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 having an effect on 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 part way-
Its 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 to 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” in order 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.
His book is available on his blog, "A View from the Street."
Matt lived in a Seattle’s Tent City 3 for over three years. He still visits his friends there 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.”
Matt's story can be found on Ms. Berzups' website.
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.
If you would like to help Matt reach out to others please visit his blog, buy his book and toss a few buck his way.