Good for Nothing

Several years ago, I volunteered teaching personal development classes at an adult emergency homeless shelter where I worked. One of the processes I used was to invite attendees to think about someone in the world they admired, and then to name the things about that person they most admired. The person could be a famous ‘real-life’ or fictional figure, past or present. Or, someone in their life.

One day, a young man who had been staying at the shelter since being released from prison 6 months previously, shared how the only person he could think of who he admired was his grandfather. “He always treated me nice,” he said. Not like his mother whom, he said, constantly repeated to him what she’d said the day he was born. “This one’s born to be bad.”

At the age of 24, his six months at the shelter were the longest stretch of time since turning 18 that he had not spent in jail. He was determined to keep his stretch going. I want to prove her wrong, he told the class. I want to be a better man.

As part of the exercise, I invited the attendees to write a letter to themselves saying all the positive things they wanted/needed to hear this person they admired say to them. There was no expectation of sharing what they’d written, I told the class. Just that they write out what words they most wanted/needed to hear about how wonderful, kind, intelligent, amazing they were. No negativity, I told him. These are the words that celebrate you. That inspire and applaud you.

The class wrote their letters and when finished, the young man whose mother had predicated he’d turn out bad asked if he could read the letter out loud to everyone. When I asked the class if they wanted to hear it, they all said yes.

When the young man was finished reading his letter out loud, there were a lot of moist eyes in the room, including mine.

This poem is written in honour of that young man and his courageous assertion that he was not going to be his mother’s predictions. That he would do whatever it takes to break the cycle, both of her abuse and his history of getting into trouble. And, it’s written to honour the thousands upon thousands of men and women who enter a shelter’s doors, who like that young come, arrive carrying the burden of a lifetime of being told they are good for nothing, they do not belong, they are not loveable or worthy or wanted.

Words matter. Let us think about our words. Let us use our words to create a better world for everyone.

A Gift of Life
By Louise Gallagher

The first time she saw his face
wrinkled and wet
with the vestiges of its journey 
through the birth canal
visible upon his skin, 
she closed her eyes. Tight.
“You’ll be good for nothing,” she whispered
to her newborn son
as if she could divine his future
by the marks her body had imprinted
upon his skin
through a past
she could never face.
And everyday, as he grew
from toddler to teen to man
she reminded him of his future
adding the back of her hand
across his face, for good measure,
she told him with a laugh
as she lifted a grimy glass of gin
to her lips.

She taught him things no child
should ever learn
gave him a story
he did not deserve
of a desperate future 
where he would always be 
good for nothing.

It was a harsh and brutal story
 no man could carry
without defending himself
against a past
that had branded him at birth
and kept him living his 24 years
as good for nothing.

Twenty-four days out 
of his last incarceration
he declared, Enough.
Enough of living out a past
he’d been born into
and was always told was his
only path to becoming a man.
Enough of being the kind of man
everyone called good for nothing.

On that day
he took his life
into his own hands
but not before
willing his heart and lungs and other organs
to give life to another.
At least that way, he whispered with his final breath
I will be good for something.

When she heard the news
of his demise
his mother laughed 
and lifted her gin,
her fifth or was it sixth of that day,
Good riddance, she said
to the empty room in which she sat
on a threadbare couch
surrounded by discarded bottles
and dirty dishes.
I always said you’d be good for nothing.

And still, his heart beats on
a gift of life 
creating a world of something
better for someone.

19 thoughts on “Good for Nothing

  1. As I wipe away the tears flowing down my cheeks I sense hope in your words honouring a young man’s struggle that seemed so close to breaking free of his mother’s hold. If only …

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tears flowing here Louise. It’s not really what I came to you for. I’ve cried far too many tears lately. And sadly, that woman who is not deserving being called a mother, is not as uncommon as we would wish. I do hope this young man did not kill himself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tears are also healing dear Kiki — I think because I’m with my grandchildren and watching my daughter and son-in-love parent is so inspiring, thoughts of those I’ve met on life’s journey who did not have such a loving home keep coming to mind — that and there are so many people experiencing homelessness in this city – it is truly sad. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

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