It never ceases to amaze me how a seemingly random encounter can lead to some of the most unlikely relationships, and I have been so fortunate to have had such an encounter with a very interesting gentleman indeed. I met Jerry when I was working one weekend at the day shelter for homeless men. As I walked through the shelter, chatting with the guests seated at the tables, my eyes happened to meet Jerry’s, and I smiled and inquired, “How are you?” With his trademark wry smile and sharp wit firmly intact, he somewhat sarcastically answered in his gravelly voice, “Unfortunately, I’m still breathing”, and I quickly shot back with, “That’s an unacceptable answer”, which made him chuckle. As I knelt down next to his chair and listened to him share with me some of the challenges he was experiencing that made death preferable to life, a bond between two seemingly different souls was forged.
From that moment on, Jerry called me from his employer’s office and/or stopped by the day shelter to check in with me at least once or twice a week. I became his unofficial case manager and friend. We brainstormed ways to address the barriers he faced that kept him from having permanent housing and finding a full-time job and addressed his undiagnosed health problems. In his early 60s and in declining health, Jerry still insisted on reporting to his part-time job for a local builder, even on days when he hadn’t eaten or felt ill. At night, when he could not find refuge in an overnight emergency shelter, he slept in an abandoned building like an urban camper.
As the summer progressed, so did Jerry’s medical issues. He had difficulty breathing, which he assumed was due to either COPD or emphysema, experienced pain though out his body, ran intermittent fevers, and lost weight. When he reported that his weight now hovered near 110 lbs., which was at least 40 lbs. below a healthy weight for him, I told him that I generally was not friends with gentlemen who weighed less than I did. He first was complimentary and said, “Well, you can’t weigh much more than that”, to which I replied, “That statement indicates that an eye exam is in order.” Not to be outdone, Jerry said, “If I had known this was a deal breaker with you, I would’ve lost weight sooner.” Well played, Jerry, well played! Despite our witty repartee, I was very concerned, and I had reason to be.
His physical frailty could not diminish his funny way of looking at life, his indomitable spirit, or his irreverent sense of humor, and he continued his daily routine of seeking work and seeking shelter. We shared these ups and downs, and often times, I felt helpless, as we exhausted resource after resource. He wasn’t old enough to qualify for some housing options and had not been homeless long enough for others. He had no income, which eliminated him from many options, and certain parts of his past now clouded his future. It was frustrating, and it became clear why he sometimes said that he just wanted to give up. Finally, things began to look up for Jerry.
With the help of an amazing colleague from another homeless service provider, Jerry was given a medical bed at a local shelter, where he could rest at night and during the day. When he began receiving his disability payments, Jerry was able to rent a single room at another local shelter, and he was able to secure a place on a waiting list for permanent subsidized housing. Two weeks ago, Jerry came to see me and was upset that he had yet to replace his stolen cell phone and still was hoping to return to his part-time job, and he said that he felt ‘”a little better”. Life was beginning to look like a better option than death for Jerry.
So, it was a cruel blow when yesterday afternoon, I was informed by a wonderful colleague at the shelter where Jerry was renting his room that Jerry had been hospitalized over the weekend and that Hospice had been called in immediately. He did not have COPD or emphysema; he was in the final stages of lung cancer. As the words of Jerry’s fate registered in my brain, my professional demeanor gave way to tears, lots of tears. I managed to pull it together for the meeting, and as soon as it ended, I called the hospital to find out his room number and planned to see him the next morning. I got half way home, though, and I decided to turn around and stop by the hospital. I am glad I did.
When I arrived at his room in the intensive care unit, the curtain across the glass enclosure was drawn, and my heart sank. A nurse asked if he could help me, and I explained that I had come to see Jerry. The look on his face and his question of “Are you a family member?” made my sinking heart begin to break, but I held onto to a sliver of hope. I explained that I was not a family member, and the nurse then inquired if I were a friend, to which I said, “Yes; you could say that.” The next words out of his mouth shattered the remaining bit of hope and released another flood of tears, as he gently explained, “I am so sorry, but Jerry just passed away.” I was there, but he was gone.
The nurse told me that Jerry’s daughter, whom Jerry had told me so much about, was in the room with him, and even though I told the nurse that it was not necessary to disturb her, he went into the room to let her know that I was there. I was surprised when the nurse beckoned me to enter. I gingerly walked toward Jerry’s daughter, who stood near the foot of his bed weeping, and even though we were two strangers, we immediately embraced and wept together. Through my tears, I introduced myself, and I was so touched when she said, “I am so glad you are here, because I feel so alone right now.” I had not arrived in time to say ‘good bye’ to Jerry, but apparently, I had arrived at the right time indeed.
For the next hour, we shared plenty of laughs and tears, as we both shared our memories of Jerry. I was able to answer some of her questions about Jerry’s life on the streets and give her some comfort, and she was able to share with me some stories about Jerry’s life before homelessness became part of the equation. It was one of the most precious exchanges that I ever have been a part of, and I am so grateful for his daughter’s kindness. At one point, the hospital chaplain joined us, and we all three held hands and prayed together. I had to stifle an inappropriate giggle, as I kept thinking that God had no idea of what He was in for now that Jerry was “home”. Heaven won’t know what hit it!
As I looked at Jerry, I was shocked at how the cancer had ravaged his already frail body even more in just the past two weeks. It was heart wrenching. When the physician entered the room to officially declare Jerry dead, I kept waiting for Jerry to laugh and crack a joke, but of course, he didn’t. His body remained, but Jerry was gone. At one point, his daughter said, “Part of me wants to stay here with him forever, and part of me wants to run away.” I understood, and I stayed with her until her boyfriend returned to comfort her.
As we parted ways, there were more tears and hugs. Before I left, I gently put my hand on his foot and silently thanked him for allowing me to share part of his journey and apologized for not being able to do more to help him, and I told him that I knew he fought hard until the very end and that I was relieved that he was no longer in pain and at peace. I also reassured him that we were still friends and that I would never forget him.
Just as his daughter found it difficult to leave his room, I am finding it difficult to end this post. I am worried that I did not do Jerry justice and that I said too much or too little, and I fear that this is not coming out right at all, as the emotions are still rather raw, making it difficult to be objective. Jerry did not want people to cry or mourn him, but I hope that he will allow me a bit of time to grieve and to heal. Few people are worth shedding tears over, but trust me, he is, even if he does weigh less than I do.
That’s another story . . .
Categories: That's Another Story