The Hard Work of Living

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Recently when the weather was softening a little and the trees were almost in bloom, Dwight finished breakfast, left the table to smoke a cigarette on the porch and walked away from Joseph’s House.

For months he had been longing to get back to the part of town where he had lived most of his life. Much of Dwight’s adult life had centered around a busy traffic intersection. His memories and his friends were there. Dwight’s particular spot was near an auto body shop. In his healthier days he worked there. When drinking stopped him from working, Dwight still had a place where he knew people and was known. At night, if a car was left unlocked, that’s where he slept.

Dwight was near death from long untreated HIV disease when he came to Joseph’s House a year ago as a hospice patient. For eight months he had languished despondent, in the hospital. There, he had no visitors. He declined HIV medications. He had no appetite and wouldn’t eat. Turned to the wall, Dwight waited for death; he was wasting away. But when he came to Joseph’s House, Dwight’s world changed.

One day at a time in our clean and sober home; meal by homemade, soul-food meal, sleeping in clean sheets on a comfortable bed in a quiet room, being in the company of people who enjoyed his presence, Dwight found a reason to live. Our nurses gently persisted until he agreed to start HIV medications again. Little by little, Dwight’s health returned and with it, came the urge to drink. He knew he couldn’t drink at Joseph’s House. We felt his growing tension. Still, it hurt when Dwight left the way he did. He just walked away.

Sarah, one of the magnificent people who knits our community together relationship by relationship, wanted to see him. She asked Thomas and Rick, men who are living their last days at Joseph’s House, if they would go with her. They jumped at the chance and off the three of them drove, Rick’s portable oxygen tank on his lap, across town toward the neighborhood Dwight had talked about so many times. They turned a corner and there he was, standing in front of the repair shop with other several men. “Sarah!” Dwight called out joyfully when he caught sight of her slowing the car.

It was cold and windy that day and standing on the street with Dwight, Sarah noticed he was shivering in just a thin hoodie. “Dwight! Let’s go find you a warm coat!” she suggested. He accepted and they all got in the car and rode to a thrift store. There on the men’s coat rack was a warm winter jacket that seemed made for him. They bought it and dropped Dwight back at the corner, much warmer and even more warmly connected to his friends from Joseph’s House. When they got home Sarah, Thomas and Rick enjoyed telling the happy details of their reconnecting with Dwight, each one satisfied they had helped make something good happen for him, and also for each other.

I feel so grateful that Sarah, Thomas and Rick had the experience of making a difference for Dwight…together. With Thomas and Rick navigating, they found him easily. Sarah might not have felt comfortable standing on the street talking for a while had Thomas and Rick not been there too. And seeing them hunkered down in their warm jackets helped her become acutely aware that Dwight was freezing. If Sarah hadn’t been there, Thomas and Rick would not have had a way to help their friend get something he really needed – a warm coat – because Sarah had access to a car and she was the one with extra money in her pocket.

I am grateful also for the wisdom of these three friends from Joseph’s House to not put conditions on their kindness when they found Dwight. They didn’t say, “Dwight, come back to Joseph’s House with us!” They just said, “Hey, Dwight. It’s cold! Let’s get you a warm coat.” I anticipate that, one day, perhaps soon, Dwight will be referred to Joseph’s House again. If so, he will return knowing for certain that he is welcome, that he is loved just as he is. I hope so.

It sometimes feels to us that living is harder than dying, harder on all of us. So much can and does go wrong. People who should stay clean and sober, who should quit smoking, people we hope will stay well – don’t do it. All that we do doesn’t seem to make a big enough difference. Not the difference we want to see. When we let ourselves believe that our love is enough to heal a person’s lifetime of struggle, of suffering, of addiction, we’re not thinking clearly. But when we remember that no matter what happens – the many kindnesses we share today are more than were there before – we know our love really matters.

Such is our witness.

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