Monday, July 23 , 2018, 3:18 am | Fair 68º


Ken Williams: Morgue Pictures

A final, sterile snapshot becomes the only record of a life lived in passing

Morgue pictures never do justice. But they do stay with you even with the passage of time. The phone call informed me that you were over 6 feet tall. I’ll take their word on that. On a morgue slab, everyone is equal. Tall and short — all look the same. It’s easy to see how skinny you had become in the last days of your life. If you weighed the 130 pounds that they claimed, it was with a generous scale. Minus your false teeth, your mouth had caved in. And the eyes ... your eyes were the eyes of the dead, filmed over with a milky substance where the sparkle of life used to shine, like bad cataracts.

Article Image
Ken Williams and his dog, Sampson. (Williams family photo)

The coroner is a good man. Nobody had to tell him how wrong it is for someone to die without a name. That somewhere, a brother or sister, a spouse, or most tragic of all, children will slowly begin to dread quiet holidays, even more when the silence shouts. That’s why he sent me the picture — hoping against hope that I would know you.

I looked harder at the glossy photo. I recognized you in a vague way. Mid-State Street popped into my mind. It is an area of town where the mentally ill live, hide, feed, exist. A segregated community where the street culture dictates that the mentally ill street dweller goes by street names if any: Red, Bushman and Wingnut Vet. A closed, fragile culture where outside of a social worker or cop, questions are not asked and answers not readily provided, and if they are as often fabricated as not: A place where the misrules of delusions and paranoia run rampant.

The picture jogged memory synapses. Closing my eyes, I see you, Louis, with your shoulders hunched over, robbing you of two inches from your 6-foot-4-inch frame. I remember how your long, gray hair was shot through with rivets of pure white, your chin covered with a perpetual growth of whispery whiskers. Your clothes were always dirty for, while you were able to spend some time indoors at the shelter, bathing was much more problematic.

Louis, your hands were always busy. They played insistent, maniacal and compulsive, with a deck of worn cards; getting any information from you was next to impossible. The cards did all your talking and they weren’t saying much most of the time. They simply marked the passage of time. They hid you from the loony, lonely reality that surrounded your existence. I know how your mind had constructed a fortress that allowed few details of your sixty-some odd years of life to leak out. You were always much better at evasiveness than I was at mining information.

I last saw you alive in a hospital bed. An ugly contusion that was on your forehead surprised you when I asked how you had gotten it. You didn’t have the faintest idea. The hospital told me they were making arrangements to discharge you back to the shelters. I didn’t see how.

The next day the call came; you had passed away in the night. I felt bad. Somewhere, someone would not know — only with time and the passage of unacknowledged holidays would the realization sink in ...

I once went to a symposium on end-of-life care. Good people with a good message: use the end-of-life passage as a healing process. Bring to a close antagonistic family issues, look into your soul and connect with your belief system. Welcome the transition to the hereafter. But still, somehow none of this related to my clients — to the streets.

A friend of mine put it into perspective. The homeless, in particular the mentally ill homeless, approach death as they lived their life; chaos all about, defining who they are and what they are. How do you have a good transition to death when your name, the key to your identity, is locked deep behind closed lips? How do you deal with family issues when you tell others that your children and spouse are dead when they are not? How do you access quality of care in the end when you lay dying in a homeless shelter, your body fluids washing the floor as your life leaks out along with your meager hope? When medical care is delivered episodically via an ER or a homeless nurse?

Another time I tried for placement for a woman dying at a shelter but was told I needed a doctor’s certificate to verify what I saw, what I knew. I have seen death more times than I can remember anymore. His presence has grown comfortable in a way, like a blister that refuses to heal. I see it in skin color turned bad, in eyes turning yellow then dull, in the sunken cheeks and extended livers and stomachs. I don’t need verification of the medical profession for Death waits for no man or woman; he has his own schedule, his own agenda. Vickie, you were on his to-do list.

My friend, John, asked, “Who cares for these people? Whose job is it to help the poorest of the poor, those in most need of housing, medical care, of love? To the modern day outcasts, the lepers of our time?”

In some cities, they have a pauper’s cemetery where those who have fallen off the grid of modern life end up; a place where those who escape, or are condemned to live the life of the forgotten homeless, finally find a home. It’s a foreboding place. Those who have lost the race are buried alone, young and old, black, white and brown — all united with the fact that they left this life in isolation. They left loved ones a mystery to never know their final outcome, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, children with holes in their hearts and an ache in their souls, never knowing. Chaos rules.

I will always remember you, Louis, with fond memories and the image of my friend in the morgue shot will stay with me. As for Vickie, I will always see you as a woman who died in a homeless shelter surrounded by isolation, by an aloneness that quietly engulfed you in your last moments on earth.

— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the last 30 years. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets.

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