I went to the adult congregate living facility to see my old friend Charles last week. It had been too long since I’d been to see him but trips out of the country and sea changes in life had kept me too occupied to be properly attentive to this dear man in his nursing home.
I had a strange sense of apprehension as I walked up the well-manicured driveway to the facility. Definitely one of the nicer versions of G-d’s waiting room, it is a relief not to be greeted by the smell of ammonia which reveals a facility to be a 60 patient bed pan. I asked which room Charles was now in. The receptionist gave me the name of another patient. I repeated his name: Howard Charles Miller.
After a moment of searching, she said to me he had been discharged June 22. A wave of despair swept over me. “To where?” I asked, knowing even as the words left my lips that she couldn’t tell me. I wasn’t a blood relative nor did I have legal guardianship. Charles was just my friend. His right to privacy now had insured that he had disappeared into the night.
I planned to call his case worker on Monday to see if I could track him down. But then I remembered the colostomy I found he had had implanted the last visit, a surprise to me. He couldn’t remember how that got there. Indeed, he couldn’t remember much of anything beyond my name and our long friendship.
With a very uneasy feeling, I came home and did a google search in obituaries. There I found Charles.
Charles was gone. And he had died alone.
Omnipresent and Ever Stinky
I had met Charles at St. Luke’s Cathedral where I once hung out in the days before it lost its mind to the fundies and sold it soul to the suits. Charles was wiry, had a mop of medium length curly greying brown hair that flew out in every direction. He was legally blind and wore Coke bottle glasses that were completely opaque on one side, the result of his loss of an eye to glaucoma a couple of years earlier.
He took medication for the remaining eye prescribed by the aging doctor nearing retirement who accepted Charles’ medicare. The medication had a slight psychotropic effect on Charles. Already one of the more disinhibited human beings I’d ever met, Charles would often say things that made me wonder if he’d put in more than the prescribed number of drops that day. In all honesty, most people thought he was crazy. But if you listened carefully, he not only made a lot of sense, but he had an amazing insight into a world he could only observe from the margins.
The other aspect of Charles that was almost immediately evident upon meeting him was that he had lost his sense of smell somewhere along the line. His often mismatched cast off clothes he had bought from every thrift store in town or received from well-intentioned people anxious to be rid of old clothing were often smelly. That was particularly true when they heated up in the hot Florida sun during his daily cross-town treks.
Charles lived in Section 8 housing, a project called Reeve’s Terrace right down the street from us alongside the expressway. He had no washer or dryer and rarely could see well enough to negotiate the street down to the complex laundry. He washed his clothes in his own dingy bathtub and hung them on the line in the back of his apartment to dry. Rained on and often left for days to dry, the mold that grew in his clothes became high potency fuel for a green, pungent cloud that preceded Charles most warm Florida days.
When I came to pick him up for an event, I would often say to him, “Charles, honey, you have to go change this shirt.” He would often apologize, telling me he had washed this shirt, which always made me feel awful, but I didn’t want people to avoid talking with him because of an odor he was unaware of. And he was always willing to change it.
Despite his lack of vision, Charles was able to negotiate the poor excuse for a city bus system this metropolitan area of over 2 million provides with an expertise that was amazing. He knew the lines, the schedule and the connections by heart and often served as a walking kiosk for fellow bus riders trying to make connections. “That’s the 13 bus. It does downtown every half hour,” he’d say.
Between buses he would simply walk. I would see Charles all over town and way out into the suburbs, anywhere the bus lines went. When I would spot him on the sidewalk, I’d simply pull over, open my door and say, “Charles! Get in!” He would always hop right in with a great big grin and offer his characteristic greeting, “Hello, Little Brother!” And though he would always protest that I was going out of my way to take him where he was going, I always took him there, often lying about the fact that it would probably make me only a little late for my own appointments.
A Case Study in Survival
What I learned about Charles over the years was that he was an amazing survivor. One of five children born to an impoverished family in Brooklyn, he had become the ward of the State of New York at the age of eight when his mother, whose last name he did not bear, became ill and eventually died of cancer. His loss of vision had been gradual, the result of too much oxygen in his incubator as an infant. Charles fondly remembered riding bicycles as a child but by the time he was a young adult and sent by his local Seventh Day Adventist church to the SDA Forest Lake Academy in a suburb of Orlando, he was already legally blind.
The New York City foster care system had been a nightmare for Charles. He was placed in eight different foster care placements. In two of them he was sexually abused including by a pastor of a pentecostal church who then had the audacity to try to cast the demons out of Charles that had caused the pastor to sin. In almost all of his placements he was physically abused which taught Charles a lot of street smarts. But his tough exterior shielded an incredibly soft heart, a deeply rooted spirit and one of the most curious, imaginative minds I have ever encountered.
Charles loved animals and people. He loved to come to our home for dinner and often would play our piano from memory. He was well versed in gospel hymns and one of my favorite memories is Charles playing hymns after a big Thanksgiving dinner and my entire family and guests gathered around singing, a family custom that dates back to my earliest memories.
Poor Charles sometimes couldn’t see well enough to avoid stepping on our animals to their immediate protest. He always felt so miserable after that even when we tried to reassure him it was OK, it was just an accident and that our dog or cat was fine. One of our dogs was particularly afraid of being stepped on. I noticed that upon occasion Bette would suddenly disappear from our living room and hide under our bed for no apparent reason. Within seconds I could hear Charles coming up our driveway singing or talking to himself. We began to realize that her hiding was the early warning system for a Charles visit.
We never told Charles that.
He also loved all things spiritual. His interests ranged from the psychic mediums of nearby Cassadega to the Hindu Temple on South Orange Blossom Trail. He had visited virtually every church of every denomination in downtown Orlando and could tell you much about the place, the crowd, its leadership and its theology. He was a quick study on all things theological and spent hours in the public library on the computer which could enlarge the print enough for him to read page after page of medieval history and various other religious topics.
Part of what I will remember Charles by is the innumerable plastic rosaries and paperback books on icons and cathedrals he purchased for me at the library’s used book store. Charles taught me that it was important to receive with grace whatever gifts poor people can give you. After all, it is all they have to give and it affirms their human dignity in the process.
In all honesty when he got on a roll about the medieval church, I thought he was making some of it up. He often spoke of obscure religious orders and I never knew if it was actual or simply one of the many aspects of the local chapter of the Society for a Creative Anachronism (SCA) that he attended with regularity as “Brother Theophilus,” the monk whose name meant “lover of G-d.” Brother Theophilos was a favorite among the SCA people he met working in the cook tent serving food, a task a limited sight person could handle with ease.
Ironically, one of the sadder aspects of this incredible man’s life was his fear of the afterlife. Between his long years in conservative religious foster homes and his days with the Adventists, Charles had come to fear judgment and eternal damnation, particularly as he began to come to terms with a sexual orientation that, like most other aspects of his life, fell outside the norms of a heteronormative culture.
I spent many hours trying to assure Charles that G-d loved him as he was, that if anyone would be going to heaven it would be him. Indeed, I have run into few human beings with a purer heart than this man and if Jesus is right, he’s one of the lucky ones who will actually see G-d. I often prayed that he would come to accept that before his death. No one deserves to die in a state of religiously induced fear, particularly not this man.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)