Two Funerals: 2012.
With the flicker of lights and widened eyes, I learned of the tragic death of a childhood friend’s wife this week. Scrolling through many mindless electronic updates of photos of food, electronic ironic cards, political outrages aimed at the choir, and links to music videos I caught one that stopped my mind for a moment. The wife of one of my oldest friends, Mark, had fallen down the stairs and broken her neck. She had died. My first thought was of their two young boys and then of Mark himself, and how the suddenness of empty space can cripple us. How would he manage? Staring at the computer screen, contemplating phoning my brother, I did nothing except send an electronic message. My stomach hurt. Shifting on the brown leather couch, the football game seemed suddenly trite, grown men banging into one another while somewhere across town two little boys were trying to sleep without their mother to tuck them in.
On my way to work the next morning, I thought that I needed to phone Jenny. Her companion, Dale Chandler (not William, as I have previously named him in this blog) was in hospice care and I had promised her I would take her to see him, as she is confined to a wheel chair and has no transportation available. The cell phone shuddered. It was Jenny. She croaked, “Dale just died, about five minutes ago. The nursing home called, he just died. I’m so sad. He died.”
“Oh Jenny, I’m so sorry.”
Through tears she matter-of-factly explained the obvious, “Well, we knew it was going to happen. Shit, his eyes weren’t even straight anymore, he didn’t know what the fuck was going on. But it still fucking hurts. I’m not going to see my Dale anymore.”
“Listen, I’m late to work and I have two meetings, but I’ll leave early and see you.”
Sniffling, she said, “Really, you don’t have to do anything. Nothing can be done. He’s dead. They’ll call me from the nursing home. I’m not going to fuck up though. I got my paperwork together for my state hearing tomorrow to get my Medicaid turned back on. Thank God I did it last night.” In the travesty that is the American safety net, populated by regulations that are constructed by (mostly) men who have never seen poverty up close, Jenny had managed to lose her Medical insurance because she missed an appointment. She had missed the appointment because she was in the same nursing home that had initiated her Medicaid application and despite having had spent nearly three weeks in intensive care and then transferred to the nursing home, she was denied for the sole reason of making an appointment she was physically unable to attend.
Dale Chandler Jr. was in his late forties or early fifties. He grew up in West Virginia and walked with a gait that smacked of a life breathing intoxicants in and out, as if the trees themselves were pushing them through the veins in their leaves. Even when sober, he looked drunk. Dale was a light-skinned African American with glow-in-the-dark blue eyes that watered at the wisp of the wind. When he smiled his white teeth sparkled like the tips of a wave in sunshine.
Some people dip their toes into eternity while others dive into it as if it were a baptismal pool, shunting the cares of the world to swim with the ghosts of the past. With a life fraught with reckless behavior, Dale slowly lost the use of his mind, his organs, and later his extremities. Tall, with a thin frame that must have, at one point, many years ago, supported the adulation of cheering crowds on the athletic battlefields of his youth, he was gentle, to a point. When drinking, he could grow coarse, his mood like sandpaper rubbing against burnt skin, and woe to those who crossed his path.
Jenny had fled the confines of Weigel Hall, which she had called home for a few weeks in the summer and fall of 2005. The faculty of the Ohio State University did not take kindly to a former student living in one of the practice rooms of the building, though, and so she soon hit the street. First she found refugee with one of the daytime barflies of Bernie’s, but soon he became aware that this sad singing woman would not be leaving soon nor did she have the money to pay for the vast amounts of alcohol she needed to get through the day. He chucked her out as if she were a bucket of water. She weaved her way up north, sleeping in our back yard a few times and then running into an old friend who, like her, had found himself living through unfortunate times. They slept near the river, in a small tent, but soon she discovered that he had an insatiable taste for crack cocaine, which turned kindness into spastic paranoia, and she found safety with Dale.
Dale protected her like a lioness over her cubs, and soon they moved into a homeless camp just north of the Ohio State University. Being homeless is a difficult existence, harder if you are a woman, albeit a woman who is well educated, sassy and the wits of a coyote, but with severe alcoholism and, at times, debilitating mental illness. Dale had done time in prison during the 1990s. He explained to Jenny that it was for manslaughter for a man who had molested him, although on the streets it is sometimes better to take any criminal history and blow it through the special effects of imagination. Jenny had also connected with a man named Brian—a very tall, thin man with eyes that breathed like the devil’s breath and whose tongue danced the dance of cons perfected during long years of thieving and consumption. He was a dangerous man who was prone to jealously and had truthfully taken a man’s life. He had blackened and bruised Jenny in an eruption of envy and emotional desperation. He would lurk around the camp like stench on spoiled milk, and the seven or eight men and woman there felt terrorized by this man, who in down times looked like a subdued Snoop Dogg, albeit one who would make a better spokesman for the ravages of smoking cocaine than the fun times smoking five blunts a day. Dale eventually used a splintered, cracked two-by-four to pummel Brian and soon thereafter Brian’s frightening tactics disappeared.
