When I worked as a nursing student, and later a Registered Nurse, at the London InterCommunity Health Centre, I met a lot of people experiencing homelessness who I will never forget. Many people using the Centre would be there day-in and day-out, for a good portion of the day. And, in working with them on the basic necessities of life, relationships were often very personal. One story I won’t forget anytime soon is getting to know Michael (not his real name).
Mike had been in and out of homelessness for many years, struggling both with an alcohol addiction and with living in a wheelchair since he lost the use of his legs as a teenager in a cycling accident. When I got to know Mike he was 48, had been sober for 8 months, and was waiting for a wheelchair accessible affordable housing unit to open up. Mike had a very gentle demeanour, a great dad-beard, and loved to chat. I often had to extricate myself in mid-sentence from conversations to help other clients, but we would carry on where we left off when I had a minute.
I got to know Mike quite well over the weeks and months that passed, about his hopes and dreams, his painful memories, and his personal perspective on every current event (he was an avid reader of the London Free Press). More importantly though, I got to know of his love for music. Mike was an avid guitar player, having taken it up shortly after his injury, and he found great solace in music. However, Mike was also broke, so each month towards the end of the month he would pawn his guitar to a shop, and then when his social assistance cheque came in he would purchase it back. He would entertain us with songs, but only intermittently.
In April of 2004 I completed my Nursing program, and told him it would be my last day there as a student, although I would be starting the next week as staff. “This calls for a celebration,” he said, and rolled out of the Centre. A few minutes later he came back, with his guitar, which he had purchased back from the pawn shop for the occasion. “I like to sing people songs with their name, but yours is kind of hard, so this is the best I could do”, he said, and sang “Dear Abby” by John Prine. The Centre, as usual when he sang, went quiet while people listened. He sang it twice. Moved by his kindness, it took an effort not to get choked up.
I went about the rest of my day that Friday, we ushered everyone out at 3:30 when we closed, and we had cake with staff to celebrate. The middle of the next week I came in to work, and was busy with the usual activities of the Centre. Mid-morning one of the clients I knew well came in and said, “Hey, did you hear about Mike? He died over the weekend, just dropped dead of a heart attack.”
I was crushed.
I had patients or clients die before, but each death still hits you hard. In this case, his kindness of spending his meager money to get his guitar to celebrate with me, followed shortly by his death, was extra powerful. Very few people will even remember Mike, but I will never forget him.