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Friday, February 22 , 2019, 3:42 am | Fair 46º


Ken Williams: A Lonely Death, a Father’s Prayer

The cruel realities of mental illness bind the stories of the departed Redbeard and of a runaway daughter still on the streets

How does one die alone in modern society, in our bustling city? How does one pass on to the other side with no one noticing he’s no longer around? Did he have no loved ones or friends who missed him when he failed to show up for the small graces of life that we all take for granted? Were all of his meals eaten alone, to not even partake in the ancient ritual of breaking bread with others? Did he receive no mail or correspondence that connected him with family elsewhere?

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

Redbeard’s cold and lifeless body was hidden by uncounted time, much like his existence — the person he was, concealed behind his mental illness. Did he die with the sounds of manic rush-hour traffic in his ears acting like soothing hypnotic music? Or perhaps it was the quieter sounds of lonely cars at night, smothered by all that darkness.

Did Redbeard become suddenly ill, or had he simply grown weary and decided to lay his head down for some rest behind the bushes on Highway 101, never to open his eyes again? Or, sadly, did he know he was dying?

What was Redbeard’s real name? Was a mother and father left wondering what had happened to their mentally ill son? Was a wife left to fathom the cruel twists and turns of life without her partner, her soulmate? Or did he leave behind a child, alone and adrift without a father to fathom the cruel realities of mental illness, or to speculate how it drove his dad away from his loved ones? Maybe in the end, Redbeard’s life simply became too much — too much pain and too much loneliness. Then — and only then — did the darkness beckon.

Redbeard was like many of the mentally ill homeless people I have known. Their backgrounds are lost to a torrent of delusional hallucinations so profound and so deep that they altered their reality, thus changing their personal history.

The present — one filled with pain, loneliness and fright — is all that exists for them. It is a present without four walls or structures of any kind, a cruel world without cause and effect. Instead, it’s a world ruled too often by demons of the mind and capriciousness. It’s one without logic, for how else can one explain that a mentally ill wounded person living in the richest city in the richest country in history should die alone and penniless alongside a freeway just miles away from multimillion-dollar mansions? His existence was a living hell where most if not all others are perceived as a threat, as vengeful gods hurtling insults, insinuations and accusations.

Mental illness is so terrifying because you feel so alone. It is a disease that mandates all too often that you suffer by yourself without anyone to share the burden of that particular pain. You wake up alone, eat alone, live your existence alone and frequently die alone, as did Redbeard. There’s no one to tell you that the terror of the nightmares isn’t real; just the opposite: They are everything.

Redbeard passed quietly, missed by some in the community who no longer saw the presumed veteran walking our streets stoutly with his head held high. He was the 21st homeless person out of 23 to die in Santa Barbara this year, a year that becomes increasingly bitter as the time and body count mounts.

Thinking of Redbeard’s life journey, I wondered about his trajectory from his teen years into the descent of mental illness. At work I keep half a picture of a young woman at her 18th birthday — it’s only half because her father had torn it so the rest of the family wasn’t included. He had come to Santa Barbara years ago following his runaway daughter’s tracks. She had dropped the family a postcard from our community after her escape from Silicon Valley. I remember him as a wealthy, well-dressed, important man who had ditched the tie when he visited to ask for my help.

His story was a familiar one to me — way to familiar — but it didn’t dampen the pain that flowed from this man’s broken heart. Sitting across from me, I couldn’t help but think he was my mirror opposite, except in one dimension: He, like me, was a father, and our shared love of our children exposed us to a hellacious pain all its own, as any parent can attest to. He explained that his daughter had suffered her first psychotic break soon after the picture was taken. I remember looking closer at the picture in my hand and seeing the gathering darkness in the young woman’s eyes. Already the terror of mental illness was there.

Giving me his business card, he asked me to call him if contact was made. He lost the battle for his cool, business persona and let his father’s pain plead for my help. Of course, I told him I would try. I withheld the knowledge of just how daunting it would be to find a mentally ill girl in the open-air asylum that our city streets had become.

I slip the picture back into my drawer and pray that the man finally found his daughter — alive — and that she received help and was able to beat the disease and put the streets behind her.

Redbeard’s parents would never have that prayer fulfilled.

— 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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