To Matthew Barrett, it seems like a thousand years have passed since he was a roustabout with Barnum & Bailey’s Blue Unit. Matt enjoyed living the life of the circus travelling from town to town, delivering jaw-dropping acts and ferocious animals to crowds drawn from the hamlets dotted along the rail lines snaking throughout the west.
It was a great job giving Matt some temporary escape from his relentless companion.
An interloper that never gives him liberty or peace!
Matt is now looking down the road getting ready for what might be the greatest adventure of his life.
About a year ago, he discontinued administering 600 mg of Morphine a day to garner some relief from the pain in his head.
He has been living with the unrelenting pain, without letup, ever since.
Blue Scorpion venom, recently brought to him from Cuba by a friend, has replaced the Morphine.
Matt told me he feels pain in his legs for the first time in ages. The pain in his head has reduced its grip just enough to let him feel signals from other parts of his body. Matt has a tumor the size of my hand clinging to his brain like a starfish. It stretches from his left eye to the back of his neck.
It, and the smaller one on the right side of his brain, is inoperable.
Is the venom effecting the tumor? Too early to say-
At 47, Matt is an expert on Basal cell nevus syndrome, a condition that roared into his life when he was two years old.
Genetic and unforgiving!
Eleven cancers, four brain tumors, lymphoma, and bone cancer, as well as three types of skin cancer.
Imagine enduring 1,708 separate operations that only temporarily restrain the cancerous invaders! Operations that have so disfigured Matt that he looks as if he survived a horrific fire.
Most of the skin on his face has been replaced with skin from his forearms and legs. Facial features, bone lines, and teeth have been dramatically altered.
Matt tries to catch a few hours of sleep, and peace, with eyes that only close partway-
It’s hard to integrate that a man who has endured so many medical challenges, long spurts of homelessness, abject discrimination, and humiliation can face each morning full of hope and faith in the better nature of his fellow travelers.
Matt has spiritual faith that his walk has been for a purpose. He feels his role is and has been, to educate people about the differences in each of us and how those differences actually tie us all together. He is generous with his time volunteering to talk with anyone who will listen to his message of reaching out to the poor, the homeless, the sick, the lonely, and those abandoned by those who don’t understand.
Recently Matt put together a book of poetry, “A View from the Street,” to share his feelings and create some income for Greater Seattle Cares, a non-profit that supports the homeless in Seattle Tent Cities with meals, clothing, and supplies.
Matt lived in Seattle’s Tent City 3 for over three years. He still visits his friends weekly, even though he recently received subsidized housing.
When I asked Matt which poem he would like me to share in this little tale, he picked the following poem.
Your World in a Bag
For a homeless person who doesn’t have much
there are a few things about which we can brag
Especially when everything you wear, own and such
is summed up in your world in a bag
That’s how it is when you live on the street
you learn about the meaning of gratitude
For little thing like a jacket and shoes on your feet
when your world is in one bag, you have a different attitude
Carrying everything you won on your back
or pushing around a shopping cart filled with your stuff
This is when you know what it means to lack
and when the littlest thing is more than enough
This is what I’m trying to express
it isn’t a joke, a prank, or a gag
When you’re on the streets you live with less
and learn to appreciate your world in a bag.
The words speak to Matt’s acceptance of what he has been served in life. He didn’t ask for it, would prefer to have skipped a lot of it, but knows that this is the way it is, and he can only try his best to be gentle with all that he has been handed.
In addition to him volunteering his time to help others facing homelessness and challenges around being poor he has shared the powerful story of his life with Seattle freelance photographer Ilona Berzups to produce “Walking with Giant.”
When asked for a description of her photo essay, Ilona said, “Matt’s journey has been incredibly hard but inspirational. I’ve been able to capture a part of his journey visually, and my hope is that it will be received with the sensitivity and care it deserves.” She continued, “My desire is that his visual story will make others examine how they see and treat those who are different.”
Ilona’s incredible photographs are accompanied by a compelling essay sharing many of the hurdles Matt has faced while fending off the inevitable.
While sitting in a Starbucks with Matt, I could only wonder at the randomness of life. Why has Matt been given a life so full of pain and suffering when so many others seem so blessed with lives brimming with fulfilled expectations?
When I asked Matt if he had ever experienced anything we might define as a bit of normal life, he returned to his remembrances of the circus.
Matt, I hope that when your circus comes back to pick you up, you will join it with all the enthusiasm and grace you have shown those of us who will be waving to you as the train speeds down the tracks. Thank you.
*Matt has been a courageous role model for so many over the years. He was recently recognized by Invisible Disabilities.org for his generosity of spirit, and his dedication, to reaching out to the sick, lonely, homeless and others in need of a kind word.
Here’s a little story.
Back when Matt was hired by the circus, one of his jobs required he lead a grizzly out of the arena when the trainer gave him the high sign. This all went very smoothly until the trainer got ill towards the end of the performance one day.
What Matt didn’t know was the trainer always gave “Bruno” a couple of peanuts before turning and handing the lead to Matt. Well, the assistant trainer, worried about the other two bears gave Matt the lead line to take Bruno out. He either didn’t know about the peanuts, or forgot due to the anxiety of the moment.
Bruno didn’t want to move.
Matt gently pulled on him.
Bruno struck out, leaving Matt’s left ear dangling by a thread of flesh.
When the dust settled and the bear and Matt were attended to, he was told that policy was that any animal that “attacked” an employee would have to be put down.
Matt sat there for a moment before replying, “Then I quit. If I don’t work here there, is no reason to punish Bruno for doing what comes naturally to a bear.”
Matt went on to new adventures.
We’ll all miss you, Matt.