David Burnham hugged his father, invited him in. The friend/driver had to leave for work. Father and son shared a meatloaf sandwich and played a game of Android while the television nattered news in the corner. Soon the senior Burnham’s heart condition began announcing itself in the form of shortness of breath and chest pains, and 911 had to be called. “Why now?” Burnham asked no one.
He spent the next four days at Tri-City Medical Center. He was told he had now developed congestive heart failure. EKGs, IV drips, Lasix to eliminate the water in his lungs, morphine, Ativan — four days of it. No insurance, however, and he was discharged at 10 p.m. that Friday night. Outside of the facility, Burnham had no idea where he was in relation to his son’s home, though he was within a mile. Still drugged and disoriented, he wandered in a random direction, a vague prayer fomenting through a fog of consciousness and a gathering fog over the land.
Unable to keep moving, half conscious, he chose a nearly random spot in a darkened bushy area of an industrial park, where he stretched himself onto the dirt, shivering with cold. He spent the night in and out of consciousness, shaking, until the lawn sprinklers came on. Now wet, clothes clinging, his shaking renewed, he wandered again.
Dawn announced itself, the color of ash and lard. Asking directions to the Vista Transit Center, a landmark toward his son’s place, he was told by the few passersby that “I’m not from here. I don’t know.”
At 7 or maybe 7:30, an open liquor store appeared out of the thinning fog. Burnham spent what little money remained in his pocket for a pint of cheap vodka he hoped would warm him. He walked on. His compromised liver provided drunkenness quickly. He sat down on a random lawn, swaying. A police car rolled up, and he was arrested for public intoxication. Ten hours in the Vista jail on a thin bench. At least it was warm.
Released, ironically, at 10 p.m., he now knew even less regarding his whereabouts in relation to his son. He wandered again. Miles in the wrong directions.
At a Starbucks, near dawn, he used a bathroom and sat at a table shivering again. A stranger brought him a cup of coffee, said his name was Michael. Burnham accepted this gratefully. Michael had a Bible and began speaking of it. Burnham did not know precisely how to respond. Like the apostle Thomas, doubt was a large component of Burnham’s faith.
Michael knew of the Addis Inn and offered to drive him there. Burnham’s gratitude was expressed as adequately as he could manage. On the brief drive, Michael continued to inform his passenger of Jesus as the only path to salvation and the Father. Burnham was willing to accept this but was not sure how. Not adequately. He needed help in this area he was not sure existed. Yet he longed for it, at times — like this one — deeply.
An imitation of Christ could bring only ridicule, suffering, and, yes, persecution at many levels. Besides, Jack Burnham lacked the required love of his fellow man. His 48 years had taught him to consider most people cruel screwballs of one type or another. Hardly Christlike, which made it difficult for him to believe the man who was also God could really have been as described. Michael gave Burnham $20.
Back in North Park, online, the few fans of Burnham’s paintings (hanging in a minor gallery/coffee shop) emailed the artist and, having heard of his threatened eviction, offered him lodging in various quarters. An old friend sent him money. He sold two paintings, a total of $1500. Michael emailed him as well, reminding him of Jesus and asked for no return of the $20.
All of this followed Burnham’s dubious attempt to pray as thoroughly as his obstructing intellect would allow. While no genius, he realized that what brains he did have proved of no use to him whatever.