April 14, 2020


by Anonymous

AllDeaths image 1200Contemplating our mortal connectiveness. ““What makes their stories worth the telling?”

“What makes their stories worth the telling?
Why should you care to read about
the pitiful passing of these individuals who
lived on the extreme margin of society?”

This is the story of three dead men.
It is not a tale of how platitudes of Light & Love brought them peace of mind, nor is it an attempt to rehabilitate the memory of their lives. You will not find that they died quietly in bed surrounded by their loving families. And no death bed confessions of hope and redemption are relayed to you the reader, as there are none. What makes their stories worth the telling? Why should you care to read about the pitiful passing of these individuals who lived on the extreme margin of society? This is also the story of a sort of activism, an effort made in good faith to help the struggling meet their end or at least to make the way less difficult. A service to others that asks more from you than a few bucks or a canned food donation. There are no membership fees, no training modules to attend, and no one to guide you along this particular road. It is the taking of charitable license upon oneself to act compassionately.

     On a brutally hot spring day in 2016 I came upon an elderly man ambling down my street, so I thought that I would offer him a lift. He had just missed the bus and needed a ride to the central station where he could catch another that would take him to his destination, a storage unit on the far side of town and several miles out of my way. As we traveled to the storage facility I came to learn a little bit about him. With stark white curly hair set against his glowing ebony skin, Henry had emigrated from Ghana in the hopes of bringing his family to the United States. Despite his thick West African accent, Henry was articulate, eloquent, erudite, and out of place on this side of town. He had been well educated in his homeland and used his business acumen to build a life. After retirement he had hoped to live a life of quiet relaxation here in the States, but after immigrating his wife’s protracted illness and subsequent death took its toll on him and devastated their finances. He lost his home and kept the bulk of his possessions in a storage unit on the opposite side of town. Perhaps once every month or so we would run over to the unit so that he could mine it for goods to pawn or something to trade in kind with his acquaintances, but it seemed that over time there was not much remaining of any value. Nevertheless he would explore the boxes and piles of objects to discern what he could sell next. I sometimes wondered if these trips were also opportunities for Henry to reminisce and to mourn his losses.

    Henry lived just down the street in a small cottage of a rental village with twelve such single occupant dwellings. He had only recently moved into this new home. A cramped bedroom, kitchenette, and a toilet that was not much bigger than a broom closet were all he required and could afford. I could see his front door from my porch. Every couple of weeks I would check-in with him to see if he needed a ride or to offer a few minutes of companionship. Sometimes he would ask for fresh eggs from my chickens, which I was glad to provide. He frequently took the bus when he had sufficient change so as to maintain his independence. He, like the others in this tale, were frequently at odds with a variety of bureaucratic agencies who seemed to interminably invent new complexities so as to make one’s efforts maximally frustrating and minimally productive. He had tried to get financial assistance through Social Security but as an immigrant his relative work experience was negligible. Henry had better luck with the Community Action Council and sometimes needed a ride to that office to search for part-time employment or apply for aid in paying his bills. The trouble was that at 74 there was little he could physically do. Still, he seemed to be in good health, and expecting to live considerably longer, he was spending his time looking for just enough aid to sustain himself. His needs were not great.

     By the summer of 2017, Henry was in need of a computer for typing resumes. I managed to find something up to the task, an old Dell that was not internet ready but suitable for word processing. He wanted to show his appreciation by preparing for me a cultural dish from Ghana. With a broad smile, which made his accent all the more evident and his English all the poorer, Henry shared his recipe for making Otor. This dish is a mash of plantains, scrambled eggs, and herbs baked together in a sort of souffle. That’s when I learned that Henry’s diet seemed to consist entirely of this poor-man’s meal. His cabinets were very nearly filled with plantains, and his small refrigerator with the eggs I had been providing him surmounted by a heap of collard greens. In order to conserve funds he found the least expensive meal he could that satisfied his needs. This was all he ate. I enjoyed our time together as we shared this humble repast.

     It was about two weeks after that meal I had decided it was time to see how Henry was getting along. I stood on my front porch and looked towards his door. There I saw quite a lot of commotion with people working to remove boxes and bundles from his cottage. Walking down to his place I soon realized these people were wearing respirators, gloves, and gowns. While I was a participant in Henry’s life for almost a year, I sought not to be engaged in his day to day needs. And so I was not aware of his death until that day. Nor was anyone else.
     As I approached the cottage, the odor of rotting flesh combined with an overwhelming smell of ammonia was intolerable. The cleaning crew explained how the mailman found the cottage’s windows fairly blackened with houseflies and quickly summoned the local sheriff’s deputies in order to gain access to Henry’s home. When they found Henry, his remains had been reduced to bones amid a liquefied mass. Due to the advanced state of physical decay, there were no means of identifying the cause of death. The state took custody of his body, cremated his remains and dispersed them over a field reserved for the purpose. His unclaimed ashes added to those of thousands of others. He regarded me as an angel. I regarded him as my brother.

