Saying Goodbye to a Friend

This is the text to Director Carl Zawatski’s eulogy at Nate Gaston’s funeral Mass on Saturday, January 5, 2019.

So the other day, another staff member and I were having a heated discussion. Some misunderstanding person might even call it an argument. You have to learn a new language living in this environment. Anyway, the discussion goes like this… “I bust my ass for you!!” I says, “For me? You do it for yourself, not for me.”  “Well, I do it for the shelter,” he responds and emphasizes, “YOUR SHELTER!!” “My shelter?” I incredulously exclaim.

I thought more and more about that discussion throughout the day and how it felt when he said, “YOUR SHELTER!!“ It is true: at times I have felt a sense of ownership. It’s very easy to think that way. I put a lot of time in this place. A lot of energy. I’ve run the gamut of my emotions through these doors, but I can assure you of this: the St. Francis Shelter is not my shelter! I’m just carrying the torch, so to speak.

Bro. Dave is the man who started it. All I do is manage and invest the money people around the world have had the compassion to send to the shelter. I can put it no simpler than this: WE INVEST THE MONEY IN HUMAN LIVES! Many of the lives we invest in have been discarded by an uncaring society. We give those lives worth and willingly invest our time, money and effort in them. Something happens here, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.

Nate Mumbles Like “Mumbles”

So a while back, the parole board calls me. “Hi Carl, this is officer so and so from the parole office. I got a guy who got some of this going on and some of that going on and he needs a place to stay. Etc., etc., etc. What do ya think? Can you help this guy out?” So I agree to interview the guy, which usually consists of little more than seeing if the guy has a pulse and putting a little mirror under his nose to see if it steams up to confirm he is breathing. If the guy has a pulse and breathes, we will let them in.

Dick Tracy and Mumbles or is it Carl and Nate?

‘The guy’ in question happens to be Nate Gaston, and I agree to meet him at the store. We talk for about twenty minutes. And this is the God’s honest truth: I DIDN’T HEAR A WORD HE SAID! If you knew Nate, you knew he mumbled. If anyone is old enough to remember Dick Tracy, there was a character named “Mumbles.” He would talk sorta like this, “hunmmh.. tyiun.. mmmmbhuur. mmmm.” To make the situation more complicated, I just went through a pretty intense round of chemo and radiation, which left me with severe damage to both of my ears. And I was so tired and worn out that I didn’t have the energy to keep on saying, What?” For all I knew, he could have been saying, “As soon as I check in, I’m gonna go over to that thrift store of yours and steal some money, shoot the guy at the cash register and steal one of your cars. What do you think about that?” And I would have smiled and shook my head in approval. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

Instead, we went on a ‘Magical Nathan ride.’ When he started, he had just completed some surgery to remove a huge piece of his arm, due to cancer. According to Nate, the doctors thought they had it under control, but not long after he started working here, some lumps began to appear. The cancer had metastasized. He began his treatments, and after every treatment, he would return to work as if nothing had happened. Even when he was really bad, he had a way of carrying himself that even though you knew he was sick, he maintained his God-given dignity, highlighted by his infectious laugh, which was good, because I never quite understand what he was saying.

The Magic of Nate’s Laughter

When Nate would start laughing, I had to laugh, too. We’d laugh and laugh like two old men sitting on a porch, but the funniest part is that neither one of us had a clue what the other guy said that ended up being so funny in the first place. Of course that’s a bit of an exaggeration, because we had plenty of talks, good ones.

I always wondered about the timing of the relationship. I was just coming out of the treatment regimen he was just going into. I remember him saying one day, “So with all you have been through, I guess you were just sitting here waiting for a guy like me to show up, Huh?” Those were the type of things we talked about. We talked about our kids and about some regrets we had about choices that we made. We talked about life, we talked about God. We talked about the St. Francis Shelter.

After he had been here for some time, he told me how much he wanted to be a part of what we are doing at the shelter. Nate’s words were not empty. He demonstrated his commitment to the St. Francis Shelter every day with his actions and total involvement.
Nate had an air about him. On his first day, you would have thought he was one of the old-timers, like he had been here from the beginning, and he used that trait to make everyone a better person. He was a good arbitrator and a big help to me. Ask any of the staff, and they will tell you we’ve seen some real beauties come through these doors. Although I can’t explain it, I sensed from the beginning that Nate was a totally stand-up guy and trustworthy, something you might not expect from a man who served twenty-nine years in the penitentiary. I knew the store was in good hands when Nate manned the front desk. He was an amazing guy and tough as nails.

