Life Lessons from Little Brother
Charles proved to be one of my life’s great teacher. His life was an ongoing life lesson for me about two basic truths. The first is that underneath the distressing disguises of poverty, disability and dementia, the image of G_d is always present, lurking, and waiting to be recognized and embraced with the dignity and respect it is due.
Charles always was able to see the divine image even in people I struggled to love. His willingness to simply shrug off the ushers who detained him in the narthex that night in the Cathedral is a good example. He was about as open and loving a human being as I have ever met and his ability to refrain from judging others – even as they often quickly judged him - always made me realize how far I often fall from that goal.
The second lesson Charles embodied is the reality that joy and contentment in life are not dependent upon material wealth, status or power. When I would see Charles walking on the sidewalks of Orlando, headed off to catch the bus across town to help an elderly woman from our choir by sweeping off her roof (I tried not to think too long about a legally blind man on a roof with a broom) or off to a weekend as Brother Theophilos in the cook tent with his SCA buddies, he was almost always joyous. I almost always knew it was Charles I was seeing ahead of me because I could hear him singing.
Unlike many aging people with disabilities, Charles rarely complained about physical ills though. Rarely touching alcohol except on special occasions, he’d often ask for cranberry juice when offered a drink. “It’s good for your kidneys, little brother,” he always told me.
But Charles also was a life lesson in how poverty and disabilities can rob people of their dignity. His apartment in the Section 8 housing near my house was an ongoing disaster. The complex itself was noisy and sometimes the locus for drug dealing. He lived there in part because he could keep the dog someone had given him. But the dog’s bowl was constantly a black swarm of roaches eating the dog food before the poor animal could finish it.
One night I came into his apartment only to encounter a terrifying scene. Roaches were everywhere, hanging from the ceiling and covering the walls, crawling over pots and pans, beds and clothing alike. It looked like a scene out of the 1982 Stephen King film Creepshow segment entitled “They’re Creeping Up On You.”
I told Charles to get some overnight clothes and we set off to the all night Albertson’s to buy four roach bombs to set off in the apartment. The next day, I hoodwinked my husband and two other friends into helping clean up the debris. It took us four hours to vacuum up three full bags of dead and dying cockroaches only to discover that the overhead fluorescent light cover had protected several hundred from the poison. As long as I live I will never forget the shower of skittering roaches that came crashing down upon my head as we lifted the cover that day.
It still makes my flesh crawl to think about it.
But Charles lived on the edge of that degradation constantly. Despite many failed attempts to get him some assistance with housekeeping from the state and county welfare agencies, he eventually was evicted from his apartment because of the roach infestation. When he moved out into the suburbs with his friend from the SCA, he almost immediately was nearly killed while crossing the six lane intersection a block from his house. My guess is the kid who ran over Charles never even saw him in the turn lane before he hit him. The last thing Charles remembered was the mechanical voice telling him he could now walk across the street.
Though he recovered enough to return home, Charles was never the same. He had had a serious heart attack during the surgery to repair his shattered pelvis. And he began evidencing signs of dementia. He began to lose track of things that he’d always kept near at hand – wallet, keys. In the end, he could not even remember what had happened to his poor dog. As it turned out, Jordan had died from lack of medical care and the roommate had simply thrown her body into the condo dumpster.
The end of Charles’ autonomy came when the roommate left for work one day. Charles panicked and began to wander the condo complex shouting the roommate’s name. Shortly thereafter the police arrived and took a hysterical Charles into custody and transported him to the local Baker Act receiving facility. Charles was adjudicated legally incompetent and placed in the first of two adult congregate living facilities where he would live out the remainder of his life.
And Then He Just Slipped Away
The first ACLF was a decent converted home in a working class neighborhood in Pine Hills whose nickname among locals (Crime Hills) indicates the decline of the neighborhood over the past couple of decades. Run by a young Indian couple, the facility was clean, orderly and I was initially able to take Charles out to church and lunch on Sundays.