Some years ago, before this sad tale began, I was struck by a statement that taught if I identify who I am in contrast to who you are, and you identify yourself in contrast to who I am, then you are not you and I am not I. We are mutually dependent upon one another for our individual sense of self. That statement is a sort of philosophical basis for the concept that we are sisters and brothers with the whole of humanity. Oh, we say that so and so is my brother, and that this or that person is my sister, but do we mean it? More importantly, do we understand the truth of it? It is one thing to say it and quite another to know it to be true. My own education into the limits of this particular truth started with a request for six bucks.

     About three weeks after I first encountered Henry that spring of 2016, a stranger whose day would be decided by the acquisition of six dollars thrust himself into my life as I was mowing the lawn. Out of desperation he quickly offered to finish the job for the cash, but I said I would give him the money and does he know anything about replacing a roof? It seemed that his need for this small sum greatly outweighed mine. Shortly afterward he was enriched and I had a partner whom I was hoping could aid me in the larger project. That was how I met Doc. Thin and wiry, with a gravelly voice that betrayed both his Italian heritage and Brooklyn upbringing, Doc was an unabashed ‘goodfella’ wannabe whose rough life was starting to wear him down. At age 60 and recently out of prison for attempted murder by hammer, Doc was at once trying to stay clear of the law and hiding from his former biker gang members for fear they would lead him back to a life of crime. Doc had spent nearly half of his life in prison on charges of drug distribution, identity theft, and assault with a deadly weapon, amongst lesser charges. With him as a sort of guide and with the help of other neighbors, I shortly turned my newly gained, but modest, inheritance into a new roof and my associates earned some cash for their efforts. It was during these long summer weeks of working together that I got to know Doc as a person and also began to recognize his body was faltering.

“Doc was at once trying to stay clear of the law
and hiding from his former biker gang members for

fear they would lead him back to a life of crime. ”

     Doc had no job, no prospects, and was homeless except for the grace of a guy he knew at the local motel who gave him floor space. A motel that rented rooms by the month and was known for every unsavory facet of humanity. His erstwhile roommate was Dave, of whom there will be more to say. Doc had no transportation so I would pick him up for the day’s work throughout the roofing project. He drank heavily, smoked heavily, swore heavily, and boasted at great length of the many colorful adventures he has had throughout his life both on the streets and in prison. All of which were told through a haze of smoke as he puffed on a cigarette rolled from stale tobacco and paper torn from a phone book’s pages. There was an overarching and recurrent conclusion to these stories, they always seemed to end badly for him. He had been stabbed, beaten, shot on more than one occasion, survived liver disease, and had survived lung cancer. Well, with his remaining lung he had survived. Once a rival biker gang made an attempt on his life by running his motorcycle off the road, resulting in a life-flight to save him from bleeding out. He would proudly boast of his superhuman ability to beat anything that came his way. He embellished quite a bit. He fought back against his mortality with bravado and stories of his younger days. These stories buoyed him up from time to time and gave him a strength of spirit that dared death to try and take him once more.

     Thrown out onto the streets of Brooklyn at the age of 16, with no formal education beyond middle school, no vocational training, his life was spent in no particular occupation while continuously engaging in legally dubious activities. He subscribed largely to the precept that a thing was only illegal if he got caught. He had at least two aliases so I was never completely sure who he was except that we called him ‘Doc’. A throw back to his gun toting biker days. He was no longer a threat to anyone now. His stories were all he had. In the course of his life he had made choices that seemingly were poor ones, but perhaps he could not have chosen otherwise. Rather, there were no other choices in his mind.

