By Susan Adcock, West Side Outreach
Larry had a hard time staying at the hospital. I got to where I’d take his boots with me so he couldn’t leave. Toward the end it worked but he was pretty sick by then and didn’t fight as hard. Some of us professionals were offended at this behavior — this refusal of free health care, and labeled him an idiot for leaving against medical advice. Others of us knew that he was losing the war with alcohol and a lifetime of trauma. He started going to jail when he was just seventeen. The hospital felt like jail.
A month ago, after six months of weekly or bi-weekly visits to the hospital for congestive heart failure, Larry coded in his hospital room. Later, the doctor told me that no one on the team believed he’d make it to morning but somehow he’d miraculously survived. The doctor called me himself after digging through Larry’s wallet for evidence that someone actually cared about him.
“The next time, it’ll be different,” he said. “He won’t survive it. He needs someone to give him ‘the mom talk’. Is that something you could do?”
“Oh definitely,” I said.
The next morning I walked into Larry’s room and without saying hello I said: “Do you want to be buried or cremated?”
Without hesitation he said “Cremated.”
“What do you want done with your ashes?” I shot back.
There was a long pause then while he thought about it and finally he said:
“If you leave it up to me you’re going to end up at a beach” I said.
“Sounds good to me,” he said grinning.
I went on to do the “mom talk” wherein I explained all of the things Larry already knew about alcoholism and dying of congestive heart failure; including brain damage and the chances of lying around in a diaper for two years after a massive stroke. Sadly, all things I’ve seen happen. He then repeats what I already know, which is that the only thing that will extend his life, even for a few months is a place to live; an apartment with a lock on the door and a bathroom with a shower in it. When he’s finished I apologize (not the first time) to him for not being able to find him a house sooner because we both know he is going to die any minute, with the next pint or the next cigarette, or the next time he goes without food for two days. It’s just a matter of time.
A week later he was back in. The doctor called me again, again his heart had stopped, and asked if I could come to the hospital and help him make decisions for Larry. I was there in twenty minutes. It wasn’t looking good and I knew that because they let me stay in the room and hold Larry’s hand while a team of five people saved his life again. This took about nine and a half hours across a shift change. By the time he was stable, he had a respirator, a heated blanket and twelve different drugs going into his veins.
Twenty hours later the doctor called again to say it wasn’t working. It was pretty clear he’d suffered some neurological damage and wouldn’t be able to survive off the respirator. A few minutes later I walked into his room for the last time. I laid my phone at his ear and we listened to the Eagles and Bob Dylan for close to an hour and a half as the monitor above his head wound down from critical to nothing. Two nurses came in with stethoscopes. They listened and looked at their watches and each other, until the very last beat of his heart and a beautiful, complicated, hilarious misunderstood human spirit flew away into the ether.
This is the cost of homelessness. Not only a human life but hundreds of thousands of dollars as well. People so thoroughly traumatized they can no longer function – self-medicate, fall into a shame spiral and never get out because they’re denied housing, one of the most basic survival tools in the kit. It’s suicide and murder, all rolled into one and my job, it would seem, is to make it stop. It’s like being in a fist fight every day. Some days it works and other days I just have to hold a someone’s hand and be a witness.
Epilogue: There will be a short memorial service for Larry on Friday June 28, at 10 a.m. at “the rock” in Centennial Park. “The Rock” is a marker for the Trail of Tears located at the front of the park, just across from McDonald’s. I presented written evidence that Larry wanted to be cremated to the city of Nashville’s indigent burial program, but I’m not a blood relative and it wasn’t a legal document. They consulted their attorneys and refused. So in the true spirit of Larry and his well of stubborn resistance, I’ve raised the money and will see that he gets to the beach next week.