This is one of the stories of JUSTembrace. I think it needs to be told for us both.
Yesterday was just a normal day in my neighborhood. At one point there were several cop cars parked outside the SRO (Single Room Occupancy – think “dorm for addicts, mentally ill and chronically homeless folks”) across the street. A few cops came in and out of the building – seemingly more relaxed than their typical visits to break up fights or load injured neighbors in ambulances. It wasn’t until several hours later that I would find out what their business had been.
As I answered the door for a friend who had come for a cup of coffee, Steve hurried across the street.
I could tell he was nervous but trying to stay upbeat as he greeted me and then said “Well Sheryl, I’ve got bad news.” This guy never has bad news. Never.
“Well, ya know, that guy… that guy Terry who used to come over here sometimes. He’s dead.”
Ever since Terry started coming to our house for small group, Steve has never once used his name. He called him “the trouble maker”. In fact, Steve still refers to another small group member, Chris, as “the guy who kicks troublemakers out” because of an incident last summer when Chris took a detoxing Terry (recently released from the hospital) to the liquor store after he was throwing up in our bathroom, and then told him never to come back. (I corrected that message, and Terry has been a semi-regular small group attender)
I was touched that Steve used Terry’s name as he gave me the news of his death.
Death is not new to me. Since I was 8, I have been present during death 4 times.
Death is not new to me, but death in this neighborhood is. This is the first friend I’ve lost in Uptown. This is the first time my worst fear has come true. This is the first for all of us who have found a home and community with JUSTembrace.
This death is new and unusual and I’m not sure how to deal with it.
Terry’s death affects me deeply because I cared about him, because I walked him to rehab on July 22nd of last year because he wanted to get clean. Because he begged me not to leave him at rehab – not trusting they would let him stay since he didn’t have the right insurance – and I left him anyway. I’m affected by Terry’s death because after months of knowing Terry, he finally started to talk and sometimes even laugh. Because the last few times I’ve seen him, his face was swollen, black and blue and bloody from alcohol induced accidents. Because I met his brother and spent time talking with his sister about her pain in seeing him so lost in his addiction. Because Terry was so deeply absent, each flicker of personality etched deeply on my heart. Terry’s death affects me deeply because I saw him. I knew his shape in the dark of night as he walked the streets. I was aware of Terry – not because he was constantly drunk and rarely coherent – I was aware of Terry because I’d seen him. I feel the loss of Terry.
Terry’s death effects the other members of this community for different reasons. While they watched us love Terry and welcome him in our home time and time again (usually very drunk among other things), that didn’t translate to a group stance.
What I’m coming to understand more clearly through Terry’s death is that mortality is ever present in the minds and hearts of the poor.
It is not only hard to grieve the loss of a life in proximity to you, it is hard to value that life. When stability is fleeting if not constantly alluding, how could you stop and value the frailty of the lives around you? That sort of compassionate living would make you an easy target and prey to your own mental demons.
I think it is the role of JUSTembrace to live out that compassionate presence. In this situation, I do not only grieve because I have lost a friend – I grieve because the rest of the community needs to know they are worth grieving over. Their death will be felt by someone.
I grieve for the loss of the living.
JUSTembrace seeks to be a place where we can give the gift of compassionate presence – sitting with the innate value of a human life – no matter how wrecked by addiction or illness.
I’m going to try to start adding this line as I greet my neighbors this week:
“If I never saw you again, I would deeply miss you. I’m glad to be your neighbor.”
Your neighbor might not be homeless, sick with AIDS, mentally ill or an alcoholic – but I bet if you joined me this week in telling your neighbors and family members that you are glad to have them in your life – you would deeply impact their souls.
Try it with me. Join me in honoring the life of Terry.