Dave was a large man with a still larger heart. He was Doc’s only friend on this sorry Earth and he allowed Doc the chance to get back on his feet by letting him sleep on the floor. Theirs was a strained companionship often imbued with long nights of drinking which fueled heated arguments. These evening engagements sometimes came to blows but neither could remember the other’s transgressions by the next morning despite the evidences of bloodied noses and darkening bruises. There was a kinship between them which was all they had since neither of them had any relatives among the living, or at least not any who would associate with them.
     Dave at 55 had worked throughout his youth which provided him with a sizeable Disability check when his alcoholism induced epilepsy stole away his capabilities. He had crashed on more than one occasion after blacking out behind the wheel and subsequently lost his Driver’s License, his job, and his mind, in that order. He preferred to be called ‘Red-neck’ and his warm and lovable demeanor was somewhat offset by his foul-mouthed tirades that frequently got out of hand. Pick any topic. When sober he was a practical man who used the excess portion of his funds to help the people living in the motel around him whose lives were much needier than his own. It allowed him to feel good about himself by helping others. To that end he was generous to his own detriment having been manipulated more than once to help some whose shortages were due to their own drug habits rather than a lack of cash. Dave couldn’t bear to watch others suffer though that was the normal state of affairs among the motel’s live-in population. The trade in cash for favors, favors for food, food for flesh, flesh for drugs, and drugs for cash, was an ongoing circle of suffering that kept people fed, clothed, sheltered, and oblivious. Death, prison, and homelessness seemed to be the principal escapes from this spiraling poverty.
     I became friends with Dave, and he and I sometimes worked as a team to keep Doc contained and care for him as his health began to deteriorate. Once Doc began receiving Social Security benefits, Dave had hoped to regain his privacy and freedom by demanding Doc get his own room. This led to yet another animated discussion and subsequent bloodied noses and darkening bruises. Doc managed to secure his own space just two doors away in early 2018 and after a time their friendship would be well remembered and they would become close again. My visits to check on Doc and run errands grew to encompass Dave’s needs as well. Dave was not supposed to die. He had no urgent physical conditions that would lead to his death anytime soon. He and I planned to work cooperatively to watch over Doc as he declined. That quickly changed.

“These evening engagements sometimes came to blows
but neither could remember the other’s transgressions
by the next morning despite the evidences of
bloodied noses and darkening bruises.”

     Soon after Doc had moved out, Dave found a lover to shower with attention and she moved into his room. Her story is a tale told on another day. Suffice it to say, she was clearly taking advantage of Dave but he willfully ignored any effort exposing her deceit. Dave loudly proclaimed his love for her and soon they were inseparable. That is to say that neither ever left his room again except by ambulance. As her own illness progressed, Dave tried to help as best he could, but ultimately she was taken to the hospital and shortly thereafter expired of liver failure.
Her death became the catalyst in Dave’s demise. Once gregarious and outgoing, Dave turned inward and fell into a deep depression at his loss. His lover was never truly his as she was married to another tenant who, via deception, was unaware of the betrayal. Dave would not find solace again and he searched for it by consuming massive amounts of vodka. Inconsolable, he was free to make his own decisions and free to ignore the advice of his few remaining friends. We cared for him as he permitted but largely he was allowed to drink himself to death. It took him three months. We watched his body yellow as he succumbed to the alcohol poisoning. His liver had stopped functioning days before.
     When the ambulance arrived the night of November 2nd 2018, Dave was failing fast. The hospital designated me as Dave’s voice of medical necessity regarding any further procedures or life saving measures as Dave was deemed mentally unfit to make decisions on his own behalf. There would be no efforts made to extend his life. Doc and I visited him twice each day until he was moved to the palliative care home adjacent the hospital. Doc couldn’t bear to enter his room, and while he would travel with me he would not see Dave as he lay dying. Dave had made his choice and the course of his past actions now would come to fruition in his death. On the morning of November 5th, Doc and I arrived once more. Dave had died some few hours prior. I said my goodbyes and Doc finally came in to say his own farewell. And to cry for David. It would the first of many tears shed by this man whose life had been so brutally lived.
     Dave had no next of kin to claim him so the state took his remains and cremated them. However, I was granted custody of Dave’s ashes and they were carried to Four Quarters and scattered upon the ground encompassed by the Stone Circle. Not so that he could be solemnly remembered or have his remains placed upon hallowed ground. But rather, in keeping with his wishes, so that people could dance upon them. The fewer clothes they wore, the better.

     I would stay on in Doc’s life as a friend and caregiver, taking him to the grocery store, liquor store, and smoke shop until he was no longer able to walk and then I would run his errands alone. Over the course of three years I had delivered him to medical appointments, taken him to see various doctors, accompanied him for tests, and wheeled him into the hospital on two of the four trips he would need for emergency care. In every case he would leave within a day or two of admission AMA (against medical advice) largely because they would not provide him vodka or cigarettes, and because he needed to get home to feed his cat, he would shout. He had seen Dave die, and did not wish to be taken away from the motel room that had become his home.

