I had not seen him this week, and found as many excuses as I could to drive by ‘his place’. I had seen him just the week before, almost every day, and taken for granted that when I stopped by again, he would be there. Thursday morning, I couldn’t stand it any longer, and inquired of my friend at the city police department. I was hoping he hadn’t been arrested, but felt better after my query of the detention center had not yielded results. The email I got in return was entirely unexpected. “I believe he passed away earlier this week.” Of all the scenarios I could imagine, the possibility of his death never crossed my mind. I emailed my friend again and asked for details, and she could give me very few. It happened last Sunday, and they thought it was cardiac arrest.
As many times as I had seen him, I believed he would have felt intruded upon if I had spoken before I did. Finally, one day in late spring/early summer I stopped and sat with him for the first time. His name was Tom B, and he was a Vietnam veteran as ornery as Yosemite Sam- a keen observer of people and society, and was quick to call out inequalities he had witnessed. Those experiences had apparently taken a toll on him over the years, and shaped him into the fellow I chatted with now.
We spent hours over the months sitting and talking. Many of our times were sitting and not talking, just watching traffic bustling while we sat still and quiet, being present both in and out of the mainstream din. Tom did not want things. He did not want people. I was never able to discover how to help him, and for that I am tremendously sad. I always enjoyed our fellowship but would like to have known the reason for his choice of loneliness and homelessness. No one really knows how long Tom lived at the bus stop, a place he chose for its safety and serenity. The stop was directly in front of a church graveyard, and home to many well-fed sparrows and squirrels. He had family in town, but didn’t have much contact with them, he shared. Tom declared in a couple of years, when he began receiving Social Security, he was going to move out west- to Washington State. I shared my memories of living in that area, which seemed to confirm to him he had a good idea.
I routinely asked Tom if he needed anything. “New boots” was one of the answers, except the next time I came by, I noticed old boots in the garbage, and new boots on his feet. He had found them at the Army Navy Store, and was quite proud of them. When I asked him if there was anything else I could do for him, he answered, “yeah…bring Jimmy back”. Jimmy had been a comrade in Vietnam, and had not returned. Tom didn’t say he was still sad about it, but the look he gave me revealed all I needed to know. Over forty years of pain had perhaps contributed to today’s hopelessness.
Our last meeting ended with Tom reporting he could use a shower and might also like to wash clothes. I could hardly contain my excitement- this was monumental! Tom trusted me enough to accept help. He patted his matted long hair and said he had considered getting a haircut, but colder weather was coming, so he would probably wait. I said I could help with the shower and clothes washing, and was working on getting him into our office at a time where he could feel safe taking care of those things.
Tom died before I got a chance to tell him I had made the arrangements for him. Learning of his death instantly created a reel of things we had yet to accomplish. I knew we had miles to go, but I thought we had time to get there.
Each time I left, Tom stood up to shake my hand. This slight, disheveled man, who could be so angry and disgruntled extended to me such kindness and courtesy. I told him I always looked forward to seeing him because our meetings provided a calm in the midst of my routine workday, and I meant it. The last time I left, he stood up, and we shook hands. He took off his sunglasses and looked at me with kind but tired and pained blue eyes. Our handshake lasted longer than usual, and for some reason I felt like hugging him, but I didn’t. I wish I had.