Sunday, February 19, 2012

Learning how to become intimate with Death

The first part of my week has revolved around this whole idea of what is life when I suddenly see death lurking in the alley way in lives of others. Two acquaintances of mine this past week have passed away unexpectedly in Port Huron and suddenly death seems like it's everywhere and real. I mean yes I have always known death is real, but I have been really blessed in my young years and have not experienced death intimately. I know the day is coming where that will suddenly change and I know what I am currently experiencing is only a taste of what is to come. So here I am sitting in Port Huron, Michigan developing a better understanding of the value of death and life.

I want to learn how to become intimate with death so that I can be intimate with life.   

On Monday Lauren had texted me saying Joe, a client at the soup kitchen, had passed away last Friday night. My world went instantly numb in that moment as I sat in my office around lunch time realizing I saw Joe the Friday of this death. He was one of my favorite clients at the soup kitchen. He was a middle aged man who was going back to school at the community college, and I even helped him edit one of his essays once. He lived in the homeless shelters for awhile, but recently had moved into a 'friends' backyard where he lived in a tent because he chose not to comply with the rules of the shelters. What I remember most about Joe was that he was always so sincere and kind hearted as long as he wasn't drinking. I didn't talk to him often because I'm not always around the soup kitchen, but when I was I always made a point to at least say hi and ask how he was doing and how classes were going. I can't say that we were ever close, but he was part of my life here in Port Huron.
After New Years Joe picked up the bottle again. I remember the first time I saw him drunk in early January clearly. I was at the soup kitchen and he had asked Jeremy and I to sit with him, so we agreed not immediately realizing he was drunk. Upon sitting Joe started asking all these deep questions about life and God and how 'effed up the world was, while simultaneously harassing me (which he had never done before). Jeremy, who has his Masters in divinity, was doing his best to provide some sort of pastoral care while simultaneously trying to figure out how to handle the inappropriateness of his comments directed at me. I just sat there and listened not really knowing what to say or do as I absorbed all the external information around me and ignored Joe's comments directed at me. Later Lauren, my housemate who works at the soup kitchen, told me that when Joe drinks she will not talk to him and makes that very clear to him. I filed that information away making a mental note to do the same if I were to encounter Joe drunk again.

The next time I saw Joe drunk was two Fridays ago on the night of his death. I had stopped by the soup kitchen to help out like I do most Friday afternoons. I was in the kitchen with the other volunteers and Joe came up to the return window super drunk calling Lauren, where she ignored his comments and again told him that she does not talk to him when he is drunk. The supervisor and her husband started talking to Joe at this point trying to diverge the conversation by asking him how he was doing. From there Joe became really belligerent and began ranting about the old "good boys" club and how if you don't follow the rules (no drinking) at the shelter they kick you out and who wants to be part of a group that doesn't know how to have fun. They then asked him about his classes at the college and which he said something along the lines of "Oh I dropped a class.. who wants to be part of something where the professor has all the authority to tell you how to be. I am who I am!" They responded with something like well, sometimes you have to do things you don't want to do so you can get out of the situation you are in. From there he became more belligerent yelling and ranting about the "good old boys club" and how he takes rules from no one and then he left.

After he left an experienced volunteer said something like "It's so sad to see when they give up like that and start drinking again. He had so much potential."  This statement puzzled me at the time because I was like.. "well yeah it is sad to see him drinking again and he's in a really low place regarding how I can feel the hurt ripple off him in painful waves, but he'll come out of it..  it might have to get a little worse for awhile, but he can make it." In hind sight, this was a naive idea. It was if the volunteer knew he was dead before he actually was and I had no idea. 

That was the last time both Lauren and I saw Joe.

My last memory of Joe is not how I like to remember him. Instead I choose to remember him as the student who stored his books in the soup kitchen office because he didn't have a place to store his books. He used to come up to Lauren and ask to get his books at night and return them later. He was always so gentle with his words and very kind. It's weird to think that he's just gone. Gone. They found him dead in his tent from alcohol poisoning. They are not sure if drugs were involved or not. He just gave up.... and that is really hard for me.

There was moment later that Monday when I was preparing bags of fruit for my students to take home after tutoring with a fellow volunteer who also knew Joe. The mundane routine was purposeful and as we filled bags for hungry students who are very much alive and we were able to talk about Joe. I just couldn't stop thinking about how meaningful life is.. the way the sun shone that afternoon, the students and parents who would be thanking me for the bags of fruit later, the teenagers I work with, my family and friends back home and in Minnesota. Life is too short and precious.. and I realized something I intuitively already knew, you know things you learn about in school, but I don't think I had ever really vocalized to myself in such an awakening way: I love living. Every single detail of that day, the cracks in the sidewalk, the food I ate, the laughter and  tears of the people I encountered, are beautiful in a profound and powerful way. I don't think I had ever fully realized that before. I have been taking life for granted.

On Saturday I had the opportunity to spend some time with the director of the soup kitchen as we went shopping to help get me ready for my occasions out east coming up the next few weeks. While we were in the car we got on the topic of Joe's death and she looked at me and said something like "Amanda, I have been a director at the soup kitchen for 19 years. I have had clients who are brighter, dumber, bigger pain in the asses, more loving, etc and they have also died from alcoholism or other choices they have made. It doesn't make it any easier who it is, it is difficult stuff. Some of the hardest things, especially in nonprofit work, is working with people who you so badly want to help, but the help that they need, needs to come from within them and you cannot give people that. It's heartbreaking and it's really hard. It really is, but you have to remember all the people we do help, who are able to seek help for themselves that does come from within. There's a lot of heartbreak in this work and there is also a lot of joy." 

And so I continue... to learn how to be intimate with death so that I can learn to be intimate in life. And what I'm finding is that isn't it funny, how it is seems like you need both to understand? 


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