David L. Robbins
Novelist, Educator, Playwright, Essayist
Native Son #5
by David L. Robbins on May 19th, 2014

In my novel Scorched Earth, I depict a young man who sees his elder neighbor sitting in his car in the driveway next door. The engine is not running, windows up. The boy, Tom Derby, approaches, asks if anything is the matter.

The man, Mr. Jacobson, waves him off, says all is fine.

Tom senses this is not so. Mr. Jacobson has multiple sclerosis. Tom states that he can keep a secret, and he could help.

The neighbor considers, downcast face a study in shame. He opens his window. The smell of feces jumps out at Tom.

Mr. Jacobson has soiled himself.

Tom tells him all will be well. No shame, sir. He lifts good Mr. Jacobson out of the car, into the house to the bathroom, strips away the fouled clothes, puts him in the shower. Tom stuffs the clothes in the washer, scours the car seat, and wonders how on earth he could have done all this.

I had not before, nor have I since, used anything else so directly out of my own life.

My dad, Sam Robbins, was diagnosed with MS soon after his battle, Pearl Harbor. In 1978, visiting home from law school, I arrived in an afternoon to see my father sitting, like Mr. Jacobson, in his car. I made him roll down the window, and away we go.

I spent years marveling how light my dad was on that one day in our lives I bore him, as if something had taken advantage of his humiliation, something that gave him weight, to flee him. I did not let him be humiliated. My Dad – your dad, too, if you were lucky – was Titan, and his son needed him to remain so. I treated his feces on my hands, his trembling nakedness when I set him in his shower, as nothing. Only after washing the car seat, then myself, did I break down.

In Scorched Earth, Tom Derby disappears to search in the wider world for the key to that strength. Years later, he gets an epiphany: the strength was never his but Mr. Jacobson’s. The old man, ill and embarrassed, had allowed the kid to help. The power was not in carrying but in accepting being carried.

Tom and I were blinded to this because we believed we’d done good. Why, then, didn’t more good deeds confer the same rush?

When I rescued my father from his extremis, I had no notion of charity or Samaritan kindness. This was Dad, in trouble. You hop to it. That lone act spoiled me for years. It mislead me into self-conscious charity, giving to be a giver, preening to purchase my own and other’s high opinion.

When I and others founded the James River Writers in 2002, we did so out of a lovely enlightened self-interest. We were writers; why not form an organization for our kind?
Three years ago, I retired from JRW to co-found another non-profit, The Podium Foundation. Our mission is to support, encourage, and advocate writing teaching in Richmond’s public high schools. We create programs for teachers and students, including the only publicly distributed, high school system-wide student literary journal in America.

Podium is different, more difficult. There’s little self interest here. Most of our board, partners, and donors have no relation to the city’s high schools except what bridges can be built by the heart. Though the need for Podium seems great, it’s a constant battle to fund and resource it, build trust, consistency. Every non-profit, large and small, does this daily.

There’s a lesson here, from Mr. Jacobson and my father, from Podium, Theatre IV, JRW, Daily Planet, from everywhere that need exists, where people reach an empty hand in hope of seeing it filled.

Find the place in your spirit where, when your fellow man is in need, he is not a stranger to you, but is your own father, mother, sibling, child. Where your acts are not charity or sharing but simply, immediately, what you have to do. Where you hop to it.

We’re all here, now, together. There is more that binds us than separates us. Find and cross the many, many bridges.

This is not easy. It can take a person, real or fictional, decades to learn.

Posted in Boomer Mag, Boomer Articles    Tagged with boomer magazine, native son, richmond, scorched earth, podium foundation, james river writers, philanthropy, charity


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