The Gospel of Robby
I didn’t watch my father die. That duty, as it was, fell to my mother and my sister, with assistance from my uncle. I was 1200 miles away, as was my brother. My sister, then, bore the brunt of witnessing the end of an important life whose ties are strong but not quite the same as a spouse.
I’ve watched my wife, though. I’ve been with her through uncomfortable pregnancies and painful labors. I’ve sat through endless doctor appointments and spent hours in hospital waiting rooms. I sat in one of those, nearly nine years ago now, and at one point I realized they were probably making their initial incision. Right in her forehead, opening up her cranium, exposing her brain, and that was a moment I’d like to not happen again.
But I’ve been spared what surely will eventually come to pass, or at least the odds are good. I will, at some point, be a witness to a journey that ends and begins in a moment, or a series of moments. I will watch someone I care about die, and I have no freaking idea what I’ll do.
This strikes me as immature, somehow. I should be prepared. Maybe I am, too, but I don’t feel that way.
None of this is imminent, but I’m in a process right now that bothers me, just in terms of this scenario. I have a friend who is very sick, and part of that sickness is cancer. Tomorrow he’ll have tests to determine the extent, assuming there is an extent.
But he’s weak, weaker than he has been, and he knows it. And now, for me, I have to step up my game. I have to learn to be more human.
At least he doesn’t have a roommate. In his room at the hospital, the front part was inhabited by a screamer, a man named Robby, someone my friend never glimpsed but I got to know quite well. He looked like a prophet, with long, white hair and a beard that continued for some while. His medication board clearly listed methadone, which seemed to keep him asleep a good part of the time. The bad part of the time was really bad. He made a lot of noise, some of it pleading for anyone to please kill him. They apparently were treating him for residual frostbite.
And he had no legs to speak of. Bilateral above-the-knee amputations.
Most of this information I conveyed to my friend, who couldn’t see this guy but could hear him, which prevented sleep and otherwise was distracting, and at some point my buddy asked a strange question. He noted that this guy had most likely been sleeping outside, which is how he developed frostbite and lost his legs. I don’t know that this is what happened, but it’s reasonable and this is all speculative, so let’s say. He slept under a bridge and injected himself with whatever, and at some point he froze.
“I’ll ask you, the homeless expert,” my buddy said, in kind of a sarcastic tone. This makes him unpleasant sometimes but you have to look past it. Anyway, he was referring to the year or so I worked for the homeless advocacy group. My friend is a compassionate man, a progressive, a huge heart. Trust me. He wouldn’t be my friend otherwise.
But he’s lived in big cities most of his life, and he’s developed a thin skin when it comes to the people who litter his sidewalks, who crowd his corners, who cover his ground with excrement and worse (there is worse). Needles, etc. He’s developed an attitude. I know all about this attitude. It’s something people who address our homeless crisis face every day.
Here was his question, then, about Robby in the bed next door: Was this his fault?
I was surprised, a little. Was it his fault? Well, assuming an active addiction, he almost certainly injected himself for the first time. He probably made a series of bad decisions that left him on the street, given the drug habit. He was too drugged or too tired or too stubborn to leave and find a warmer place, and his legs froze off.
I’m assuming some things. Doesn’t matter. Neither of us know this poor man or will ever know what happened to him.
It just threw me. All I could muster was sort of a murmur about how it hadn’t occurred to me to assign blame. I mean, really? Who looks at a seriously ill and injured person and starts calculating responsibility?
Well. I think that would be me. Maybe you.
Just because I got noble and didn’t feel like assigning blame to this man didn’t excuse anything. Past behavior, past thoughts. Reluctance to engage. Pointing every available finger, because that’s not me, and it never will be, and after all these years I completely understand the absurdity of that.
This is hardly my BFF, the one with all these diagnoses. I’ve just known him a long time. We share common interests, and I’ve learned a lot from him over the years. I’ve never known him to be disingenuous or to lie. Maybe he gets a little grouchy, and if he’s developed antipathy toward junkies who puke on the sidewalk, I think it’s wrong but understandable.
But Robby has a story, a mother, a childhood, an arc that bends toward misery and pain, and it’s worth noting, blame aside. And he will almost certainly die alone.
That’s what I’m doing here, then. I’m not grieving. I’m worried, sometimes a lot. My sleep is all over the place. I can’t get much else done, and I’m running around constantly, and it’s cost me money I can’t afford, and I’m doing it not because I think it’ll get me into heaven or because it pleases God or because it’s Lent or any other ethical, moral, or philosophical justification or rationale.
I’m doing it because he’s a friend, and because nobody should die alone, and because I don’t want to.