     It was by threading the bureaucratic doublespeak of Social Security that Doc was able to get a room of his own. After this he would be living on a subsistence level SSI check of $750 that covered his rent ($650/month) and left him with little funds save but for the most necessary items. He would also receive $30 monthly in EBT food stamp assistance. The local Ruritan club and other church-based charitable organizations were important contributors to Doc’s welfare and the community living at the motel as they provided each room with monthly containers of perishable food items and canned goods. I covered his shortfalls when necessary. He lived in constant fear that the government or other state entity would present him with cause against his person and take away his payments. He had many debts, owed back child support in two states, owed taxes in another, and there existed outstanding warrants for his arrest in others.
     As he lost the ability to care for his personal needs and as his living conditions worsened, he tried in vain to find another place that he could manage to afford. He lacked the physical strength to make such a move. We contacted several social service and charitable organizations, they had each offered to assist and find him another place, however, nothing was ever forthcoming. There would be no new home. Having no other options, he was compelled to stay put. Both living on the street and returning to prison were not viable options for Doc. Without a physical address his SSI and food assistance would cease. His life experience had shown him that he categorically did not want to return to prison under any circumstances. Tears streamed down his face as he relayed the news to me and resigned himself to his present home. This was not the first time I had witnessed the abject fear and frustration that moved him to tears.

“We contacted several social service and charitable
organizations, they had each offered to
assist and
find him another place, however, nothing

was ever forthcoming.”

     A urine soaked, roach infested, shit-hole motel room is no place for anyone to die. That is where my friend Doc chose to be at the end of his life. Unable to walk or stand he refused any offer to go to the hospital. He did not wish to give over his right to self-determination, and with belligerence stood opposed to any suggestion that he should be hospitalized or moved into a Hospice facility for his daily needs. I watched him die. Not all at once, but over years I had watched as his body failed him. Doc declined and stabilized. Henry died. Doc declined further and stabilized once more. Dave died. Doc declined and stabilized yet again. He had been in the care of Hospice on and off as a result. Despite two separate occasions where Doc was gravely close to death, he managed to recover. Doc wasn’t dying fast enough for Hospice to justify their resource expenditures on his behalf. Four days prior to his death he had been discharged from in-home Hospice care for the second time.

     The last time I saw him cry was the day before his death. “I’m not going to make it this time, am I?” he asked almost rhetorically. “No, not this time” came the reply. I have never sugar-coated my answers to Doc’s questions even in the gravest moments. He had led a hard life, and was always told the truth of his condition. His body, now 63 years of age, had a lot of mileage on it, giving him the stooped appearance and ragged gait of a man of 83. He spent almost half of his life in prison and the other half trying to exist under the radar of law enforcement. He was a crook and a fraudster, a thief and a conman desperately trying to survive in a world he was unequipped to thrive in. He was nonetheless worthy of my compassion.
     During the first chilly days of November 2019, a year after Dave’s death, Doc’s final choice in life was made for him as his body at last succumbed to organ failure. He was not afraid of death. He just didn’t want to go, he would tell us. With the television blaring at painful levels and his room a sweltering 84 degrees, in the presence of roach hordes traversing the accumulated detritus and debris of weeks and months of neglect while still others clamored over the very blankets draped about him, within a room whose walls were stained a dappled honey brown sheen of dried pesticide droplets and bug feces, knowing fully that his motel room was clearly a health violation in any jurisdiction, Doc’s final moments passed.

     Late into the evening of November 3rd I sat with Doc. He in the recliner Hospice had left for him, a rigid metal device more suitable for torture than comfort, while I sat at his feet on an overturned plastic tub. Unable to support his head, his chin rested upon his chest. His labored breathing made audible by the gurgling phlegm accumulating in his remaining lung. In a deep gravelly voice he called out “smoke.” I lit a cigarette and placed it between his lips. It fell to his chest as he was unable to hold onto it. So I smoked it for him, gently blowing the smoke to him so that he could enjoy the aroma of the tobacco. In that moment I recognized the act of offering smoke to the ancestors as I have experienced in ceremonies at Four Quarters in a new light. Here was that ceremony performed on the very edge of the precipice. A few moments passed. He called out weakly “Jack.” I placed his cat in his lap. Jack nuzzled into Doc’s beard. He lifted a rigid arm and stroked the cat in stiff wooden movements, his hands had lost their usefulness hours earlier. Leaning forward, he rubbed his face into Jack’s velvety black coat. It was a touching moment of affection and farewell. That action seemed a strenuous effort for Doc whose labored breathing was all the more apparent as he slumped back. I asked if he wished me to stay a while longer. Shaking his head with difficulty and muttering “no” I assured him that I would return first thing in the morning to take care of Jack.
     I believe he died within moments after I exited the room. Doc faced his death as he had faced life, alone and on his own terms. I returned the following morning to find his body waiting for me, Jack curled up in his lap. His ashes will join Dave’s in accordance with his wishes.

