“Where did you live before you came here, Tom?"
Never one for reading newspapers, it took a lot of doing for one of our employees to get me to read an article he thought I would be interested in. But once I saw the picture, it drew me in.
It was a picture of an old pew in an abandoned church with used drug needles jammed into the wood. I was horrified. After reading it, I saw a link to an online video interview. I watched the story of a woman who lived under an overpass near this church. She had not only hit rock-bottom but had decided to stay there. I watched her a second time, and with great pity looked into her dark, seemingly dead eyes and wondered what could be done to help such people without hope, and a spontaneous prayer came up: “Send me one of these.”
A couple days later my prayer was answered. A social worker at a local hospital called asking us to take a man who was from just that area of Philadelphia. He had cancer and he had lost a leg due to an accident while he was in a heroin induced stupor. The incision bled often since his liver had been damaged and was unable to make sufficient platelets to clot. His poor nutrition prevented it from healing. In short, he was a mess and they told us he did not have long to live. So, after sorting out the necessary paperwork, he came to stay with us.
At first, being so ill, he was grateful, and we of course were happy to help him. But soon the tantrums began. Sometimes a simple request or explanation would erupt into items being thrown across the room. A life of vice does not turn into virtue overnight. And so, the tough love began. Tom had no relatives that called or came to see him, though he had children and grandchildren. He did not mention any family in those early days. The only person who came to see him was a friend who used to work on cars with him. The only passion heroin hadn’t taken over was Tom’s love for cars.
Receiving good care, Tom’s health began to get better, and as his friend saw Tom continue to push away those who were trying to help him, he too got fed up. The last time he came to see him, Tom was talking about going back to the streets of Philadelphia again. His friend left, saying, “I cannot watch you kill yourself. You have a chance here.”
In a sense, Tom’s loss of one leg was his saving grace because it made it hard for him to leave. He was weak and bound to others to help him get in and out of the wheelchair. He had lots of time on his hands to think, and slowly the tantrums got further and further apart. One morning, after Tom was up in his wheelchair eating his breakfast, he seemed to turn a corner over the simplest of things. I saw him adding sugar to his frosted flakes and came over to him. Hands on hips, with a slight smile, I said, “I thought that’s what I saw. You are adding sugar to frosted flakes!”
“So?” he said, getting his defenses up.
“Well, it reminded me of my father. He used to do the same thing.” This surprised him, but the defenses were still up.
“And I’m sure he lived a long and happy life.”
Smiling broader I said, “No, he died an untimely death.”
Tom then looked at me, pressing his lips together trying not to laugh. Eventually he couldn’t hold it in anymore and burst out laughing. Between laughs he said he was sorry he had said that and sorry that he was laughing about it. I told him all was ok, and we both laughed together — a barrier had been broken. One of the staff members, seeing him in a better mood, tried to get him to talk.
“Where did you live before you came here, Tom,” he said.
After a pause Tom said, “In hell.” It seemed a strange thing to say as one ate children’s cereal, until he smiled at us both and said, “But not anymore.”
About a week later I saw Tom in the chapel. He asked me if it was ok for him to be there. I of course said it was ok and that he was welcome anytime.
“I think I belong here,” he said. Belonging began to be something he would accept more and more.
Tom never became a Catholic, but he did attend Mass on occasion. He didn’t seem to be comfortable with more than that, and we did not push him. He lived with us for over a year after that episode until his cancer eventually did take him. But at least he was surrounded by those who would pray for him in this life and the next. And I never regretted God answering that prayer to send him to us.
If you would like to know more about the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, please visit our website www.hawthorne-dominicans.org , or call 845-745-1319.