Sunday, September 23 , 2018, 12:40 am | Fair 60º

 
 
 
 

Ken Williams: A Little Piece of Me Died Along with Art

When it's time to go, each of us deserves no less than death with dignity.

Coming back from vacation and rereading my journals, I ran across this article that I had written two years ago about a sad death of an old man:

“Art? What’s wrong?” I asked, hoping against hope to keep my voice from cracking.

Article Image
Ken Williams and his dog, Sampson. (Williams family photo)
“I don’t feel so well. I hurt,” the old man replied through crippled lips. I leaned closer to better understand. He had lost his false teeth somewhere along the line and his speech was slurred as a result. With mounting alarm I noticed that his cheeks were hollow, like life was being sucked out of him.

Art was in his bunk at the homeless shelter. I had gone upstairs with a nurse to check on him. He needed to be in a hospital, a nursing home or a hospice, not here, nor sleeping on the streets where we found him.

The night before he had returned to us from the hospital. Working that evening — watching him wheel himself into the shelter in his wheelchair — my heart broke. He looked worse than before his hospitalization. His skin color was all off — a deadly ashen gray, a hue that I had come to know well over the last two years. It is the color of death — of skin deprived of oxygenated blood — of hope slowly crushed by poor nutrition, cold and indifference. We had sent Art to the hospital five days earlier in a walker and by ambulance. He came back to us in a wheelchair, delivered by taxi.

Upon his entrance to the shelter, I sat down with him and went through his few belongings. He had seven bottles of meds but no overall instructions on when or how to take them, at least none that I could find.

In mounting frustration, a sigh escaped my own lips. I thought back to just last week. I found him on his hands and knees in the upstairs dorm. When I asked what he was doing, he replied, “Going to the bathroom.” He was dragging his faltering body along on all fours, hands and knees, while trying to hold up his beltless pants — his dignity dying along the way.

Rushing over, I helped him stand. Without his missing false teeth, his tongue protruded out between swollen lips. I remember thinking it was the same way Michael Jordan used to play basketball. But this was no multimillionaire athlete. This was an old man dying in pain, alone and in despair in a homeless shelter.

“Dumping” of the poor by jails, hospitals and others, to homeless shelters and the streets is, all of a sudden, newsworthy. But it has been a fact of life for most of my professional career. The so-called safety net was reduced years ago to a funnel that poured the neglected and poor into almshouses: homeless shelters. In these places, partially by design but mostly because good people answer the call of hurting times, a desperate attempt is made to connect to and help the new lepers of our age, to those who are shunned by some and despised by others.

This connection of soul to soul is often by the homeless themselves: Men and women who find the time — the need to reach out to offer help and hope to those without. Often it is the low-wage earning staff who go beyond their job descriptions to look out for those too sick to take care of themselves. And sometimes it is the outreach workers who have the privilege to care for their clients.

But sometimes, all too often, it is not a feeling of privilege but pain that paints my world black. Two weeks ago, that morning I helped Art back into his bed, with his moans slicing through the air lacerating my heart; he pulled the blanket up tightly to his chin with only his head sticking out. His eyes darted about in panic. His tongue was still sticking out. He reminded me of a child who thinks he can keep the night monsters at bay with a thin blanket. But Art’s monsters came with the morning sunlight exposing harsh realities.

Art looked away. I could feel his embarrassment — the crushing knowledge that he was dying, dying in front of all of us — death coming before an audience of strangers.

“Art, everything is going to be all right,” I said. “The ambulance will soon be here. They’ll be taking you to the hospital.”

“They don’t want me,” came the reply.

Of course, what he meant was: Nobody wants me. Nobody wants a poor, old, dying man.

Art went back to the hospital that morning. He was sent back to us — and again readmitted to the hospital. After engaging the heart and professionalism of a certain doctor (thanks, Dr. Bordofsky), and Sarah House, a sick old man was welcomed into a hospice where he died surrounded by love within days of his last stay at a homeless shelter.

This death cut deep. The images from his last two weeks on earth will stay with me for a long time. Who knows ... maybe it is myself, years down the road, that I see, crawling in pain just to get to a bathroom, one shared by 200 others. It’s not a pretty way to go. Art will be missed, the manner of his death branding many of us to the core: mocking all of us — contemptuous of our spiritual beliefs and trashing our self-respect. Where did it all go so wrong?
 
Two years later, so much has changed. But so little has, too.

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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