old man photo

This is my column in this week’s Greenville News.


I met him while working out of town, in a tiny Midwestern hospital, in a tiny town. He was confined to his wheelchair, coughing and wheezing. His hair unwashed and his clothes dirty, it was clear that he lived alone. It was likely, from all appearances and smells, that he drank alone too. And a lot, at that. He had a cough and trouble breathing. This was no surprise in light of his long-term and ongoing smoking habit. I felt that he had pneumonia and that he should probably stay in the hospital. ‘Naw, doc, I’ll just go on to the house. I ain’t staying.’ His house was a camper in a campground. I doubt if it was hygienic or particularly comfortable, but it was his home and he was going.

I’ve long stopped trying to cajole adults into doing what they don’t want to do. I offered him his options and then simply wrote prescriptions that I thought would help. ‘Now you come back if you get worse, alright?’ He nodded. In a very real way, I didn’t blame him at all. Hospitals are not pleasant places. He had his own sense of dignity and his own ways. (Hospitals are notoriously difficult places to smoke or have a decent drink.)

He wasn’t the sort to sue. He was, however, the sort to go out and die. Probably he would have preferred a death on his own terms, in his own place, to the endless annoyance and well-meaning paternalism of some manipulated death in a hospital. Fair enough. Still, I wondered if he would be back in an ambulance in the night, gasping, struggling. Or if he would simply breath his last all alone.

It was then that the man with him broke into the conversation. He was a slightly younger, more fit version of my patient. A hard man, with a lined face and solid, calloused hands. He wore work-clothes and boots. ‘Doc, I’ll check in on him. I live in the campground too. I’ll go get his prescription and check on him when I get off from work.’ He wasn’t emotional. He was simply, practically, his friend. His neighbor. His brother’s keeper.

Maybe they had the connection of men who lived hard lives. Of men who, for any number of reasons, live outside the well-lit circle of polite human experience, and who find secluded campgrounds preferable to suburbs and apartment buildings. Maybe it was the connection of the lonely and broken; or simply of the bottle, or the criminal record. I’ll never know. Or maybe, it was simply that one man felt love and compassion for another. Of course, it could have been all of that at once, wonderfully punctuated by the exclamation point of love in action, without sentimentality or subterfuge.

In a modern age, in modern cities, with our laughter filled homes, our full freezers and pantries, our too full closets, it is all too easy to forget the desperate, the lonely, the outcasts; those whom society marginalizes as odd or as criminals. And those who banish themselves for reasons of anger, guilt or sorrow. But it is a hurting world.

On one level, we know it. We charge our government to spend vast sums on programs for people in need. It makes us feel good, I suppose. At least collectively, we can say that our tax dollars are helping someone. It keeps most of us out of desperate places that smell dirty; and out of the confines of molded trailers or tents in far off forests, under overpasses and in other places less than charming.

But these two men and their interaction transcended programs. In the sorrow of sickness, addiction and loneliness their relationship showcased the beauty of someone, not even family, saying ‘I’ll check on him.’ It wasn’t a program or a paid position. It wasn’t done for adulation or to pad a political resume. It was an act done for no compensation other than the deep joy of doing right for someone in need.

In the Gospel of St. Luke, Chapter 10, an expert in the law asks Jesus this question: ‘And who is my neighbor?’ This leads to the parable of the Good Samaritan. But if my patient’s friend had been there, he would have raised his hand and said, ‘well, ain’t it obvious? It’s that guy down the row in the old camper; he has a rough time of it.’

I hope I can see so clearly as he.

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