“The One Who Could be My Brother. Or Me” is yet another essay that examines some of the causes of homelessness – among vets and civilians – and which was authored by this lawyer/researcher in late Spring 2017, inspired by men and women he interviewed in the course of his work with Primavera Foundation, Tucson Arizona.
The people, city, and NFP are fictional composites. But too many of the events in this essay actually happened – and happen – to flesh and blood men, women, and children author has encountered.
“The One Who Could be My Brother. Or Me.”
More often than not, those who make it here want a place to live. But others want a place to die. Which is it for this apprentice widower who now sits across from me? This man who lost his job at the Water Department and then bled out the mortgage money and ten years of family savings because there was nothing more important than reading poetry to, and holding close the trembling hands of, his high-school sweetheart as cancer made preparations to cut short their union after 39 years.
This man. An Army veteran who as sentry for his bride stood firm. Resolute and brave even as grief snarled at him the distance of a Joker’s card from his exhausted face. A predator hissing defeat and blame in his target’s ears. Daring him, taunting him, to give in, to show his fear and his anguish and his tears to the one who, since her father’s death junior year, the sentry had kept his promise that he would be strong for her. That he would protect the woman he loved against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
If I were the lawyer given a chance to appear before a three-judge panel tasked by God to decide such matters, I would argue that Mr. Cranmer had suffered enough. That now was the time for God to grant him peace.
I would have lost that case.
At 11 am yesterday, a social worker from St. Eustace Hospital called me. “They’re discharging Tom in four hours, and everyone I call says he’s too high maintenance. The last one told me you would help.”
It seems that after the funeral, Mr. Cranmer wouldn’t leave the house he built for his bride 25 years earlier. A home where two thousand friends waited and watched from their proper places atop Red Oak bookshelves that Tom crafted by hand. A home where Tom and his bride sat on a broad fireplace hearth and played chess and drank wine and laughed and held each other close. And all the while, photographs watched over them from the mantel.
Framed attempts to stop time. Their parents. A blue-eyed daughter and her husband, who now lived with the couple’s grandchildren in Seattle. And their youngest son. A newspaper photo of his best reception, captured senior year in the fourth quarter of a high school homecoming game. Earnest and fresh-faced. Tasked to maintain an FA/18 squadron at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort until killed in the accidental crash of a troop transport.
So medical bills for the woman who shared Tom’s soul, for her scheduled but unsuccessful procedures and treatments, lines of data known by dispassionate codes and too often rejected by a faceless insurance company, piled up at the end of the kitchen counter. And letters about those bills became more frequent and now lay in disarray on the kitchen floor. Time had stopped for Tom nearly four decades earlier. But in a country where pay-to-play rules too often dictate who gets care, time never stops for medical bills.
When the time came for the sheriff to enforce the foreclosure, Tom, disheveled, unshaven, his eyes dark and his clockwork haircut long overdue, pulled on a familiar navy blue jacket and walked out, leaving behind his shrine to the woman he had loved for his entire life. Behind him on the dining table were his car keys, his wallet and all his papers.
Every document that told others that he even existed.
Through each hour left in the thinning day, Tom traveled the deep woods of his memory. Peace and anguish alternated as fast as cards when one shuffles a deck of cards for a campfire game of poker. He walked chipped, unfamiliar sidewalks, garbage bags already deposited for the day. As a different kind of darkness shrouded the city, Tom didn’t even notice when he stepped into the middle of an unlit street. The driver with a good record, the one who struck Tom with her Red Jeep, told officers that she didn’t see him because of his dark jacket.
So for most of 14 days the undocumented man, the one who remembered little more than that people called him “Tom,” took his meals through an IV-tube. On the morning of the 14th day, a doctor Tom hadn’t met ordered that Tom be released that afternoon.
So he was. Surgery incisions were bandaged but still weak. A colostomy bag was his new companion. A defiant, disobedient memory. Limbs that after impact with 3,100 pounds of Jeep fought Tom every step he took. Not quite the model of health the caring caste wants to see in its homeless shelters. A man with only a first name. Devoid of the papers shelters require so that they can pass an audit eight months from now. So they can get their money. So they can help those sleeping rough.
The social worker who called me about Tom was tired. I’ve come to hear fatigue in her voice during our recent calls.
It just never seems to get any better for her. Or for those she tries to help. Last week she failed over the course of six hours to convince those of us who care that allowing a woman to sleep in her car across from the clinic where she gets her chemotherapy is a sin against God. Don’t we understand the cops can arrest and jail that patient before she can get her next treatment?
When the same social worker called me two days after that, she couldn’t hide from me that she’d been drinking. Drinking a double of the same cocktail she seems to drink every day now: equal portions of despair and rage with a splash of her client’s soul.
The competent, experienced, genuinely compassionate worker wanted me to tell her what in hell a first-time, teenaged mother was supposed to do to protect herself and her two-week old son from sepsis following a C-section, when that mother had traveled 300 miles to get to this agency, only to miss her appointment and be denied her reserved shelter apartment. Denied not because of anything the new mother had done but because of a technical glitch with this agency’s computer network.
Yes, Tom’s social worker is tired. And she has heard excuses from the caring caste so many times that she can repeat them by rote. So in a brief moment of sanity, she hurls her new phone at an ambivalent wall. The screen shatters. She then sent Tom to me.
And I can’t help him.