The Feedback

(Note: This is the second part of a story that begins HERE.)

“What I want for Mr. Burns’ future is what I assume you all want for yours” I said, looking around at the blank faces in the room. “So let’s think about that, shall we? I want him to have a nice, warm, clean place to live, where he feels comfortable and doesn’t have to worry about bedbugs or sitting around in his own urine day after day. I want him to live in a place with caregivers who really do care about and understand him; people who enjoy propping him up and maintaining his dignity. I want him to have nutritious food that might actually prolong his life, not promote his death. I want him to have friends and activities that stimulate and reward his creative side. I want him to have a hot cup of coffee every morning and a sunny window to sit in when he reads because here’s a man who’s spent his entire adult life at the mercy of people with too much to do and not enough time or resources to do it. He deserves the same happiness as you or I do and that’s what I want for his future.”

They all sat there for a long minute staring at their paperwork. No “Happiness” box to tick off, no “Needs a foster family” option. Finally, the social worker said: “We really appreciate your feedback Miss Adcock. He’ll be discharged on Saturday. Feel free to call us if there’s anything else we can do.”

I fought the urge to ask what they’d done so far and let the words sink in, hoping I could remember them exactly. Then I left the rehabilitation center and drove to WalMart where: with what would have been Walt’s next rent payment I bought him all new clothes including socks and underwear, a coat, a new pillow, a mattress cover, a reading lamp, a thermal coffee cup, some reading glasses, an electric razor, a television (because mine is in the bedroom) and an old-school antenna. That afternoon when I got home I disassembled my living room and had a big, screaming fist fight with God, who by all accounts, had just given Walter exactly what I’d asked for.

also see Slick City

Batter Up

walterbur-1
The last time I moved a homeless man into my own house I didn’t write about it at all. Couldn’t. I was paralyzed by my own actions. It was like an out of body experience that began one freezing morning in February when I started picking up my house on auto-pilot. I didn’t really think about it and that’s odd because I’m a person who over thinks everything. I just got up that morning and knew. I was about to have an extremely high maintenance roommate for an undetermined amount of time. It was out of my hands. And it was extreme.

It was like that this time too, especially the out of body, auto pilot part, except this person is very different. There’s no alcohol involved, no crushing sense of regret, no self-loathing or impending doom. That may be a little on the optimistic side. The doom this time around is more potential. This time the Grim Reaper’s just loitering. He isn’t chasing the man down. No. I fear Walter’s death will catch us by surprise. A tumble down two steps into a concrete post, something like that or the sink and tile combo platter in a sad, tan public restroom. Add a drop of water, a caregiver who’s looked away for a single second, a little blood spatter and there you’ll have it: the end of a fascinating and miraculous life.

Some of you already know this most recent chapter in Walter’s life began in December of 2014, when he was evicted from a group home he’d been guided to by his social worker eight years earlier. I could rail on about this incident for days but let’s say that after a month of phone calls I managed to find a room for him at a different group home, just in time for his New Year’s eviction. This solution turned out to be a mistake and a huge strain on everyone involved as they were unaccustomed to the sometimes erratic mannerisms of someone with a traumatic brain injury. A few months in, I took Walter to the doctor and he was put on some statin drug for his high cholesterol. Two weeks later, he was falling down. Hard. He had a series of falls in fact, that led him to the hospital emergency room twice, once with a suspected seizure and several stitches and then a third time when he was finally admitted, having fallen out of a chair at the house. There at the hospital, he was completely confused for the first thirty-six hours, then he sat up in bed and said he’d love to have a cup of coffee. This left me and an entire shift of nurses speechless. Nine days later, he went to a physical rehabilitation center for three weeks. I asked a number of social workers to help me find him a new home during all of this. You would have thought I tossed them a hot steaming cup of Ebola virus. One gentleman offered up an application for TennCare’s CHOICES program, Tennessee’s version of Medicaid. He asked God to make it happen “for Susan and Walter and all of mankind.” He prayed, I filled in the blanks and as with all good acts of God and government, it took a hundred days. During the hundred days, is when the worst of the falling began. One week, Walt was asked to leave Fifty Forward’s Adult day program because suddenly he was “a fall risk.” He’d gone there for years and loved it and loved the people and they him. He didn’t really understand what had happened and kept trying to go out each morning to wait for the bus. When it never came he got depressed and I was very nervous by this time. The group home’s answer to him falling down was to make him lie down in bed. All day, every day. It made the hospital, when he finally got there the last time, feel like a relief. Sort of.

We love to read stories about survivors. Walter’s story is that many times over. Too often that final paragraph, in some artfully crafted, uplifting incarnation is the last we hear of it. Our experience of the story ends there. It’s a convenient stopping point and we turn the metaphorical page, feeling good about ourselves and the outcome. This story is the post script to that. It’s what happens after the paper’s put to bed; after the show closes. Reading it you may feel really good one minute and sick at your stomach the next. I won’t apologize for that. There are too many people out there living it every day. Eventually, they’d call me on it.

