In this work, we say a lot of goodbyes. Goodbyes wrapped in mystery or confusion. Goodbyes that were full of celebration and the promise of new things to come. See you later, quick hug goodbyes and don’t let the door hit you in the ass goodbyes. Each one leaves a mark on our hearts, sometimes sparkly and sometimes bruised, but every so often a goodbye leaves us gutted.
His name was Doug. He showed up about a month before the season began in 2021 with his little dog Paco. He had an infectious smile that quickly drew you in. At first he was a little wary of our quick welcome and hospitality, but soon Doug and Paco became a fixture every morning at the breakfast ministry where we did outreach. He was working to start fresh. He was fairly new to homelessness and had lived a full and fairly “normal” life before things took a turn and he found himself without a place to live and only Paco by his side.
Over the course of the season, he became one of our favorites. He was so thankful for a place to be (Paco was being fostered by a volunteer and they met several times a week) and his positive attitude rubbed off on all the guys around him. We all celebrated when he got a place to live just a few blocks from the shelter. We told him not to be a stranger and to stop by for a visit. He promised he would and he stayed true to his word, popping by on his walks with Paco to say hi and to catch up. His apartment became an extension of the room he had in the shelter and several of his shelter roommates would spend their days there playing video games and watching movies.
In June of that same year, I got a call from the hospital chaplain. Doug was in the emergency room and the prognosis wasn’t good. I was listed as his emergency contact. He told them, “call pastor Erica.” I was driving back from a family vacation in Colorado. I was too far away to be of much help, but promised I would try to figure out who could take the dog and I would keep tabs on how he was doing. He was transferred to Mayo in Rochester and we lost him. No one was sure where he had gone and no one would release any information to us. It was so frustrating. Eventually, he called. He was going into a nursing rehab facility to build up his strength, but he would be local and could we bring his dog by?
I walked into his room and hardly recognized the shell of a man he had become. He looked drawn and pale and the eyes that used to sparkle were dim. At the same time,his social worker called us to say he was going to lose his apartment because while he was gone, some local drug dealers had started operating out of his apartment and it was trashed. He could keep it IF it could get cleaned up and the locks were changed. Because sometimes there is no one else, we went to clean the apartment. Suffice it to say, we learned a lot about drug paraphernalia that afternoon. We loaded bags of trash, cleaned out all the residual drug items, and reclaimed the space for Doug and Paco.
Doug eventually made a solid recovery and was able to return to his apartment. We picked him up outside the nursing home, stopping for groceries before taking him home and reuniting him with Paco. We all had tears in our eyes as he settled finally at home. From that time on, we kept tabs on Doug, checking in occasionally, keeping track of his health. Then the 21/22 shelter season started with COVID outbreaks, staffing shortages, and an overflowing shelter. As I took a brisk walk outside one afternoon, I glanced over at Doug’s apartment building and thought, I should really check in on him. Not more than a few days later, his social worker called to say he was heading to the hospital and it didn’t look good. He had COVID and was having heart problems. His next call was to tell me that Doug had died. I sobbed at my desk- for Doug, for Paco, and for the fact that he died alone.
Over the course of the next many weeks, word of his death spread among our community. There was no obituary, no funeral or memorial service. We celebrated him in little moments together- every single person wanting to make sure Paco was being cared for. When we journey with people who are homeless, when their lives end, often families don’t know that we have walked with their loved one on part of their journey; that they are a part of our strange and beautiful family as well. So we mourn and say goodbye in our own special ways- with a picture in the office, a whispered promise to figure out how to have dogs with their people in shelter, and holding close the lessons they taught us, shaping our hearts for the work we will continue to do and the goodbyes yet to come. -Pr. Erica