Our last outing, Charles wanted to go after church to the local Chinese buffet. Wedged between Vietnamese nail salons and the Home Depot, it was a true Chinese eat ‘em up place – lots of mediocre at best food for cheap with the obligatory electronic artwork on the wall depicting a flowing waterfall. Charles could see very little at this point and after barely avoiding the many children around the crowded buffet table the first round, was content to let me go back and get more of whatever he wanted. He ate eight rounds of food that day and wore some of it home on his shirt and pants. But he was happy.
“Will you come see me again, little brother?” he said between tears as I left him in the lobby.
But my days of hauling Charles all over the Orlando metroplex were over. His new case worker told the facility not to let him leave the premises with anyone they had not approved. When I sought approval, I was told that it would be up to his legal guardian who had not yet been appointed. Six months later, when Charles was hospitalized with an intestinal obstruction that would eventually require a colostomy, he still had no guardian. It required a nurse at the hospital willing to bend the rules to even tell me, a non-relative or legal representative, where he had been released so I could visit him in his new ACLF.
After that, Charles spent the last year of his life in a fairly nice nursing home just north of Orlando. He was hospitalized a couple more times, each time without any notice to me or any of his other friends. Though his case worker with the state and at the facility had taken our names and telephone numbers to contact should he be moved, none of us ever were. And so I was not surprised when the receptionist at the nursing home told he had been discharged June 22 but was unable to provide any further information about him.
Charles had just slipped away gently into that good night.
My heart aches as I write these words about my friend whom I shall never see again. I have resisted the inclination to beat myself up about not being present when he died. No one should have to die alone and poor Charles truly deserved his little brother to be there. But I know there was nothing I could have done that would have made anything any different and now my task is simply to let go as best I can.
My last visit with him, I took him in his wheelchair out onto the porch of the facility. We talked about people he knew. As always, he asked about my father whom Charles loved. “I can feel his presence, little brother” he would say. And he may well have. Daddy always asked about Charles every time I’d visit my father.
We talked a bit about what happens after death. I gave him my poetic vision – the giant, gentle hands of our Creator G-d are there to catch your soul. He liked that. But more importantly, he seemed at peace with the idea that he would die, finally rid of the fear that eternal torment would not be awaiting him on the other side of the grave. For that, I will always be grateful.
The funeral home which handled Charles’ cremation informed me that Charles had asked to have his cremains scattered at sea. The closest large body of water to the funeral home is Lake Monroe, a large freshwater lake in nearby Sanford. Actually just a wide place in the Saint John’s River, which flows north to the Atlantic at Jacksonville, the chances are that some of Charle’s ashes actually will reach Mother Ocean as he wished. Given my own request to have some of my ashes placed in that same ocean, I will one day rejoin my dear friend there.
Charles was a long-time member of the Francis-Clare Community, a Eucharistic community of which I was one of the leaders that met at members’ houses over a 13 year period. He is the second member of our community to die since its disbanding several years ago and three others are now scattered across the country. But a handful of us will meet this evening at a local pizza place and Brother Charles will no doubt be the focus of much discussion punctuated by toasting to his memory. I have absolutely no doubts that Charles will be present with us and smiling.
I will truly miss this little man who made such an impression on my life. Jesus and Francis of Assisi both spoke of the little ones to whom wisdom had been given that had eluded those that conventional society called wise. It is Charles’ face that I will see when I speak about the sin of systemic poverty. It is his voice I will hear when I advocate for the rights and needs of the disabled. And it is his slipping away into the night all alone that I will remember as I write and discuss how we treat our elderly in this death-denying, youth worshiping culture.
Farewell, my friend, my teacher, my conscience, my spiritual advisor. Your little brother and your community will miss you. Thank you for the invaluable role you have played in our lives and the lives of all who knew you. Though you rarely knew it, you were always one of G_d’s best creations.
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)