When the homeless outreach workers of Columbus put their resources towards housing those in the camp, Jenny and Dale had already fallen in love. Their love was built around mutual safety, but Dale idolized Jenny. Unlike most of her previous paramours, Dale did not challenge Jenny in any creative capacity, and his worship at times prevented her from moving forward in her life. It was as if they were submerged in a quicksand that only went up to their waists, but as long as they would not smother in the iciness of the dredge then everything was okay. Both insisted on being housed together, and soon they were given a small, one-bedroom apartment, nearly eight miles from the campus area and one mile from the nearest bus stop. They had no food stamps, income, or phone. They would get up every morning and walk the three miles to the freeway, where they would fly signs. That is, they would stand by the off ramp holding a sign that stated that they were homeless and ask for money. While technically not homeless, they had no income and no way of garnering an income. Both, with severe alcohol and mental health issues, were unemployable. Their clothes were ruined by months of homelessness and they lived off the charity of church groups and the discarded wares of neighbors. Jenny had perfected the art of dumpster diving.
When they would fly a sign, they ran the risk of getting arrested or being issued a ticket that they would never be able to pay and soon a warrant would be issued for their arrest. On average they would collectively make about $25 a day for five hours of work. This money was spent on food and, more importantly, alcohol, which prevented them from going into alcohol withdrawal. Several times during this period, Jenny had severe seizures when she did not have access to alcohol and the neighbors were called. Dale would do the dirty work when they needed alcohol. Because of his own mental illness he would sometimes get lost for several days, usually when they would travel to the OSU campus so Jenny could watch the OSU Marching Band before football games. They would end up drinking all day and usually slept outdoors with friends they had once been homeless with. Dale would sometimes not make it home, either lost or arrested.
The first apartment was a sub-basement dwelling, with a large piece of plywood covering one of the windows where one of the local dope boys kicked it in, mistaking their apartment for the one in back of them. “Open up you chicken shit motherfucker! Gimme my fuckin’ money, bitch! We gonna pop you one, motherfucker! You can’t hide from us, we know you in there!” Dale hid in the closet. Jenny was getting forty-ouncers at the carry-out and the young men dispersed as she walked up, staring at the broken window while she crossed the street.
“What the fuck?” she said to herself.
“You gotta problem with somethin’ bitch?!” she heard behind her.
“Nope.” They never bothered them again, but Jenny said they beat the shit out of the guy who lived behind them, and soon there was an eviction notice on his door. And Jenny and Dale soon got an eviction notice for the broken window, I helped them pay for a new one so they would not be back on the street.
Sprawled across several frayed couches and a coffee table piled high with uncurled, spent cigarette butts was a collage of spent vodka, malt liquor, and carry-out wine bottles, shuffled together as if they were chess pieces ready to be played in a sick game of chess. In one corner of the room was a bent coat hanger tied to the curtain rod, a delicate balance that was one drunken slip to a splendid crash. A stray cat came and went with the same mannerisms as the “tramps” who frequented the apartment. With a heart almost as big as her liver, Jenny felt compelled to help anyone and everyone, even to the detriment of her health. The tramps, who she grew to know on the streets, would find their way to Jenny and Dale’s, crashing when the weather turned sour or the cops cracked down. Dale did his best to match wits with Jenny, although it was apparent that something was cognitively amiss with him. Although Jenny later found that he did indeed graduate college, there was little evidence in his slow, mannered speech. His search for words would end in a trail of mumbles and then, finally, a gasp of a smile.
After several years, they moved with the help of their housing case manager, a Nigerian with the compassion of Jimmy Carter, into a larger two bedroom apartment smack dead in the middle of urban violence that kept most neighbors entrenched in their apartments while gun shots and gangs roamed the streets with aplomb. “Fuck Bela, this place is better than the other one cause there’s a Dollar Store just a block away, but I swear to God, they are killing people over here. If it wasn’t for Dale, I’d be dead. I’m the only white person in the whole complex.” Jenny, who grew up in the midst of rural Ohio racism, in the worst underbelly of the American Midwest, where the sagging pride of a once-proud work ethic had ebbed into a fear of the unknown, was safe in the arms of the only man who would protect her, a tall African-American man with a debilitating mental illness and an addiction to alcohol that would take his mind and body to the sea of death.
