Friday, 27 January 2017


The End of a Life

The men’s room was not an option because a young man was curled up asleep in front of the door. I was not entirely uncomfortable with this because toilets in emergency waiting rooms can hold more surprises than Christmas crackers. I could hear an engaging and overly chatty junkie somewhere behind me going on about something that didn’t make much sense. She was handcuffed. Skinny and ravaged but maybe once worth looking twice at before the drugs took their toll. The police officer guarding her seemed a decent sort; I watched them go through an elaborate formal dance to switch the cuffs from back to front.

Ann and I had brought in a friend who was exhausted, doped up and suffering through the agonizing and humiliating throes of stage four colon cancer. I will call him K because he read Kafka, and the Existentialists, and had immersed himself in the dour world of Russian literature. Ann and K had been high school mates in Camrose, AB 40 years before and had reestablished their old friendship through social media. Though they both had attended the University of Alberta, Ann in music and K in economics, they’d lost touch. K worked variously for the railroad, the forestry service, a newspaper and ultimately as counsellor to at-risk kids. When I first met K last spring he was still living in Camrose, rough in his van with an iPad, an Apple computer, a bicycle and cartons of books and papers. He described his situation to me as “an experiment.”

K was thirsty, jumpy, seated in a wheelchair I had purposely placed within sight of the triage desk. It was the afternoon of December 27th. The Dasani machine near the men’s room was empty. I noticed the sandwiches in the vending machine beside it were all best before dated by Keith Richards’s birthday. The junkie told the cop her next of kin was probably her daughter but she didn’t know where the girl was. I noticed a couple a little older than Ann and I sharing a rancid ham and cheese hoagie. No better place than the U of A E.R. to contract food poisoning, I thought, provided they could cope with the wait. I went across the street to buy K a bottle of water, happy to escape the misery for a few minutes and scrounge some reading material. When I returned, he surveyed the bedlam and said, “Material for your blog, eh?’

Last March Ann drove to Camrose to collect K and transport him to the hospital here in Edmonton. An ignored lung infection had become critical. K credited Ann’s intervention with saving his life and described her as his “angel.” Upon his release K continued his recuperation at our place. K then announced his intention to move his Dodge domicile to Edmonton, to continue his homelessness experiment in the capital. There was vague talk about a book, an article, a report, something.

This news made me apprehensive. I wondered if there were other motives; I certainly did not want a stray hanging around the property, coming and going. I gave K my public library PIN number so he could access the system’s resources. Ann and I took a trip and employed K as a cat and house sitter. I gathered that he spent most of his time during the summer cycling, hanging around his alma mater and fretting about the news of the day. For unknown reasons K could not muster it up within himself to seek work, any work nor affordable housing. He was almost crippled by wonder: Did his life have meaning and had he made a difference?

The evening of the American presidential election K rapped at our front door. He was very agitated. Campus security had ticketed him for loitering and the penalty was a year’s banishment from any U of A property; Trump was winning. I talked K down from the ceiling, poured him a single malt and told him he could stay over. November nights are cold for a soul living rough in a metal box and so one night stretched into a few days and then weeks. K was gaunt and it soon became clear that his condition wasn’t just the result of a poor diet or lack of one.

Ann and I coped with our guest as best we could. She made it her mission to get K back onto society’s grid: medical attention, social housing and social assistance. K’s presence altered the rhythm of our household. I wasn’t the good Samaritan so much as the average to middling one, seething over a list of minor irritants: K put his glass down on a table beside a coaster; he was not a reliable toilet flusher; his room was messy; he talked too much (probably because he’d spent so much time in his own head but nobody tells me how to make a fucking sandwich); he loved the Dallas Cowboys. I liked him; I appreciated that as K got to know me better he made an effort despite his discomfort and the effects of his meds to be a good guest. I was pleased when K said Christmas Day with our family was the best one he’d ever experienced. I believe I learned a life lesson that day too.

In my life, just as in everybody else’s, I’ve had to express some painful, awkward and hurtful truths. K was goofed on morphine when Ann and I left him in an E.R. bed on the 27th. He mumbled to Ann to be sure to thank me on his behalf and Ann replied, “Geoff’s right here.” That was the last time I saw him. I hesitantly explained to the head nurse that if K were to be released we could not take him back; we were not family; we had no wish to be his caregivers; our home was not a hospice. K was now a ward of Alberta Health Services, I said. Maybe I’ve spoken more difficult words, I’m not sure but I’ve cut and run before.

An estranged brother of K’s arrived in Edmonton from another western province. All we knew was that his financial circumstances weren’t much better than his homeless brother’s; he too had half a mouthful of neglected teeth. We managed to avoid putting the fellow up but Ann helped him to get a handle on K’s confused affairs as best she could. K turned 61 in the hospital on January 2nd and then died a few nights later.

The hotel in Camrose had billed K’s funeral as a memorial luncheon. Potluck. Relatives and friends K hadn't seen for years had hastily assembled his day. Ann and I drove southeast with two platters of elaborate homemade sandwiches and K’s ashes in a wooden box tucked into a burgundy felt bag. The banquet room was filled to capacity. Strange, because down on his luck K had made himself anonymous while always railing that he wasn’t just another number. Many of the mourners had travelled a long way from many places and they were remarkably young. Kids K had counselled, with their spouses and children, established and stable now because he’d helped guide their way before he lost his. Living proof, alas too late for K, that his life had mattered and that he had indeed made a difference.

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