At different times of the month I have come to expect different actions from the folks downtown, such as two or three days before the end of the month when people get paid, the numbers attending the kitchen drops. They now have some money and will ‘eat out,’ or rent a motel room for a night or two.
For instance one fellow, I’ll call George, throughout the month would borrow $20 whenever he would see me. It started out that he borrowed once and then promptly at the end of the month would pay it back. The amount grew until some times the total at the end of the month would be about $140 to $180. But come the end of the month, he would always pay it back.
When we first met George we were not able to communicate with him at all. His schizophrenia was so severe that he could not speak a normal sentence other than to argue with himself; sometimes loudly while he was sitting having a coffee. With his dirty appearance, torn clothing, and his matted long hair, plus arguing with himself as he walked along the street, he was one to be avoided and ignored.
If while at the kitchen we would approach him for any reason, he would let out a few expletives, abandon his food on the table, hastily get up and leave; he could not respond in a normal manner. As time went on, we realized that contact would be restricted to a simple greeting using his name, an offer of food or drink and then leave him be.
Over a period of several years he came to accept us at the kitchen as non-threatening and so our relationship began to flourish. Our conversations grew beyond a mere greeting and the attention we paid him relaxed the gulf between us; it grew narrower and narrower.
Then when he found that he could borrow a little bit of cash to tide him over, we essentially became his withdrawal source. He was cognizant enough that he always knew exactly how much he owed, which then at the end of the month he would pay back. Plus, he did little things like pick up other people’s dirty dishes and garbage them, and then when he was outside he would pick up discarded items and throw those in the garbage as well. A very different friendship grew between us which we cherished.
At the end of November we realized that we had not seen him for a while. His landlord decided to go up to his room and see if he could find him. When he returned, he explained how he had found him lying on his bed. He had been cocooned in his room for a couple of weeks or more. We knew he had been unwell for a while, but not to the degree that he would stay in bed for that amount of time, so we called an ambulance and he was taken to the hospital.
We know at this point how serious he is even though there is a bit of improvement, but cancer will take its course, plus we know for a fact he can no longer remain alone. This is a condition that is the hard for us to accept. It seemed that with his mental capacity he would have just laid on his bed until he died; he had no one to care for him.
Even though he has not passed on yet, can you image how lonely it would have been to die like that?
Chris Salomons is kitchen co-ordinator for Potter’s Hands ministry in Red Deer.