in memory of john (toby) baxter - my friend and brother
I can honestly say that no person has touched my life in the way this man did. He became a member of my family. He loved my wife and son and they loved him as well.
My first visit to Hermann Park in this fashion was in joining a group of young men and women from an organization named Mission Year. It was a wonderful group of young people from around our nation that journey together on missions in our very own nation. Their motto; Love God-Love People. My wife and I met them through a local church, Ecclesia, that held a regular gathering for lunch on the other side of the city for a large number of homeless people. They invited us to join them in a smaller group the following week and we did so.
Toby was there the very first day we went. He was quiet, stoic and hard. He never had much to say other than a thank you for whatever it was that we may have brought and usually went his own way after that. Months went by as we paid regular visits to the park. We had many meals and many days without meals as well, simply sitting and discussing life and getting to know one another.
A day came when the Mission Year team had to go their own way and return to their homes and lives that awaited them but I kept venturing out to visit this group of people. As I became closer to many of them with time passing by, one day Toby pulled me aside to talk to me. He had many questions, most of them being ‘who am I’, ‘why am I here’, ‘what are my motives’. It was these questions that began our relationship. It took a while to convince him that my motives were nothing more than to hopefully lead others to show some love for him and the many others that lived on our streets, but he slowly opened up.
Toby lived a rough life. If I remember correctly, he spent 17 years on the streets. Those years were after a few in prison. He had a good life before things went awry. He played professional football and had a great career ahead of him…Until his knee failed him. Recovery turned to addiction to pain meds. Addiction turned his life into something that far too many go through and led to where he sat when I met him. He was fifty something and a felon, he was disabled from his sports injuries but even more so from a later car accident and being shot. He was the least of all candidates for any real help and he knew it…so he sat.
The journey with Toby is what taught me most of what I know of the lives of the homeless and the services that are offered and available. As I gained his trust and as we became closer I often asked him if he would allow me to try to work the system in his favor. Over time, we began to leap giant hurdles to the point where we could possibly get him housing and one day, it happened. Luck had turned our way as he was approved fro a housing voucher and I was on the hunt for a place that would accept him….and there’s another problem. Even though approved and even though holding a piece of paper that was like gold to many in his position, there were few places that would accept him due to his record/past felonies, no matter how old they were. He was becoming proof that the ‘do your crime, do your time’ moniker is is just a saying, as your time never ends.
With a ton of prayer and a lot of hunting I found it, an actual nice apartment complex that accepted vouchers and would accept Toby, all we had to do was go visit, fill out the paperwork and get the process started.
It was the beginning of winter in 2013 when this all happened and one of our first really strong cold fronts was just moving through. Toby had been suffering from what he called a ‘summer cold’ that just wouldn’t go away and the storms from the front drove him to Ben Taub Hospital, as they do many, on the night before we were to go sign paperwork at the apartments for him. He called me and told me what was going on and asked if we could reschedule which, of course, was no problem. Usually, when a homeless person plays the hospital game in bad weather they are quickly checked in and checked out but this time they kept him and began running tests.
Later the following day Toby called me again and asked me to come down to the park. As I sat down with him he explained what the doctors had told him. The X-rays and scans they ran showed a mass in the upper left of his lung, a large one at that. His ‘summer cold’ began taking shape as something else all together.
Over the coming two weeks I sat in numerous specialists offices with him until they finally gave him the news. Stage 4 cancer. It began in his lymph nodes. It was in his lung as well as in his lower spine and the tumor in his lung was massive and wrapped around his trachea. He asked numerous times what the prognosis was and the doctors did not want to give an answer but finally….1 year with treatment, maybe 6 months without. This was in late October or early November of 2013.
Every thing changed from that moment. The apartment we were to look at was too far from the medical facilities if he were to even chose to get treatment and there was simply nothing available nearby that would accept him.
We changed our direction and I began asking him if he would ever be willing to go back to his family. He had a son and daughter he had not seen in years. He had a sister who loved him dearly. Toby held so much regret for his actions in life that he couldn’t even see these people loving him any longer. It took some time, but he made the decision that he would go home to Oklahoma. His sister wanted him there and she and her husband offered to take him and care for him.
You would think the struggles would be over but they were far from it. Remember, Toby was on parole as a felon. To leave the state is a near impossible task and against the law, guaranteeing a return trip to prison. So now I sat in a parole office with him and his ‘PO’. We pleaded with them to allow him to return home. We went above her head to her superior and then above their head to the head office in Houston. The answers were never what we wanted to hear.
How could these people, knowing the truth, sentence a man to death on a park bench when he could return home and have the love of his family? The answer, to me, is still not found but they had no cares about the situation.
Finally we took a risk…on December 22, 2013 we placed Toby on a plane and sent him home. It was a chance we had to take, even though the parole office knew nothing of it. He was due to check in with them the week after Christmas. When the parole officer contacted me a week later, it was not a happy conversation on her part. We helped a felon leave the state and that is not a good thing. I had faith, however, that our God would lead us all through this and things would work out. They threatened, on numerous occasions, to bring him back. Luckily, Toby had agreed to go through treatment in Oklahoma and he had a wonderful doctor who provided all we needed to fight the case. A letter to the parole board stating that he would require medical transport if taken away put a temporary stop to all measures. The state was not going to spend the money to bring him back by way of ambulance and return him to prison.
A lot of wonderful people came through in this situation. My parents were amazing in covering the cost of airfare and a few wonderful friends chipped in for his needs before he left as well. To all of them, I can not say thank you in any way that would equal what your actions meant to my family and to Toby’s.
We sent Toby home on December 22, 2013. Exactly one month later, on January 22, 2014, he gave in to the cancer that took hold of him and passed away. He had one month with his family after 17 years apart. One month of tremendous pain and suffering but in a bed and with family rather than alone on a bench. Toby became a man of great faith over the time we spent together and I have no doubts that he is with our Father in Heaven at this very moment. I am not saddened for him in any sense at all. I am, however, greatly saddened by his struggle. It is the very same as, far too many, others out there at this very moment. Toby never asked for anything for himself. If he asked for anything at all it was always for others who lived in the same conditions as he did. He asked for more love in the world and could not see why so many people disregarded him and others like him in the ways they did.
Toby made me promise, before he left us, that I would never quit doing what I do, that my family would keep loving his brothers and sisters the way we loved him. That is a promise that I must keep.
Rest in Peace Brother - May 24, 1956 - January 22, 2014 - We will aways love you and your memory will always be with all of those who knew you.