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Ken Williams: An Unlikely Friendship Was All-Too Brief, But Made a Lasting Impact

In the end, we're all somebody's baby — and we all should be missed

I knew this woman a few years back; we’ll call her “Linda.” She was young — once — in her mid-30s, tall and attractive. Her blond hair would gently embrace her soft, angular face highlighting her pronounced cheekbones. In the beginning her eyes sparkled with merriment. It was a look that wouldn’t last long, becoming a casualty to external surroundings and internal nightmares.

We used to talk in the early morning during my office hours at a low-income hotel — the kind we used to have back in the days to house the poor and those down on their luck this side of the streets. The reasons for her living at such a place when her demeanor clearly spoke of a professional background and a high degree of education never became clear. But the sadness that all too soon began leaking from her eyes like escaping morning mist became hauntingly apparent. It was a sadness that she tried to drown with alcohol.

Linda frequently told me how lonely she was. How this bump in the road of her life was hard because it forced estrangement from family and friends. Ironically, but not really when one thinks about it, the one person she was able to make friends with in the hotel was a man totally different from her, someone whose life’s experiences were shattering different from hers. “Bruce” never had a professional career, nor in fact much of a working one. Mental illness hit him early and it hit him hard. Delusions and hallucinations were minimally kept within constraints by medications, but aloneness of an all-encompassing and crushing variety was the one symptom that was not amenable to modern alchemy.

I never saw Bruce talk to anyone at the hotel. Even with me a shy hello with eyes darting to another reality was the best that I was able to draw from him. But then the day came when I saw Linda and Bruce talking — really talking. As time went on, I was privileged to witness a genuine friendship develop. The cloudiness of mental illness in Bruce’s eyes retreated a little. It became a warm and genuine friendship. When she thought about it, it even surprised Linda, who had not had any previous contact with this world that Bruce was condemned to, with one foot in a low-income hotel and the other in the streets.

Linda often told me of finding solitude and peace on the bluffs above the ocean. It was a place where she could drop her guard and allow the hypnotic power of the rhythmic surf to soothe her troubled soul. But at times that aloneness led to a deep discouragement for it showed her where the road of life had led her.

I wish I could say I was surprised when I heard that Linda had hurled herself to her death from the bluffs. Of course, the rumors began right away. Some say she was drunk, slipped and fell. For those of us who knew her and the pain she dealt with, the dark rumors of suicide had certain credibility. Sadly, at times I can understand the seductive allure that nonexistence has when one feels divorced from our community — or any community — and intense pain overwhelms defenses.

At the time no one could tell if Bruce took Linda’s death hard. He simply retreated a little further into his chaotic mental state of mind. I was never sure what, if any, community he belonged to. The cruelest symptom of mental illness is that of separation — of existence apart with no one else to share life with. The highs are infrequent and the lows all-too encompassing. In this respect, Bruce was lucky for the friendship— however brief that Linda gave him. He was able to share, to make a connection with another person. I don’t think she ever realized the precious gift of friendship that she gave him. I can still see them as they talked quietly as friends do in the lobby or walking down the stairs together. For brief moments she gave him an escape, a reason to leave the realm of mental illness and to share life, including its joys and sorrows — thus living it to its fullest.

In the end, losing Linda was too much. The pain, the retreat back into aloneness was too much to bear. Shortly after her death, Bruce was found hanging in his room. The princess and the wounded warrior who were able to reach across barriers and vast distances left this earth together.

That was years ago, but every so often something reminds me of them: A trip to Cambria with my wife recently found us on a wind-swept beach. Looking at the churning waves topped with whitecaps, I found myself slipping back into that part of my mind that I regulate to people whose lives have touched and formed me. A picture frame of Linda, of Bruce, was suddenly brought to life. Then, days later, miraculously — mysteriously, my friend, Jeff, sent me a song that added life to my friends’ memory: “She’s Someone’s Baby,” by Jon Foreman.

Linda and Bruce were both somebody’s baby, my friends and in a profound way, my teachers. I miss you both.

Updates

This year has started out with Death in the starting blocks for a sprint through the homeless community. The first sign of trouble was the sight of the sheriff’s car. Sprinting upstairs I encountered the coroner wheeling the body past me. Death stood off to the side snickering. Then in rapid succession two more men fell to his cold embrace. These men were guilty of being in poor physical and/or mental condition, without a home — and the ultimate crime being in their early to mid-50s.

Three homeless women who are close to me have come down with pneumonia, all within one week. One is on oxygen and another is battling for her life. My friend, bonded by the war and our time in the Marine Corps, and who happens to be homeless, has been hospitalized twice with hypothermia and once with a painful foot condition. His ability to survive this winter, as well as the ability of two of the three women mentioned above, troubles me greatly.

— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets. He has just completed his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor.

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