I felt myself holding my breath as I sat in the meeting. We had just skimmed over the last hurdle and now this one loomed before us. The weight of this intake interview sat heavy on my chest. This was where they decided if Bert was a good fit for this assisted living residence. This was the last stop. If everything worked out in this interview, “Bert my homeless friend” would soon just be “Bert my friend”. Blessedly the appointment went perfectly. Any fears I had were quickly abated. Bert was on his very best behaviour; full of stories and good natured ribbing. T-2 days until Bert had a “home”.
We had planned to meet up just before 2pm on moving day. That day you couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. The grass was a little greener, the sky a little bluer and the sun was shining brightly. It was as though the whole world knew it was a special day and was conspiring to make it all the more beautiful.
I pulled up into the parking lot and he was not there. Immediately I knew something was wrong. I am notoriously ten minutes late for everything; Bert notoriously ten minutes early.
I felt that familiar catch in my throat.
Eventually he appeared. I didn’t think it was possible, but his appearance left me feeling even worse. This was not the Bert that showed up to the intake interview and I felt like I was back on a rollercoaster I had jumped off of two days prior.
I was caught between wanting to hug him and tell him it would be ok and not let go until he believed me, and wanting to pound my fists on his broad chest and scream at him until I could scream no longer. I landed somewhere in the middle and I gave him a huge hug and told him this was going to be great. That he was great. That he didn’t have to do it alone, but he needed to pull himself together immediately. To be a survivor. To survive.
We got his stuff in his room and I could tell the four walls that were suppose to represent “home” all of a sudden were closing in around him; suffocating him. I promised to come back that evening with the children. I figured it was the only thing that would hold him there, in that foreign room that was now his own.
As I hurried off to get my children, I looked over my shoulder and I saw him wipe away one small tear that had escaped his eye. He looked at me with pleading eyes and simply said “I’m scared”. It hurt to know that I couldn’t stop the pain for him. I couldn’t even begin to understand how something so wonderful could yield such grief. But I knew that Bert was going to have to process this all in his own way and in his own time and I had to be a support of a different kind now. This wasn’t like driving him to appointments or buying him lunch, this was something I couldn’t fix.
That night my husband asked me a few questions that I have pondered many times since. Jeff asked me, “What does success look like to you? What do you think the chances of success are for Bert?”
After some deliberation, I concluded that I would consider him living in that place six months a success and I gave that less than a 50-50 chance. Not great odds given the way he showed up and the state I had left him in.
Then he asked me if I would do it all over again if there was no success?
This was a man who knew every detail of what I had gone through. He rode the rollercoaster beside me.
“Absolutely. I believe everyone should have the right to shelter and more importantly the right to choose. Currently, he has no choice.”
As the words spilled out of my mouth I pondered their authenticity. Did I really feel that way? It sounded like the right thing to say but would I truly feel that way if Bert didn’t succeed according to my definition? I hoped so. It’s uncomfortable to come up against your own humanity in a way that is both unexpected and unnerving. It’s disorienting to explore the dark corners of your own thoughts where shadows you don’t like are lurking; pulling against everything you hope you actually are. I didn’t want to believe that what I had done for him…was really about me.
As promised we took the children to see Bert’s new place and they were thrilled to see him, but not as thrilled as he was to see them. They bounced on his bed and tried out the new washroom of course, and marvelled at having a place to visit him that wasn’t a fast food restaurant, a hospital or beside a dumpster. They brought the infectious childhood life and energy to the room that I can only imagine a few moments before had felt sterile and equally as hostile. But it gave him hope, I could tell. The children immediately noticed that a picture they had drawn for him ages ago, had carefully been unfolded and placed in a spot of honour on his dresser. How many months had that been in his breast pocket of his heavy work coat? It had clearly been folded and unfolded many times, the creases well worn, and lovingly smoothed down. They decided that Bert’s walls were far too empty.
We hugged him goodbye and promised to be back the next day for the celebration dinner we had planned. I don’t think he felt much like celebrating but the children did, so he agreed. There wasn’t much he wouldn’t do for these surrogate grandchildren.
As I lay in bed that night I decided to address these feelings that had crept in; the ones I didn’t want to live inside me. It was then and there that I resolved that if he didn’t make it through the night that was his choice and his right. There is power in having the choice. And I would do it all again to give him that dignity – even if it left me shattered. Sometimes you have to lead your heart, not follow it. I made a choice.
To be continued…
*written with permission.