There is another story here. It’s a story of compassion and lovingkindness. So often those words are seen in the light of something warm and fuzzy, but not here. Here compassion is an action to care for others despite the worst of circumstances. Here lovingkindness calls on you when it needs a beer or can’t decipher the latest piece of Medicare paperwork. Compassion frustrates and challenges you when it can’t find its glasses or calls in the middle of the night because in a drunken stupor it fell down and split its head on the sidewalk. Frequently lovingkindness is moody and confused, and desperately in need of someone, anyone, to spend just a few minutes longer in their company. And sometimes it needs its urinal dumped or its pants pulled up. Feeling compassion is easy. Acting upon that feeling is essential.

“Some days compassion has to wait
a few hours longer. Demonstrating one’s compassion
means establishing limits and acknowledging
what one
can and cannot do.”

     Compassion is also the ability to say no. It is the ability to offer up help without conditions and the ability to know when a conditioned response is the correct one. Some days compassion has to wait a few hours longer. Demonstrating one’s compassion means establishing limits and acknowledging what one can and cannot do. One must also show compassion for one’s self by adhering to those limits, otherwise there is the real possibility of burn out and becoming emotionally overwhelmed. As a caregiver to the dying, one needs to be fluid in their approach to rendering that care as the dying must be allowed the freedom to make their own decisions. You may counsel in favor or against a course of action, however, the choice is not yours.
     Finally, compassion can take many forms and treating someone with lovingkindness need not be overt, but it must be heart felt. Abraham Lincoln once said “They have a right to criticize, who have a heart to help.” I will take that a bit further. Criticism aside, those who have a heart to help should do so. As far back as I can remember I have always subscribed to that precept. One must look beyond their self and see the needs of others, and at times place them before your own.

     Why? That was the question put to the author that has steadfastly gone unanswered, until this writing. Why take the time to help these wretched lives? Why give from your own resources to these who have nothing to give in return? What makes you, or anyone else for that matter, do these things for others? A few dollars here, a dozen eggs there, produce from your garden given in a gesture of friendship, these are small things that make a big difference in the lives of those in need.

     I am not what you would call a creature of habit. My spiritual practice, my meditation practice, such as it is, is sporadic at best and occurs much more frequently when on my knees working in the garden or sitting at my workbench. You may not agree, but I find meditation can happen anywhere in any situation. The Buddha spoke of sitting meditation, standing meditation, sleeping meditation, and walking meditation. But I believe he forgot to mention wall painting meditation or manure shoveling meditation. As I see it the list is endless so I am sure he did not mean to simply dismiss these meditation variations out of hand. He was rather busy after all. I could choose to be more formal in my approach to meditation I suppose, but that is a tough row to hoe at times. My life does not lend itself to such opportunities. While it has been explained to me that one must find time for practice… please refer to the first sentence of this paragraph for greater understanding.

     Maybe I am a creature of habit after all, just bad ones. I have made choices. Despite the reasoning, good or ill, we all do. After a suitable interval of cognitive dissonance and reflection I had chosen to be a Buddhist, though I do not claim to be good at it. But that’s okay, my life situation is not conducive to monastic living nor am I in any danger of approaching Buddhahood imminently. So I figure I have a few lifetimes to work out the kinks.
There is however one part of Buddhist practice that truly resonates with me and it is what I refer to as compassionate-action. It is simply not enough to think good thoughts and hope for the best in a situation. You need to put your time and energy where your practice is and choose to help people for whom suffering has become an ocean which is swallowing them whole. The poor, the homeless, the disenfranchised, the rest of us who are either unequipped to cope with daily living or who have been rendered unable to do so by age, infirmity, or circumstance.
I say ‘us’ because ‘we’ are failing these people and in so doing failing ourselves. It is difficult for me to offer up platitudes of light and love to those who suffer when bread and shelter are in short supply.
     A friend recently told me that at times we must be a witness to the lives, or deaths, of others. That we are to be a light in the darkness. I eschew such metaphors. But I think this points to something larger. Witnessing is not only about seeing, it’s about knowing. Being the witness. What if we tried being compassion rather than just feeling it?

– From the 2020 Wheel of the Year