Walter’s rent came due just as he was going to rehab and although we paid it, the group home moved his things into a shed behind the house. They believed as I did, that we’d find a place for him to live any minute now; that his Medicaid would “kick in” and some miracle would take place, that someone would step up to the plate for this man. Then his insurance company “released” him from the rehabilitation center with two days notice.

That is when a bunch of professional problem solvers turned to me in a conference room and asked, for maybe the fourth time in three months:

“Miss Adcock, what is it you want for Mr. Burns’ future?”

Miss Katie

There’s an old photograph that resurfaces in my files from time to time. Several people have seen it and I’ve used it to test blog posts in the past and taken it down again but I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone who it is or how I came to have it.

Part 1

Miss Katie was sweeping off a bounce ride at the fair the first time we ever spoke. A bounce ride, for those who may be unclear on it, is one of those giant inflatable rides that kids jump up and down on in place of the couch. Miss Katie’s was a twenty-seven foot tall giraffe. She was a rail of a woman herself, I was never sure how old, with a gentle spirit and a wise disposition. I used to think that in her younger days before the poverty set in, she might’ve looked like a super model. We got to be friends for the short time that the carnival was in town. She wasn’t born on the carnival or anything, she was in her words, “just looking to make a little spending money”, thought she’d “try it out”. She came back the following season too though it seemed like the wind had gone out of her sails that year. She was over it by then. “Gettin’ off the road once I bonus out this time,” she said. Carnies always say this – it’s like some kind of mantra therapy, so I didn’t give it a lot of thought but sure enough, the third year Miss Katie was absent from the fair.

Part2

I went to Tampa the following April and stayed for about a week in a bunkhouse at the livin’ lot where the carnies worked and lived in the winter. There were two trailer parks, the carnival lot, Tom’s Market and some houses and commercial businesses scattered around between them all. It was one of those neighborhoods where you walk through a couple of times and two hours later, everyone knows you’re there. One day around lunchtime, I was standing at the counter in Tom’s Market having a cup of coffee when two women came into the store. The younger of the two was wearing a baseball cap and pushing a frail woman in a wheelchair. They made their way to the beer cooler and when they came back, each had a forty-ounce beer. That’s when my dear friend and sometime assistant Bozo, leaned over and quietly asked:

“Sue – you do want to talk to Miss Katie don’t you?”

I hadn’t heard her name for going on two years so I was immediately excited and transfixed.

“Definitely”, I said to him, “does she live around here?”

“That’s her at the register,” he said.

“Where?” I asked him, looking right at the two women.

“In the wheelchair” he said, stubbing out a cigarette in a black plastic ashtray. “She got cancer; hardly ever comes out anymore.”

I studied her for a few hard seconds. “Miss Katie?” I said, trying to filter out the shock. Both of the women turned to look at me and picking up one side of the camera strap around my neck (the clue), I said, “Do you remember me?”

Her eyes widened and pushing the tube taught against her throat, she said: “Of course I do, how in the world are you?”

The two of them invited me to walk with them, back across the highway to where Miss Katie was living at the time with some people from the neighborhood. There was a man named Coon on that road with remnants of a house on his property. Next to it, and a little further back in the driveway was an aging fifth wheel camper. It blended beautifully into the landscape like all campers do if they’re left alone long enough. Miss Katie was staying in the fifth wheel. It was my understanding that Coon had been letting a crew of homeless friends stay in the fifth wheel and when Miss Katie became gravely ill, they insisted she take it for herself. Over the next few months they transformed themselves into the industrial ghetto version of a team of hospice care workers. They took turns bringing her meals and making sure she had taken her medicine. One person would stay with her if she needed them and the others would sleep outside on couches or in sleeping bags. I sat and talked to them for a long time that day. They asked me if I would take a big group picture of all of them together, said they thought it might be the last one.

Miss Katie surrounded by friends, shortly before her death

Back home, I hurried to get the pictures processed and printed. It took about eight days to get them all together. I packed them into the envelope and mailed them off to Tampa. A few days later, Coon called me up on the telephone. He wanted to let me know that Miss Katie had died early one morning as expected. He added that she wasn’t in any pain and that it was her time. He said later that day, after they had taken her body and the numbness was beginning to wear off, that all of her friends were sitting around his yard feeling “terrible sad” and out of nowhere the mailman pulled up and handed them an envelope of pictures.

“Oh God,” I interrupted him, “I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry girl,” he said. “You turned a really shitty day into something good. It was like a sign. We laughed and carried on about them pictures until dark. It was the best thing that coulda’ happened and seriously, we can’t thank you enough.”

(Addendum: It is my uncomfortable belief that all of these people have died by now, save maybe one. Each had their own medical issues along with some major league addiction and no help or medical care whatsoever. They were beyond repair. I want to live in a country that doesn’t sweep those people into a corner and walk away.)

The Wealth Report linked to a recent article (link below) at The Economist. They report research that suggests those who have the least, give the most. No surprise there, the nagging question is Why? There may be a few leads in the comments.

Are the Poor More Charitable Than the Rich?
The rich are different from you and me