By Kathleen Skirkie
He asked me to be on time when I set up the appointment, and to call for instructions on how to enter his home when I arrived. I thought: How did he know I was perpetually late? Why couldn't I just knock loudly on the door like I had been trained to do at every other client's home? I told him I would be there at 2 p.m. I was new to my job and wanted to be on time. I did got a little lost on the way to his ancient home in Mount Airy, but somehow managed to park in front of his house with one minute to spare.
I followed his orders and called, feeling his eyes on me from the third-story window. He answered, and instructed me to lift a small soiled flowerpot on the creaky wooden porch to find a key. His home was dark, damp and desolate. It was obvious that no one had lived on the first or second floor in many years. He shouted down to me to walk up the stairs. Each step creaked louder than the next; it felt as though the house would fall apart each time I moved up one. I followed his voice into his bedroom, which smelled harshly of urine and mold.
The old man was sitting in his wheelchair next to the open window. His dark complexion blended with the rest of his room and the dreary weather outside so well that it was difficult to see him before my eyes focused to the small lamp he had turned on in the corner. His life was confined to this one bedroom and his entire life had been set up around him - a bed, a fridge, a commode, and an abundance of books and memories. He had a deep, but smooth voice; it was almost soothing to hear something so pleasant to contrast with physical harshness of his circumstances.
We introduced ourselves. He waited for me to speak first. I started my case management spiel. After a few minutes, he stopped me. "I can tell you're educated," he said. I was caught off-guard. Not one of my clients had reacted this way so far. I thanked him. "What makes you say that?" I was curious. "You kept your word, and arrived at exactly two. An educated person keeps their word." I could tell he was educated as well.
The interview process required that I obtain a client's demographics, health and mental status and financial information. It's a formal process that doesn't allow for much personal connection with a client. This time it was different. We connected on an intellectual and emotion way that day. I do not even want to spoil it by referring to it as an "assessment." We engaged in our conversation for hours. Not only was he educated, but he was a dedicated teacher for over 40 years. He had obtained two Masters degrees, one in education and one in English. He wrote poems and prose. He was a veteran. He had a genuine love in his life who had passed away entirely too soon. They had only one child - a son - who "took an alternative path" than the one he had "hoped for him." He had survived multiple cancers, kidney disease, debilitating diabetes, and a war. He had undergone a double above-the-knee amputation, and a triple bypass. He liked pasta, Girl Scout cookies, and the Oak Lane Diner. He missed being able to travel. He missed teaching.
He missed his wife. He did not go into much detail about his son, but did mention that he sometimes wondered if he had at least one grandchild somewhere. He wished to meet that child. He was the only one left in his family; his wife, son, and parents were all gone. He had no one, except for a former student who ran errands for him and helped him bathe a few times a week. And me. After that point, he had me, too.
I thought he had me, anyway. As it turns out, a man who works for his whole life is not always rewarded for it in the end. His pensions from teaching and military service, combined with his Social Security income, made him ineligible for free services we offered. He would have had to pay in full for the assistance he needed from my organization, on top of paying hefty amounts for medications, utilities, and medical care each month. He made more than the average client, but he, like them, was literally surviving paycheck to paycheck. But it was the policy. There was nothing I could do to alleviate the cost, or help him be an exception to the rule.
I was eager, enthusiastic and energetic during my first year of social work. I felt like it was my task to change the world. I had the urge to be everyone's angel. The first time I couldn't do any of that really stuck with me. I ended up having to close his case because he would not have been able to afford the support he absolutely needed. During our final phone conversation, he was not upset with me or surprised in any way. He knew what was going to happen. He had already tried before.
I tried to put myself into his situation. What do you do next? You dedicate your whole life to other people. You love unconditionally. You work hard. You provide. You use your brain to its fullest. You survive. When the time comes for you to need help, it is not there. The unfair cycle continues.
My reaction was anger. Damn the broken system. Then, I thought about his reaction. He was not angry, bitter, or spiteful. He was grateful to still be here. He was thrilled to have someone to whom to tell his story. I am glad to have known him, if just for one day. I think about him every so often. I am afraid to find out what happened to him after that. I don't want to know the end of his story. I want to remember it with some blank pages at the end, so there is a possibility that he gets a happy ending.
Since then, I have been a little disappointed in myself every time I am running late.