(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, August 23, 2014)
HAMILTON, CANADA ✦ He needs a home with others. Assisted living. There are options in Hamilton. He needs one before he’s destroyed by his uncertainty and fear, his black as midnight darkness.
He’s not a star, not a celebrity, not, say, Robin Williams, whose suicide just shook us so deeply. He’s simply your neighbour. This is his story.
(No, it’s more. It’s the story of any Hamiltonian fallen through the cracks into depression and despondency, that abyss of disrepair while the world spins indifferently.)
It’s a warm and sunny day when he asks you, “Could God ever forgive someone who kills himself? Mom always said you’d go to hell.” This, driving home after meeting with his doctor and social worker. He’s that fragile.
His mother just died. Collapsed in their little Ancaster condo of 18 years. Heart attack. On that day your neighbour, who’s developmentally challenged, called 911. Couldn’t talk straight, so ran door-to-door, “God, my mother’s dying!” Lights. Sirens. Emergency vehicles.
The old woman had also cared for her husband, a stroke survivor. Days after her death, he went to a nursing home. The condo’s now to be sold. Where will your neighbour go? Nobody knows.
It’s why this middle-aged man, “Kenny,” not his real name, fell back into drink. Like the old days. Benders. Detox. AA. Those days. It’s why he cut his head open on a dresser, why a crisis counsellor, with police, stayed over an hour to settle him down, why he’s hyper-anxious in days and can’t sleep nights.
He’s sociable and kind. Can give deceptively fine appearances. Loves old rock music. Can talk hours on that. But he’s more. Was labelled “special needs” during his school-life. Can’t hold a job. Lacks life skills. Now that dark loneliness. “I can’t take it,” he confides in you. To another neighbour, “I might as well do myself in.” Another day, talks of harming his welfare agent.
Kenny asks you for a Bible. You also give a book on heaven. It helps, he says. But it’s God with skin on that he really needs. Safety from, if nothing else, himself.
He’s never collected disability. His mother always filled that gap. Now disability is critical to find assisted living.
The meeting’s at McMaster’s family health centre on Main Street. Kenny’s asked you to come. His social worker and doctor, a young resident, are both there. It’s the four of you, Kenny’s brother, a fifth, so very busy, on speaker-phone. He’s previously told you “It’s a horse and pony show.”
“What’s the game plan when disability’s denied?” This, from the young family doctor. “There’s no money in the system,” he later declares. The social worker suggests a cheap apartment alone in Hamilton’s east end. “I don’t think it’s a good area for you,” he tells Kenny. But it’s expedient.
You find it breathtaking, this strange disconnect, this willing blindness. You’ll soon be back in your other home in Africa. Finally you say, “You know, one day an ambulance will show up at Kenny’s front door and people will shake their heads and say, ‘How on earth was this allowed to happen?’ ”
This, apparently, is it, how this community’s vulnerable and neediest souls slip through the gaps, how they’re shafted, really, so professionally and softly. You poke and prod. You suggest an expert psychologist’s assessment. “We can arrange that,” you’re told.
You drive your neighbour home. This is when he asks if God could ever forgive suicide.
Two weeks later, no expert psychologist. Not needed, you’re told. Instead, the young resident with those breathtaking remarks assesses Kenny himself. Fills in the disability application. Prescribes new anti-anxieties. “At first, they’ll likely make you want to harm yourself more,” he explains. “But longer-term they should help.”
In the meantime, he says, disability will take months to process. If denied, then, at best, appeal. Who will appeal? And time. It’s what your neighbour doesn’t have.
It’s on his front porch, where he drinks, where you say, “Hang on.” Because we’re told to love our neighbours, not leave them to their own dangerous devices or a wanting system.
Someone now needs to advocate for this man, my neighbour, that is your neighbour. He needs a new home with others. He’s waiting. With his dark fears.