Dale went into a nursing home this past year, a fading cloud of his former self, his essence obscured by a declining liver and a brain riddled with the holes of dementia. He would struggle to name the year and the name of the President while his body was just a vehicle, torn asunder by decades of poverty and suffering. Jenny called me one day and asked, “Hey, do you know anyone who needs Depends? They just dropped off Dale’s supply and they must have fucked up, because they brought so many they are literally stacked to the ceiling. They kept bringing them in. I was like, hold on, he can’t even shit this much for the rest of his life.” His life would not last much longer.
Dale went into a nursing home in the spring of 2012, unable to stand on his own and feed himself. After several hospitalizations it was determined that a nursing home would be best. I discussed possible placements with Jenny and Dale’s social worker at the hospital and recommended a very caring nursing home that they decided to send him to. A few months later, after her own issues with failing extremities, Jenny was also taken to the same nursing home after being in intensive care for two weeks. Their rooms were around the corner from one another. Jenny’s mood brightened. She made the staff adore her as well as the sad-sack residents, who she would wheel by and devastate with her quick wit. Off of alcohol for nearly three months her mind was quick, and although she never really regained use of her legs, she appeared more hopeful. Meanwhile, Dale sunk deeper into a swamp of death. Most days he was unable to feed himself, but when Jenny wheeled in he would flash a crooked smile and his cloudy eyes would flicker with a spark of recognition.
Dale passed away, silently and alone, in September, without even with Jenny by his side. She was unable to get to his bedside—yet another cumbersome aspect of abject poverty. I had phoned her the weekend before he passed, when he was in hospice. Jenny said, “I saw him yesterday. He didn’t know nothin’, he has no fuckin’ idea where he is. I don’t know if I can go back, it breaks my heart.” She spoke under the slurred words of pain, paralyzed by alcoholism. I offered to take her to see him the coming week, but she demurred. “We’ll see, I can’t take another death. What the fuck will I do?”
“Survive, Jenny. That’s what you’ll do. You’ll be fine.”
A deep breath, followed by an exhale, “I know that’s what ole Jenny does. At least I got a lot of Depends if I need them.”
There was no service for Dale. His family, from whom he had been estranged since he went to prison in the early 1990s, did not want to have a service, let alone drive from West Virginia to see his body interned in an indigent’s grave. Jenny had no money so there was no obituary. His death was only spoken of—a few whispered words from social workers to psychiatrists and, finally, to other caring professionals. He had no friends. And when he left the world as we know it, a sigh may have escaped his parched lips or a spike of fear may have been in those cloudy eyes, but in the end he was alone.
At the other end of town, a small gathering converged in huddled grief as a mother, wife, daughter, and friend lay before them, encased in a $9,000 box to be covered in dirt. For five days, relatives, co-workers, and friends cried and laughed, desperately trying to unfold time from something that was unbelievable into something believable. In the contours of pain, the loss of those we hold deep, the ones we tell our biggest fears and our tallest dreams, seem to fall away—a reminder that we all stop, that reality is unreal. I put on my dark shirt, slid a razor over the white whiskers growing under my chin, mussed my hair as I have done for the past twenty-five years and drove to see one of my oldest friends, Mark, in all the dark glory of grieving. His mother had changed as I had grown older. I hadn’t seen her in over thirty years, her body smaller as I stood taller. I hugged her as a full grown, middle-aged man and she recognized me immediately, the goofy unsure grin that I had as a fifth grader unchanged by fifteen thousand experiences. His father, who recently turned eighty, looked spry, with the body of someone years younger. Finally I hugged his two brothers. The older one, still fit after all these years, looked like a track coach, his body aging as a fine athlete’s is supposed to. His other brother gave me a hug and asked me to help look after his baby brother, now a widower with two young sons.
Some are supposed to die young, with the itching of immortality pinning us against the well of our breath fueling the gallop to the end of their lives. Some live each moment as if it were a child’s game. Tag and you’re dead. The world spills into another moment and the past plays a fruitless game of catch up while memories get trampled underfoot. Jerry died on a bike, a fact that my children ask about almost daily when we speed past the spot where his body, in the end, was no match for a hurtling mass of metal and glass just a block from our house. Others have also died young, where the wish to seduce death was done with an easy grace that only the flamboyant can pull off. Chris Wilson, Richie Violet, Jim Shepard, Dale Chandler, Ted from Torque, and others whose addictions kept the fear of abandonment away but in the end chewed them up like a paper in the gears of an engine. Bone, blood, and snot laying on the pavement, some die more gracefully than others. But in the end, thoughts of them keep ricocheting in my skull.