Nate’s Evolving Relationship with God

His evolving relationship with God was a beautiful and inspiring thing to watch. His first week here he said to me, “So do I have to go to church with you guys? I’m not too sure about all this Catholic stuff.”

“I can’t make you,” I answered, “but I would like you to think about this…. Going to Mass here for us, has nothing to do with being Catholic, we go to Mass as a community, to a sacred place, and we go together to worship together whatever it is you believe in. We do it as a community. And most of the time we go back to eat a good lunch together and discuss what Father read and what he said. We do it together.” From that moment on, Nate faithfully attended Mass every Sunday.

I’ve mentioned that we had many meaningful talks, and some of our conversations centered around what are we were going to do if his battle with cancer didn’t turn out the way we hoped it would. I asked him, “Would you like to talk to a priest or a man of the cloth?” He told me he had been thinking about it, but he wasn’t interested to have someone ‘shove some Catholic stuff down his throat.’ I assured him I had the perfect guy for him to talk to.

The Desert House of Prayer

Every year, the staff takes an annual camping trip to ‘recharge our personal batteries.’ We did that a couple months back, but the doctor advised Nate not to go. While we were gone, Father Tom Picton from the Desert House of Prayer came to the shelter to spend some time with Nate. He invited Nate to make a private retreat at the Desert House. Nate decided to go.

The Desert House of Prayer is a contemplative and prayerful house. Conversation is limited to evening dinners. The silence amid the beautiful desert landscape creates a beautiful, reflective environment. Nate was apprehensive but in dire need of a break and some quiet, so he accepted Father Tom’s invitation and went.

We met him for 9:00 Mass in the chapel when we picked Him up the following Sunday. We found him sitting quietly in the front row, a glowing, peaceful look on his face. On the way back to the shelter, we shared breakfast and he talked about his personal experience at the Desert House of Prayer. He said in amazement, ”I didn’t know places like that even existed.”
When we talked in private, he told me that he and God had exchanged many words. I didn’t probe for specifics. It was none of my business, but I could tell by the smile on his face it was good.

I watched him try to make sense of the experience as his faith evolved, and with it, too, his friendship with fellow staffer Steve. Steve took care of him to Nate’s final day.

Thankful for Another Day

In the short time he was with us, Nate affected us all, each in a special way.
Having fought the same battle with cancer, Nate’s experience has had a profound effect on me. It gives me a sense of privilege, the privilege to be alive just one more day. More than once, Nate told me how thankful he was to be here with us at the shelter where he could confront his dragons in community, not alone.

So what do I do with this time I have? I keep the doors open and remain alert for the next Nate… Or Steve, or Leo, or Dennis or Anton.

While I wait, you will never hear me call this shelter “My Shelter.” This was Nate’s shelter, it was his home. It is built on the backs of Nate and the other men who come here to serve their homeless brothers. I give direction when it is needed, no more, no less. No one who understands this shelter, the men who staff it and the men we serve can deny God’s grace or whatever word you use to describe it. Nate just called it ”this thing you got here and what’s going on around here.” Call it what you may, but I’ve seen it catch people and they cannot escape. I saw it catch Nate, and I saw this troubled man begin to live his life with purpose even amidst the physical mess he found himself in. After he arrived here, he moved forward, step by step, day by day, and he did it with dignity and grace. Nate’s physical presence and his spirit will be deeply missed, but most of all, we will miss the example he set for overcoming the challenges life throws in our paths. It’s what Nate did that was so impressive, not what he said, which was mumbled so softly I couldn’t hear what he said anyway! I just stood by and watched… in awe.

Enveloped by the Big Light

So I want to say to Nate’s family – especially to his daughter – how important the man was to us. Nate Gaston was a giant of a man while he was here among us. I want to tell you how much he loved you and how proud he was of you. He often said how he wished he would have made better choices in the past. But the past was past and he accepted responsibility for it. I know how much it means to him right now that you are here, and as his representative I extend to you any help we can give. That’s his gift to you.

To close, I’ll offer this short anecdote to Nate’s family… I went to a funeral some years back at San Xavier mission. The funeral was for Father Camillus, 93-years old when he passed. His little brother – only 91-years old – gave a eulogy. His brother said Camillus and he had talked quite a bit in those final days about the nature of death. Father Camillus said that he felt death was merely ‘extinguishing the candle before the dawn…’ the little light goes out as we are enveloped by the big light. And that is where I know your father, your brother, our friend is: enveloped by the Big Light. God bless and keep you Nate. Thank you for sharing this time with us. We love you and will miss you…….

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